- Location: Forest of Nisene Marks State Park
- Date: 21 July 2018
- Distance: 11 miles
- Info: CA Parks & Recreation, Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks
- Fee: $8 per vehicle
- Successful bridge-free creek crossings: 4
- Unsuccessful bridge-free creek crossings: 1
With San Jose expected to reach 90°F, I decided to drive over the hill and explore a state park called the Forest of Nisene Marks, a little east of Santa Cruz (predicted high: 74°F). I expected coastal redwoods. Of course there would be redwoods. But I didn’t expect to find myself turned around in one of the most lush, atmospheric forests I’ve ever seen.
Highway 17 is the only artery to Santa Cruz, and from experience I knew that the two southbound lanes get clogged on Saturdays from people escaping the valley for Monterrey Bay. So I prepped the night before and hurried out the door around 8am. It worked better than planned. Not only did I beat traffic on the road, but also in the park.
The sun was bright until I approached Santa Cruz, 30 minutes later. The bay was socked in with a ground-hugging fog that obscured the horizon.
If I hadn’t known about it, I would have passed the park entrance without notice. It was tucked away behind a shopping center and some construction — then, suddenly, trees. Trees upon trees. And quiet.
A friendly park ranger with a British accent greeted me at the entrance. She kindly took some time to point out the park’s highlights on a paper map. Two were already on my list: the epicenter marker and the Advocate Tree.
I drove north along the park’s main road until I found a likely parking area called George’s Picnic Area.
The air was cool and the sky was overcast. At least, I assume so. Tall redwoods hid the sky. I donned my long-sleeve shirt and, following the ranger’s advice, started hiking south along the Aptos Ranchero Trail, aiming for an ancient grove of redwoods and the giant Advocate Tree, 265 feet of glorious redwood.
The southern trails
The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park is named for a woman whose family donated about 9000 acres to the state for recreational use in 1963. They had good taste.
Maybe I’m not expert enough to tell “real virgin forest” from nature-reclaimed terrain, but I felt isolated from civilization — or at least, protected from everyday bustle.
I knew it would be easy to get lost in these woods. But I didn’t expect to get lost lost. The trail I followed split many times. Twice I took the correct fork, occasionally crossing the active Aptos Creek, only to discover “correct” is more of an ideal than a fact. The paper map has a few questionable marks, including a picnic area on the wrong side of a trail that, along with a lack of sun, disoriented me.
And it was quiet. For a long time, the only sounds were my footsteps and the creek, when I happened near it, and my tinnitus. Birdsong was rare and distant.
After several dead ends and one spontaneous creek crossing, I found the Advocate Tree. This giant was once 265 feet tall and more than a thousand years old, but fell during heavy storms just last winter. Today its root system stands taller than other trees’ aspirations.
To the epicenter
An hour after I arrived, I began to see hints of sun. Somewhere high above, the clouds were burning away. I packed away my outer shirt when I reached the entrance station.
Instead of backtracking the twisty trails, I followed the level dirt road north to my second goal, the epicenter of the famous 1989 earthquake that caused devastation in San Francisco, was felt as far as Los Angeles, and was recorded on live TV.
Cyclists and joggers were more common than cars, but plenty of all passed me. Years of kicked-up dust caked the roadside foliage.
The road took me past my parked car, which had gained company in the past two hours. The park was filling up. As I walked, I passed other parking areas, and tried not to get distracted by unmarked side trails. That happened only once, when I climbed down a steep and unmarked path to a flowing creek under a bridge. Everything was slick; I almost discovered how waterproof my iPhone was while trying to get a particular photo.
Following the road, there’s nothing left of the Loma Prieta Sawmill, which worked from the 1880s until burning down in 1942, or the town it had served. In fact, it was hard to believe anyone had cut trees here for a living, so dense and tall was the forest.
It’s hard to describe how much foliage I saw. Although the sun was out in force, I didn’t need to wear my hat. Even wearing my buff seemed like overkill. I was barely sweating, and sipped water more out of habit than need.
Around noon I reached a trail that left the road for the epicenter. This one was rough, at points more suggestion than route. The creek crossings were random rocks jutting out of babbling water.
I didn’t know what to expect at the epicenter, other than a sign. Although the trail continues past the epicenter marker, the trail was blocked off due to recent landslides — or so I’d been told. Truth is, it looked like any other stretch of trail. An old landslide I’d passed earlier was more dramatic.
Hiking back took an hour and a half. The park was busy with people: families with strollers, pairs of joggers, flocks of cyclists, and a Cub Scout pack.
My car, which has a thermometer, said the temperature was 75°F (while San Jose hovered around 90°F).
I was reluctant to leave the Nisene Marks’s forest, but now I feel more prepared for my return visit.
For next time
- You’re gonna need a bigger lens.
- If you plan to take longer treks, then park the car further up the road.
- Don’t trust the map 100%. Be ready to improvise.