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Bushcraft and the Natural World

Conquering My Fear at Berry Creek Falls

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Rock and Awe

I stand at the base of Berry Creek Falls and look up the 70-foot cliff.  I’m mesmerized by the breathtaking plunge of water falling from great height.  The roar fills my ears and mist, cold and wet, rains upon my face.

There’s a constant wind created by the turbulence of falling water.  Dampness seeps into my clothes.  And I can smell the moist earth and the ferns that jut from the wet rocks.

The torrents separate and rejoin on the cliff face.   My eyes try and fail to follow the same bit of water as it plummets to the rocks below.  I imagine a thrilling dive over the precipice and the electricity of that acceleration.

Waterfalls touch something primal deep within us.  And standing there I feel insignificant – an ant inhabiting a brief instant of time.  The sheer walls of the canyon, carved by the running water, remind me that we are all transitory, while the falls are timeless.

 

Berry Creek Falls

Berry Creek Falls. The trunks of fallen redwood trees seem small by comparison.

 

Berry Creek Falls

Berry Creek falls is nearly 70 feet tall.

 

Berry Creek Falls

After a storm, the waterfall appears ghostly through the redwoods.

 

Berry Creek Falls

The hike to Berry Creek Falls is one of the most exciting in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  The 10.5-mile loop begins at Big Basin Park headquarters and descends through the dense redwood forest.  I hike 4.2 miles down to the falls on a section of the famous Skyline-to-the-Sea backpacking route.  I ascend the Sunset Trail on the return trip.  The 6.3-mile Sunset Trail climbs past two other fabulous cataracts:  Silver Falls and Golden Cascade.

The hike is not for casual tourists.  The climb-out on Sunset gains more than 2,000 feet of elevation.  Prominent yellow signs warn-off the unfit and ill-equipped.

Many park docents tell stories of hikers bound for the falls running out of water far from headquarters.  Others recount tales of unfit hikers exhausting themselves on the climb back.  The stories no doubt result from the siren call of the falls.  Tourists visiting the park learn of the amazing waterfall and set out unprepared for the arduous climb back.

Just recently, I provided duct tape to a hiker when the sole of her boot separated from its leather upper.  She was 5-miles from the trailhead and faced making the uphill climb on one boot and a sock.

 

After The Storm

Far and away the best time to visit Berry Creek Falls is after a rainstorm.  The falls are gushing and the forest is bursting with green.  Brilliant emerald moss festoons the tree branches.  And Sword Ferns glow against the orange redwood needles that litter the forest floor.

 

Redwood forest

Redwood trees grow to more than 300 feet. The scale of the forest is dizzying.

 

redwood forest canopy

The canopy shades the forest floor even at midday.

 

redwood forest

Some relatively open forest with younger trees. Huckleberry and tanoak forms the understory.

 

rocks and stream in redwood forest

Streams spill across the dark forest floor. The terrain tends to be vertical until it approaches the coastline of the Pacific Ocean.

 

People are not usually in the forest after a storm.  It’s a good time to enjoy the falls in solitude.  You can watch the birds come out to forage or share a quiet moment with a Banana Slug.

 

Banana slug on forest floor

Banana Slug – It breathes through its pneumostone (the hole on the right side of its mantle). This one is close to 10 inches long.

 

But there are drawbacks to hiking in the wake of a storm.  Fallen trees can add an hour or more to your hiking time.  When a tree falls across the trail it’s an inconvenience, but when a redwood falls it’s a calamity.  Redwoods can be 12 feet wide and 300 feet high.  So you can’t just step over a fallen redwood.  You need to depart the trail and bushwack around it.

And even if the fallen redwood misses the trail, it leaves a large swath of destruction in its wake.  A fallen tree can wipe-out the trail, leaving a gaping muddy crater you must descend into and climb out the other side.

