Reopening plans announced for Big Basin Redwoods State Park after devastating wildfire

Almost two years after a historic wildfire devastated Big Basin Redwoods State Park — California’s oldest state park — in the Santa Cruz Mountains, parts of the park will reopen to the public for the first time this summer.

Specific details will be announced next month, but state parks officials said Thursday that after July 4th weekend, they plan to allow visitors back to the heart of the park’s old-growth redwood forests, on hiking trails near the former headquarters area, through a reservation system that will be set up to reduce the risk of overcrowding on the recovering landscape.

“We have really heard from the public the need to get back into the park,” said Chris Spohrer, superintendent of the Santa Cruz District of State Parks.

As Big Basin’s facilities are rebuilt in the coming years, the iconic redwoods park that was first established in 1902 will be reconfigured to meet the changing realities of a new century, state parks officials said Thursday. The visitor center, large campgrounds and other features that were destroyed in the fire will be rebuilt away from ancient redwood groves to better protect the trees, reduce fire risk and restore solitude to the forest, they said.

Starting next year, during busy months, visitors will be required to obtain an online reservation to enter the park and to ride a shuttle bus three miles into the heart of the park from a parking area on its eastern boundary near a former Hewlett Packard retreat center called Little Basin.

Similar reservation systems have been put in place in recent years at Yosemite National Park, Muir Woods National Monument and other heavily visited California parks.

The updates came Thursday during a media tour of the park. Nearly every one of Big Basin’s massive redwoods, some of which tower more than 3,000 feet high and date back 2,000 years, survived the August 2020 CZU Lightning Fire. Many of their trunks are charred, but they are now thick with new green branches, and regrowing quickly. Wild irises and violets, along with sword ferns, huckleberry bushes and other vegetation now carpets the once-smoldering forest floor.

“Seeing it come back like this is incredibly hopeful,” Spohrer said. “It makes you feel really good. There were months after this fire where it did not seem like we were going to get to this point.”

Sparked by lightning strikes, the fire burned 97% of the 18,000-acre park. It was the most severe fire in recorded history in the Santa Cruz Mountains, burning for 38 days, blackening 86,509 acres — an area three times the size of the city of San Francisco — killing one person and destroying 1,490 buildings.

The fire destroyed Big Basin’s rustic 1930s-era visitor center, its headquarters, park amphitheater, museum and store. It also destroyed more than 100 buildings, including 20 ranger homes, along with 225 campsites and dozens of wooden bridges, the park’s electrical system and hundreds of signs, fences, wooden stairs and other park features.

Since then, more than 27,000 trees in danger of falling on roads and trails — nearly all of them Douglas Firs and other trees, not redwoods — have been removed by contractors and state workers. All of the burned buildings, charred cars, propane tanks and other debris have been hauled away.

And state parks officials have held a series of public meetings, with an advisory group of parks experts, to plan for the rebuilding.

That document, released late Thursday is called the “Reimagining Big Basin Vision Summary” and is available at

Specific plans will be drawn up over the next year, state parks officials said.

The plan will put restoring old-growth redwood forests as a top priority. That includes adapting management to protect the trees as the climate continues to change, and moving facilities that were right next to the ancient groves out of them. Also, the plan calls for ensuring a better visitor experience, with activities like new campgrounds promoted to, and available for, people of all backgrounds.

The plan also calls for building a shuttle system to reduce traffic in the park, as well as improved access for bicycles, horse riders and pedestrians. And it vows to pursue forest health projects, such as more controlled burns, to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire in future.

Plans also call for rebuilding the Skyline to the Sea Trail, and building a similar new major trail that loops around the park’s edges. The primary park entrance and a new welcome center will be at Saddle Mountain, near Little Basin. Other entrances at Rancho del Oso and upper Highway 236 will remain.

And a new campgrounds will be constructed on Lodge Road, inside the park, but away from the old-growth groves.

“I definitely would give the plan two thumbs up,” said Sam Hodder, president of San Francisco-based Save the Redwoods League. “It’s innovative. It incorporates conservation goals. It opens the door wider with a broader sense of relevance and welcome to a growing Bay Area community. But there’s still a lot of work ahead of us as we get into specifics.”

Chief among those is timing and funding. Spoher said that the new campgrounds should be built in three years, and new building within five years. Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers approved $186 million to rebuild the park, but that didn’t include things like the shuttle system or rising construction costs.

“How visitors can access these areas and enjoy them will continue to evolve in future phases of the planning,” said Sara Barth, executive director of Sempervirens Fund, a Los Altos group that helped establish the park 120 years ago. “But it is paramount to protect the oldest forests so they can recover and thrive once more.”

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