Santa Cruz to Big Basin Overnighter – Brian Barnhart

Santa Cruz to Big Basin Overnighter
Words and photos by Brian Barnhart

I agreed to this trip before I knew where we were going or what we were doing. I recently moved to Santa Cruz from the east coast and take any chance I get to explore the area with friends. I’m primarily a BMX rider / commuter who does the occasional tour, as is my friend Mike who invited me on the trip. Our friend Chris, on the other hand, rides trails every morning and gets a kick out climbing a long steep hill. Finding out on Friday night that we were about to climb 6000 plus feet was a bit painful sounding, but we were up for the adventure.

Santa Cruz to Big Basin Overnighter

We headed out of town Saturday morning on some familiar roads to and through UCSC campus. We hit our first dirt along the fire roads and single track at the top of campus. We would soon be back on the pavement climbing up Empire Grade. Chris nonchalantly led us up this steep incline to the Santa Cruz mountains, while I worked hard to keep up with him, and Mike powered through a hangover. Most of our morning was pure climbing, and although the scenery was great, at times it seemed like it wasn’t going to end. Before long however, we reached the end of Empire Grade and the top of where any paved roads would take us. We were trying to find a trailhead to Eagle Rock, a peak with 360 degree views overlooking redwoods and Pacific waves.

We could see a fire-watch house from the road, but were having trouble finding the way to get there. There were several locked gates to dirt roads, and we figured one of them was the way. Chris hoped a fence and did a little recon mission. He gave the dirt road a thumbs up, so we proceeded through the dust. We came upon an abandoned motocross track that was awesome to look at and cruise around, but was also a dead end as far as getting up to Eagle Rock. We found a side trail and took that until we had had to hop some more barbed wire. GPS was telling us the fire road to the top was nearby. With a little on-foot exploring, Mike found it, and we dragged our bikes through the brush and back on course.

The views were great before we even reached the top of Eagle Rock, but are a full 360 degrees at the summit. The motocross track looked tiny from this perspective, and I felt pretty tiny looking out on the vast lands and waters. The fire-watch house was pretty ragged after years of abandon, but I’m sure plenty of people spent the night simply for its amazing views. We took it all in and discussed our plan from here. Our goal was to make it to Butano State Park, but at this point Big Basin was sounding a lot more realistic.

Santa Cruz to Big Basin Overnighter

Some hikers clued us in on the fire road that led to Little Basin. From the top it was a blast bombing downhill, roasting water bars and dodging rocks on our loaded bikes. We came into Little Basin campground and tried to guess which fire road would lead us to Big Basin State Park. After a few wrong turns, we got directions from a park ranger. We climbed our last and toughest hill on a steep fire road, then descended into Big Basin.

After about 35 miles and 4500 feet of elevation gain, Big Basin’s hike and bike campground was a little too inviting for us to turndown. Even though I usually like camping a little further from development, it was nice having a camp store to grab some grub. We set up our tents with plenty of time to relax, eat some well deserved food and build a nice fire amongst some of oldest living trees in the world.

We took our time leaving camp in the morning, knowing it was going to be a lot of easy downhill back to town. We took 236 and the 9 until we reach Henry Cowell State Park in Felton. From there we pedaled Pipeline Road through the redwoods until we reached the railroad tracks and trestle across the San Lorenzo River. It was an exciting but easygoing trail along the steel tracks, with a few bridge crossings along the way and a beautiful view of the river. We followed the tracks into town and were back to sea level with a fun little adventure to add to our experiences.


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  • AttackCowboy

    Great ride and photos! I love finding out about new places to explore in my backyard, so thanks for sharing.

    • kt

      They portray our town in a new light. Gotta love it.

  • Kyle Hayes

    Im from morgan hill, i have some ideas turning now! Awesome pics.

  • anotherbikeguy

    Sweet trip, great pics. Hi MIKE!!

    How about being a lil more discreet next time regarding our local roads, spots, and private property access points? Remember, these places can be enjoyed and even photographed without providing specifics on locale! See ya out there!

    • Brian Barnhart

      You’re right, I should have used a bit more discretion. Point taken.

      • Alex Hoffman

        Hey brian, I really woundn’t mind a few pointers on the ride to big basin.

        Any chance you could tell me a little more about your route post empire? tryna do a spring solstice pagan cyclebration tomorrow to sat…

        • Brian Barnhart

          Alex, It was pretty confusing, but we hoped a fence a bit before the dead end on Empire. Eventually found a dirt road to Eagle Rock. The same road cuts off down hill to Little Basin. From there we asked a park ranger and found another dirt road that took us most of the way to Big Basin.

  • KaliProtectives

    Love seeing this adventure in our backyard!

  • Kirk Pacenti

    Man, I miss living and riding there. SC will spoil you, for sure!