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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 🙂
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.
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