I find navigating these fallen trees an enjoyable challenge.  They add novelty and challenge to the hike.  But there’s another hazard when hiking through redwood forest after a rainstorm – one that fills me with dread…

Disaster at West Waddell Creek

Creeks in the redwood forest become swollen after rainstorms.  Trivial river crossings become touch and go.  On the hike to Berry Creek falls there is one in particular that troubles me.

Shortly before the falls, hikers cross West Waddell Creek on a small footbridge.  The bridge is a length of wooden beams that spans the creek on rocks.  During severe rains, the bridge gets washed away by the surging creek.  To protect against the loss of the bridge, it is anchored to one of the banks by a steel cable.  After the rains pass the rangers lift the bridge from where the stream deposited it and position it back over the creek.  I’m told that sometimes park rangers remove the bridge before the rains begin to protect it from the punishing flood waters.

So hikers on their way to Berry Creek Falls after a rainstorm often find the bridge lying on the bank above the creek.  If the water level is still too high to replace the bridge hikers face a choice.  If the water has receded they can rock-hop across the stream.  But if the water level is still too high, they must cross on a fallen redwood just downstream from the bridge.

 

washed out hiking foot bridge Berry Creek Falls

A bridge wash-out from 2014. I was able to rock-hop across the creek.

 

washed out hiking bridge berry creek falls

When the water recedes far enough, I can cross the creek hopping on rocks.

 

To most hikers this is a mild inconvenience.  But to me it’s a calamity.

Some people are afraid to hike alone, or to camp solo overnight.  Still others worry about bear or cougar attacks.  None of these bother me.  My problem is heights.

I’ve written in the past about my fear of heights and how it kept me off the cables at Half Dome.  But I also had to discontinue my hike up to Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park.  It’s something I’ve been too embarrassed to mention before.

I don’t have a problem with high places – I spent a few years flying airplanes.  It’s exposure that I dread.  Exposure is a technical term in rock climbing.  It refers to the distance one has to fall before first contact with the ground.  Another definition I’ve heard is, “It’s the amount of air under your rock shoes.”

Most hikers don’t seem to notice exposure.  But I do!  Even the most mundane trail will snap me to attention if it’s along a sheer drop higher than my modest body height.  So crossing on a fallen redwood high above a stream is out of the question!

I’ve tried it in the past.  Here’s a picture as I inched my way out onto the trunk.

 

fallen tree across creek berry creek falls

This is not a clear path if you struggle with a fear of heights.

 

I made it a quarter of the way across before retreating to the safety of the bank.  Luckily, I found a way to rock-hop across.  But I hiked the remaining 6 miles with wet boots.

 

Crossing on the Log

As the rains subsided from our recent storms, I began to plan my return to Berry Creek Falls.  I telephoned park headquarters and asked about the bridge.  It had been washed out they told me.  But I should still be able to get across the creek.

To me this meant taking a gamble.  If the water was low enough I could rock-hop across.  But the storms had been severe.  What if I had to cross on the tree?

I soon learned on Facebook that a group of hikers planned to visit the falls.  I decided to join them.  If I had to turn back at the creek it would be embarrassing.  But maybe the peer pressure would spur me across the log.

We set out for the falls and arrive at the creek around lunchtime.  To my dismay the stream is a miniature rapid.  I’d never seen the water so high.  There is little chance of a dry crossing by hopping from rock to rock.  It has to be the fallen tree.

 

hiker crossing stream on fallen redwood tree

Another hiker snaps this picture as I attempt my crossing. For scale, I am just over five feet tall. The tree is about six feet in diameter and the drop to the water is another five feet. The total drop is the height of one story in an office building.

 

The other hikers cross without incident.  And I remind myself that it is purely psychological.  Yet what seems so simple (walking) becomes a major feat of daring-do.  How can something so simple to so many people be so paralyzing to me?  It’s time to toughen-up! (I may have used saltier language)

As I step out onto the log I notice several changes.  The overhanging brush has been cleared since my last attempt.  I don’t need to stoop and dodge my way across.  Also, the constant foot traffic has worn the top of the log flat.  And it isn’t nearly as slippery as I remembered!

