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The Forest of Nisene Marks
By Haven Livingston

Photo: Cathy Claesson

In the heart of Santa Cruz County, the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park provides a year-round destination for hikers, bikers, runners and those seeking solace under big trees. Summertime is an especially good time for a visit to this semi-wilderness escape. It’s common to find both cooling coastal fog at the park’s sea-level entrance and to bathe under brilliant summer sun as trails rise toward the 2,600 feet peaks of the steep coastal mountains.

Located in the town of Aptos, Nisene Marks has over 40 miles of trails and fire roads just a stone’s throw from Santa Cruz County beaches, restaurants and cafés. The rugged landscape, dominated by redwood and Douglas fir forest, is named after Nisene Marks, a nature-loving woman whose family purchased the property from lumber companies and, failing to find oil, turned it over to California State Parks in 1963. With nearly 100 years of recovery since it was last logged, the tall trees create a dense canopy keeping trails shaded in the heat of summer.

Aptos Rancho Trail leads into Nisene from Soquel Drive, or park at one of the lots inside the park. Next to the entrance station parking is a good 1.5-mile warm-up hike on the Old Growth Redwood Loop Trail. The Porter Family Picnic Area is the farthest you can drive into the park. Starting from here may shorten your hike by a few miles.

For a great training run or long day hike check out the Bridge Creek Loop, which totals 13 miles from the entrance or 10 miles from George’s Picnic Area parking. Add a one-mile side trip on Bridge Creek to visit Maple Falls.
Overnight camping is also available, giving you more time to reach the far corners of the park. The shortest route to the West Ridge Trail Camp is 6 miles on Aptos Creek Fire Road, but the best views of Santa Cruz and the ocean are from the West Ridge Trail and at Sand Point Overview.

To make a loop from the campground, continue on Aptos Creek Fire Road to White’s Lagoon Road and finally to Aptos Creek Trail, which takes hikers past the epicenter of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Turn northeast on Aptos Creek Trail before heading for home for a 1.6-mile side hike that ends at the lovely Five Finger Falls.

There are a couple miles of multi-use trails near the park’s entrance that allow bicycles, otherwise, bikes are restricted to Aptos Creek Fire Road within Nisene. For those serious about getting on single track, take Aptos Creek Fire Road into adjacent Soquel Demonstration Forest, a good long climb of 9 miles. Alternatively, call Shuttle Smith Adventures at (831)-234-3383 to take you and your bike to the entrance at Highland Way to Hihn’s Mill Road to access single-track trails like Braille, Tractor and Sawpit and return on the downhill Aptos Creek Fire Road.

Unless you plan on sticking to the entrance road and picnic areas, leave Fido at home. Dogs must be on a leash no longer than six feet at all times.

Women: Get to know Nisene Marks together Aug. 26 at the Dirt Inspires 4, 8, or 13-mile trail runs, www.ditrailruns.com.

— Haven Livingston