In a region surrounded by scenic and unique state parks, it can be hard to stand out; Forest of Nisene Marks State Park does just that. A favorite among local hikers, trail runners, dog walkers and mountain bikers, the park offers something for just about everyone, all under the canopy of a redwood forest. Tucked into the hills behind the village of Aptos and reaching up the Santa Cruz Mountains to an elevation of 2,500 feet, Forest of Nisene Marks offers perhaps the closest wilderness experience in the backyard of Santa Cruz.
The park's name came from a matriarch of a conservation-minded farming family that acquired the land in the mid 20th century and later sold it to the state to ensure it's protection. The Forest of Nisene Marks was once full of ancient coast redwood old-growth, but like much of the redwood forests of California's central and north coast, those magnificant ancient trees were harvested during San Francisco's post-Gold Rush boom. The Forest of Nisene Marks now covers roughly 10,000 acres of second- and third-growth redwood forest within the Aptos Creek, Bridge Creek and Hinckley Creek watersheds.
Most of the land falling within the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park is quite rugged with steep slopes and ravines fanning out from the main artery of Aptos Creek. But thanks to a diverse network of trails ranging from open dirt fire roads to creekside and slope-climbing singletrack, the park remains relatively accessible to hikers. The majority of visitors to the Forest of Nisene Marks stay within the lower third of the park grounds, along Aptos Creek Fire Road and offshoot trails near the main entrance station and a major park landmark known as Steel Bridge - one of the Aptos Creek crossings. Near the entrance station are a handful of short hiking trails, the most notable of which is the Old Growth Loop, a 1.4-mile trail that traverses through the park's only remaining old-growth redwood grove.
Roughly a mile in from the entrance station up Aptos Creek Fire Road is Steel Bridge. During winter this is as far as visitors can drive within the park, though during summer it is possible to drive a half-mile further to a family picnic area. Many park in the paid parking area adjacent to Steel Bridge to gain the distance in from the entrance station and set off on hiking excursions located deeper within the core of the park. Note that both dogs and mountain bikes are allowed on Aptos Creek Fire Road as well as the "hike and bike" trails near Steel Bridge: Aptos Rancho Trail, Split Stuff Trail, Terrace Trail and Vienna Woods Trail. Shortly beyond Steel Bridge, hikers will find a singeltrack for West Ridge Trail, which climbs 6 miles to multiple overlooks and a backcountry trail camp.
Heading upstream and north along along Aptos Creek Fire Road will take you past the Porter Family Picnic Areas and the Porter Trail, which provides access to Aptos Creek. Beyond here one can continue up the Aptos Creek Fire Road, which is popular with mountain bikers, or branch off on one of the "hike only" trails such as Loma Prieta Trail, Bridge Creek Trail or Aptos Creek Trail. An interesting additional 4-mile loop can be completed from the junction of Aptos Creek Fire Road and Loma Prieta Trail by combining Loma Prieta Trail with the Bridge Creek Trail, which passes by historic/cultural sites harkening back to the logging era. An offshoot trail near the Bridge Creek Historic Site takes hikers an additional mile up to Maple Falls.
Aptos Creek Fire Road continues climbing up to the Santa Rosalia Ridge, which marks the northern boundary of the park. At the ridge, Forest of Nisene Marks shares a border with Soquel Demonstration State Forest, one of the region's best mountain biking zones. An interesting fact: The Aptos Creek Hiking Trail, which branches off Aptos Creek FIre Road and continues up Aptos Creek at the bottom of an incline, passes by the epicenter of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The earthquake occured during Game 3 of the 1989 World Series in which two local teams, the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics, were playing one another. Sadly, the earthquake also caused a section of the Bay Bridge to collapse. Hikers can continue up Aptos Creek past the Loma Prieta epicenter site to Five-finger Falls or cut back to the Fire Road by way of the Big Slide Trail.
Make sure to downlaod or pick up a park brochure at the entrance station to have a map on hand before setting off into the park's backcountry.