Big Basin without the Bustle
The Very Best of Off-Season Camping
By Krystal Zamora
40 stories tall, 30 feet wide, and 2,000 years old. California’s old growth redwood trees are the largest and oldest living creatures on planet earth. As a well-traveled Californian, I’ve seen many landscapes, but the coastal redwood forests of my home state remain to be the one place that never ceases to amaze me, and Big Basin Redwoods State Park is my favorite place to find them. Located just one hour away from San Jose, one cannot stand amongst these trees without feeling humbled, inspired, and awed. It’s hard to walk away, but in Big Basin, you don’t have to – you can stay awhile. And if you go in autumn, solitude is yours.
We camped at Big Basin Tent Cabins and I awoke on a crisp Thursday morning in October, reluctant to leave the warmth of my cot. The wood in our furnace had expired at some time in the night, and the typical coastal autumn air was biting hard, only to be chased away by warm weather in the later afternoon. It was 8:30am and the early morning birds were chirping away. I threw on my hoodie and emerged from our tent cabin. My sudden presence sent a pair of squirrels scurrying up the trunk of a redwood tree, eventually leaping to an oak tree, resulting in the “clunk, clunk, clack” of falling acorns. I put some wood in our fire pit, arranging it in a teepee fashion and put one of our tinder “cupcakes” in the center. The firewood and the tinder (sold in waxy cupcake molds) are sold at the Tent Cabin Camper Store – the tinder cupcakes were the best things I have ever used for a campfire! It’s worth mentioning that I was excited about it but…. I digress.
Despite being so close to civilization in the South Bay, Big Basin is in a world of its own, tucked away in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s the perfect place to unplug, so techies beware, although it’s close to the tech-central Silicon Valley, there is no cell service at Big Basin. But the benefit is worth the sacrifice: without your phone, your senses will open to the smell of pine, the whisper of the wind as it rustles the trees, the crowing of the ravens, and the knocking of the woodpeckers. Big Basin Tent Cabins is one of the few places that have campsites literally amongst the redwood trees, as opposed to having to hike to them. And in autumn, there are nearly no people – no screaming children, no car alarms going off haphazardly in the night. Only about 1 in every 6 campsites seemed to be occupied, so we had plenty of quiet without feeling completely alone.
There are lots of choices for hiking trails in Big Basin, but no matter which one you choose, none will disappoint. There are redwoods of all ages and sizes, ferns, pine trees, Douglas firs, manzanitas, madrones, lichens and colorful mushrooms; creeks, bridges, waterfalls, and eventually, the Monterey Bay. We hiked to the top of Buzzard’s Roost, the highest peak in the entire park. The 360 degree view was breathtaking! Just be mindful of these extra tips when camping and hiking in autumn:
- Pack clothes for both sunshine and rain. While it doesn’t typically downpour in October, it sometimes sprinkles and the coastal fog can make for damp mornings. Temperatures can drop to the high 30s late at night, and rise to the low 60s in the daytime.
- Protect your firewood from moisture. Bring your spare logs inside or cover it with a waterproof tarp before retiring for the night or leaving for the day.
- Start your day hikes early and always bring flashlights in the case of an emergency. Remember that the sun sets earlier in the fall.
- Pack enough food. The Big Basin Café is open only on the weekends during the off-season. The store has dry goods 7 days a week from Memorial Day to the end of October, and on weekends in November, February, and March. Both the store and the café are closed in the winter months of December and January.
- Bring an extra pair of shoes that are both durable and water resistant. Fall weather can sometimes involve slippery slopes.
With the added amenity of a tent cabin, you can camp at Big Basin for several days in comfort. And although it is hard to leave, the drive as you depart is beautiful as well. You can travel the scenic coastal Highway 1, or you can zip through the mountains and make a stop in the little town of Ben Lomond – a community that is reminiscent of California’s horse-drawn carriage days. And no matter where home is, you can leave knowing that you’ve experienced a place where the past and present merge into one, a place that is deeply rooted in California’s natural history, and one that has withstood time for thousands of years.