Humans lived in or near Big Basin for at least 10,000 years before the Spanish explored the area in the late 1700s. The Big Basin area was home to the Cotoni and Quiroste tribes, two of more than 50 tribes comprising the Ohlone culture of the San Francisco and Monterey Bay areas.
Grinding rocks, where native people pounded acorns and other seeds into flour, are evidence that today’s parkland served as the interior food basket for coastal people. They harvested seeds of grassland plants in the meadows and gathered soap root and other bulbs for food and utility. Parts of fern, horsetail and sedge were used to create baskets. They hunted elk, pronghorns, and black-tailed deer. The Quiroste and Cotoni used fire and other land-management practices to promote growth of useful plants.
The Ohlone led resistance to the local Spanish mission influence in the late 1700s. Eventually, tribal culture collapsed in the face of contagious European diseases, natural-resource destruction, and the suppression of their native customs. Today, descendants of these tribes are working toward federal recognition and revitalizing their native traditions.
Big Basin’s coast redwoods, Sequoia sempervirens, are native to the United States; they grow only along the coast from southern Oregon to Central California. The genus name Sequoia may honor Sequoyah, the 19th-century inventor of the Cherokee alphabet, and sempervirens means “ever living.” These trees are part of a once-huge ancient forest. Today, only 5 percent of that forest remains.
The Santa Cruz redwood forest was first noted in accounts of a Spanish coastal expedition led by Gaspar de Portolá in 1769. After the gold rush less than a century later, logging threatened to deplete the forest. By 1884, the area’s 28 sawmills were processing more than 34 million board-feet of lumber, shingles, railroad ties, and posts annually. As logging continued, the battle to protect the ancient trees in the heart of Big Basin began. Photographer Andrew P. Hill, journalist Josephine McCrackin, writer-publisher Carrie Stevens Walter, and a growing coalition of journalists, politicians, artists, businessmen, and scholars formed the Sempervirens Club in May of 1900. As Walter wrote, “Once gone, no human power or ingenuity can replace them. Even the most callous-minded materialist does not love to think of this swirling globe as a treeless place.”
The establishment of Big Basin Redwoods State Park in 1902 marked the beginning of the preservation and conservation movement in California and provided the vision for the hundreds of California state parks we enjoy today.
In 1900, San Jose photographer Andrew P. Hill photographed the coast redwood trees in Welch’s Grove, now part of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. The owner of the forest accused Hill of trespassing and demanded his negatives. Hill refused, vowing to himself to save the trees for future generations and “make a public park of this place.”
After a landmark meeting at Stanford University in May of 1900, Santa Cruz businessmen led Hill, journalists, and politicians on an excursion to Big Basin, an ancient forest threatened by logging. After three days of exploring the forest’s wonders, the group elected officers and formed the Sempervirens Club.
The club and its growing team of supporters pushed the state legislature to approve a bill to purchase the land. The bill passed unanimously. Thus was established California Redwood Park—known since 1927 as Big Basin Redwoods State Park.The bill also established the California Redwood Park Commission. In 1906, after much debate, the commission acquired 3,901 acres from the Big Basin Lumber Company through purchase and donation. Another 3,785 acres were converted from federal land to the state park in 1916.
In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed the redwood Nature Lodge and Park Headquarters, a campfire center, a footbridge, cabins, stoves, and a trail network.
In 1968 Sempervirens Fund renewed the charter of the Sempervirens Club and began working to protect the entire Waddell Creek Watershed. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Sempervirens Fund worked with State Parks to create the Skyline to the Sea Trail, as well as acquiring portions of Rancho del Oso, the ridge along the north rim of Big Basin, and the Mountain Shadow Ranch at Castle Rock. Sempervirens Fund also helped create Castle Rock State Park and a trail system connecting Big Basin Redwoods, Castle Rock, Portola Redwoods and Butano State Parks, and other regional parks.
On August 18, 2020, the CZU Lightning Complex Fire swept through 97% of the park's property. The fire destroyed all historic structures and radically changed the landscape. The park looks very different from how generations of visitors experienced it, but it is steadily recovering. Most of the old-growth redwood trees survived, new plant life is vigorously growing, and many animals have returned to the area. The Reimagining Big Basin project is managing the multi-year process of rebuilding park facilities and infrastructure.
Today, the emphasis is on improving fire resilience with land management techniques that restore and preserve a healthy forest and creating wildfire-resistant faciliities to reduce the risk of loss in potential future fire events. Currently comprising more than 18,000 acres, Big Basin Redwoods State Park continues to grow through partnerships with private nonprofit groups like Save the Redwoods League and the Sempervirens Fund.
Waddell Creek, Waddell Valley, and Waddell Beach are all named after William Waddell, a lumberman who operated a mill in the Waddell Valley in the 1860s. He established a lumber mill at “Big Gulch,” where the east and west forks of Waddell Creek come together. Waddell built a five-mile tramway to transport lumber from the mill down to the wharf he built on the coast at Año Nuevo. Waddell, who was born in Kentucky in 1818, died at Waddell Creek in 1875 after being attacked by a grizzly bear.
The wharf was eventually destroyed by a storm, but remnants of the mill can still be seen along with log-lined skid roads and massive cut stumps.