The water level is so high, it creates an illusion of being closer to the ground.  I suddenly realize I can do it!

It’s anticlimactic to stroll across the log.  I doubt my fellow hikers realize how much I had dreaded the crossing. 

Beyond the log is the approach to Berry Creek Falls.

 

berry creek falls and redwood forest

Berry Creek Falls after my small moment of triumph.

 

Sliver Falls and Golden Cascade

I heartily recommend the hike to Berry Creek Falls.  Here are pictures of the other two waterfalls on the trail.  They are both smaller than Berry Creek Falls.  But both are gorgeous in their own right.

Note that the trail wends its way to the top of Sliver Creek Falls.  And there is a lot of exposure as you make the climb.  But fortunately the park installed wire cables to act as a handrail.   I really appreciate that.  🙂 

 

Silver falls big basin redwood state park

Silver falls. Notice the tangle of fallen redwood trees.

 

hiker at top of silver falls at big basin redwoods state park

At the top of Silver Falls. The cables assist hikers climbing the steep trail.

 

golden cascade in big basin redwoods state park

Golden Cascade

 

Small Victories

Much of our lives are built on small victories.  Me crossing West Waddell Creek isn’t exactly Washington crossing the Delaware!  But for me it’s a tangible success.  That log had been a barrier I couldn’t cross.  And it made me feel foolish to see so many do it effortlessly.  My hike to Berry Creek Falls that day was especially gratifying – before I had even glimpsed the falls!

Do you have a story of overcoming your fear on the trail?  Tell me about it in the comments below.

 

Related Articles on NatureOutside

Half Dome – Almost!

Change Your Trail to Change Your Attitude

Off the Map Adventure – The Sandstone Caves

 

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6 Comments

  • I often bring an extra pair of socks with me if I suspect my feet are going to get wet. They don’t weigh much and the dry comfort is an incentive to carefully cross creeks or wet meadows. Steve – your posts are getting really good. Nice places to visit, technical advice, good writing. Thank you for pursuing this.

    • Steve says:

      Cindy thanks for the great advice! Your sock suggestion makes a lot of sense. I actually own a pair of waterproof socks that I carry when backpacking. If my boots get wet, they keep my extra socks dry after I put my boots back on. Until your suggestion, it didn’t occur to me to carry them on dayhikes. Next time, I’ll certainly bring an extra pair of dry socks and my waterproofs.

      And thank you for the compliment, Cindy! It means a lot coming from an accomplished writer and naturalist like yourself.

  • Peggy says:

    Let me start by saying I have the same fear as you so I totally understand where you are coming from. It’s the cliff like areas, fear of falling, that brings the anxiety few understand. I have still not been able to overcome that fear and have on occasion had to turn around and go back much to my embarrassment. It doesn’t stop me from hiking but it does limit my hikes. I sure wish there was a magic bullet fix. Thanks for sharing.

    • Steve says:

      Peggy, thanks for sharing. Like you, I’ve found ways to accommodate my trouble with heights so I can still enjoy the majestic outdoors. The experience has actually made me a better hike leader. I now take every hiker’s concerns seriously and I try to address them the best I can. I have a point of reference to understand how they may be feeling. 🙂

  • Hal says:

    Great description of the hike to Berry Creek Falls and beyond. I especially connected with your hesitance in crossing the log and handling the height at the other falls. I’ve done a lot of backpacking and hiking – and skiing in my younger days. For some reason, I never had a problem on a chairlift but any other kind of height causes much trepidation – think ferris wheel. My spouse likes to visit Glacier Point in Yosemite which will do with her. But I can’t look over the edge. What a wuss eh?

    • Steve says:

      I’m glad you like the article, Hal! What I’ve learned from my problem with heights is that it’s not a rational process. You can’t “think your way out of it.” That’s made me a better trip leader. I’m more sensitive to the concerns of hikers and children I lead on day hikes and overnight backpacking trips. So, I don’t think you’re a wuss at all!!!

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