A New Angle on Coastal Redwoods

October 2018 Experiment Hiking Photo & Video


The tale

I don’t care how big your screen is. It’s too small to appreciate the view.

In mid-October I attended a professional conference. Among the usual vendors’ giveaways — business cards, t-shirts, stickers, etc — two items grabbed my attention. The first was a clip and a set of lenses for phone cameras. The second was a PopSocket. They were free, courtesy Hero Digital.

My new iPhone grip and lens
My new iPhone grip and lens.

I was disappointed that the fisheye lens didn’t seem to fit the clip after my first test, but the wide-angle worked well enough to photograph something … big. On the flight back to San Jose, I knew I’d have to visit some coastal redwoods.

Part 1: Wide

I left as the sun was rising on a chilly Sunday morning. Mist veiled the Santa Cruz Mountains. Low clouds were a good sign of atmospheric lighting. But I never expected … well, somewhere on Highway 236, a ways east of Boulder Creek, I rounded a corner — and slammed on the breaks.

Mist creeps over the landscape in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Looking south, mist creeps over the the Santa Cruz Mountains.

To say “orographic clouds to the horizon” doesn’t cover it. The view was something out of a dream.

Orographic clouds, looking southeast
Sunrise greets orographic clouds in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The cloud bank looked thick enough to walk on, and for all I knew, stretched to Monterrey Bay.

An island disappeared into a sea of clouds, then reemerged minutes later.
An island disappeared into a sea of clouds, then reemerged minutes later.

Over the course of 15 minutes, this island/hill came and went. I wished for my tripod to capture a time-lapse video, but sadly hadn’t thought to bring it. Several other people also pulled over while the clouds slowly churned.

I was reluctant to drive on, but there were redwoods to see.

Part 2: Tall

The thermometer read 46°F when I reached Big Basin around 8:40am. My breath appeared in brief puffs, and the light was still too feeble for good photos. But that was fine. I wanted time to scout out the most scenic trails.

The obvious trail was the aptly-named Redwood Loop: right next to park headquarters, where I left my car. (Big Basin is popular — and that means crowds. But this early, and this chilly, parking was unusually easy.) I clipped on the new lens and began to experiment.

Great coastal redwood in Big Basin State Park
The largest species of tree on Earth.

It was hard to go wrong, but I found the best photos had both near and far elements. The corner vignettes didn’t bother me as artifacts of the lens.

Redwood grove at sunrise
A cluster of redwoods.

Since it was early, I only passed two other people on the trail: one elderly woman out for a stroll, and a younger man with professional-looking camera gear.

Burned and split redwood
Persistence pays for a burned-out redwood.

The air was still and cold. Dense foliage dampened any outside noise. My fingers ached from exposure, and I wished for heavier pants and a fleece jacket. (Note to self: a trip to REI or Patagonia might be in order.) But the views and quiet were worth a little discomfort.

Coastal redwoods at mid-day
Giant coastal redwoods defy description.

The sun revealed itself over the next hour, but I didn’t see it reach the ground until after I was done with this loop. I reached a crowded campground scented with woodsmoke and quiet people still waking up from chilly overnight stays.

Twin redwoods merging
Two trees separate … then merge again.

Low wooden fences and signs warning of delicate ground cover kept me on the trail, and away from most of the giants. But some trees were close enough to capture interesting angles.

Redwood foliage
Experimenting with light and lens.

Coupled with decent lighting, the wide-angle lens seemed to work best with a mix of foreground and background elements. I shot many pics, discarding the obvious failures. I didn’t mind the vignette caused by the lens’ round “corners.” But I wondered if a better-fitting lens would work better.

Mother of the Forest tree
The Mother of the Forest.

The Mother and Father of the forest (293ft and 250ft tall, respectively) are two giants among giants along the loop trail. Railings kept me from getting too close … but it almost didn’t matter. As the tallest tree in Big Basin, Mother’s height was too tall to comprehend from any distance.

Large tree stump
Most trees — but not all — were intact.

Big Basin was largely protected from logging in previous centuries. But sometimes trees fall across trails, prompting the park’s caretakers to cut them aside.

Fallen redwood cut apart
Trees that fell across trails were generally cut aside.

How do you chop a giant redwood? Apparently with chainsaws, one cut at a time.

Part 3: Up

Last April I’d ventured north through this park; this time I ventured south.

A little past 9am, I reached the south end of Blooms Creek Campground. There I found a trailhead that promised a short hike to Buzzard’s Roost, a scenic overview I heard was “atop a high rock.” OK. Great. Away we go.

(Hiking tip: “short” does not equate to “easy.”)

Away from the redwoods, Pine Mountain Trail was well-named. The narrow path lead into a different kind of forest on the north side of a gentle mountain. After the giant redwoods, pine trees looked downright skimpy. Significantly, they let more light reach the ground, which meant significantly more foliage at human-level. “Significant,” as in, hard to hike through.

The walk wasn’t hard, even though the trail kept getting cozier. Make that dense. Make that hard to find ….

An hour after I started the southern hike, the trail was so overgrown that I wasn’t sure it was a trail. Had I missed a turn? I ducked under branches that tore at my clothes and pack. At one point I scrambled up a rocky face on all fours.

At 10:30am, I emerged from the undergrowth. Dirt gave way to bare rock. Ahead of my stood Buzzard’s Roost, elevation 2150ft.

Looking up at Buzzard’s Roost
The top of Buzzard’s Roost. It’s steeper than it looks.

“Atop a high rock” wasn’t quite right. The Roost was a high rock, with many spurs and outcrops.

Silhouetted of Buzzard’s Roost
Having a snack in the shadow.

I had a snack in the shadow of a squat spire and evaluated my options. The map said there was only one trail: the way I’d come. I decided not to worry about it yet.

Rocks atop Buzzard’s Roost
Buzzard’s Roost.

Buzzard’s Roost is more than one outcrop of rock. Several uprisings stand out of the undulating surface. I took half an hour climbing around, shooting photos. The light was harsh, but I got some decent snapshots.

Southern view from Buzzard’s Roost
Southeastern view from Buzzard’s Roost.

As I took off my pack for a break, I discovered that something caught a zipper and tugged hard enough to open it. Luckily that pocket was almost empty, so nothing fell out. But I knew I’d have to be more cautious on the hike back.

Part 4: The road back

Finally, I had to face the way back. As much as I enjoy a good hike … alright, let’s get this over with.

Fun fact: hiking uphill takes more effort, but hiking downhill takes more caution. That’s because when you climb a hill, you’re pressing your feet into a solid surface and pushing against the ground. It’s a natural fit. But going down, pushing up — and out. You’re setting yourself up to fall. Parts of the “trail” had been very slippery and overgrown, a dangerous combination. Returning wasn’t going to be easy.

But as at the base of the Roost, I spied an opening in the foliage. It lead south, towards another set of rocks I’d noticed earlier. Sure, why not? Ten minutes’ diversion couldn’t hurt. Right?

For a route not listed on the map, this path was in surprisingly good shape. It was level and excessively tight. The lack of brush made observing my destination easy.

The other Buzzard’s Roost?
The other Buzzard’s Roost?

The destination turned out to be a collection of spires and nooks weathered out of a single block. I climbed a bit, shot some token photos — but that wasn’t the surprise.

Along the way, I found a road.

An honest-to-goodness, paved service road.

It was at least ten feet wide, leading downhill, into the pine forest, and out of sight.

Checking the map, I figured it was probably the Buzzard’s Roost Spur Trail, which connected to the Tanbark Loop Trail, then the Pine Loop Road, and eventually back to park headquarters. Probably.

Faced with the prospect of scrambling through random brush, I decided discretion was the better part of backpacking and took the road east.

The service road was paved, at least occasionally. Sometimes it was bare dirt; sometimes it was covered with years of debris and pine needles. But it was much easier than my climb up had been. Long story short, I got turned around at a junction whose sign was missing some directions, backtracked a few times, and ended up on Hihn Hammond Road, which was a “proper” roadway suitable for cars (at least, one at a time).

So far my hike had been solo. But now, around noon and closer to the park headquarters, I began to meet people. One group of about 15, half of which were children, asked me for directions. We consulted my paper map, determined their best route, and went our separate ways.

(As I walked away, I heard one of them describe me as a “trail angel.” I’m not sure how three days of stubble, a lightweight daypack, and the same paper map everyone gets qualifies me as a any kind of angel. But there ya go.)

I reached headquarters around 12:45pm, paid too much for a cheap microwave burrito from the store/café, and drove home along the narrow highway 9. The views weren’t spectacular — look! Pine trees! — but after that day at Big Basin, I didn’t mind.

For next time

  • Buying a good compass wouldn’t hurt.
  • Maybe I should invest in a better wide-angle lens.
  • Bring a tripod. You never know what the weather will do in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
  • So far in Big Basin, I’ve hiked north and south. I wonder what’s out west ….