Getting Out: The Forest of Nisene Marks is a cool, quiet sanctuary

Getting Out: The Forest of Nisene Marks is a cool, quiet sanctuary

The weatherman has spared us scorching days so far, but it is
officially summer now, and we will soon be seeking refuge from the
heat. One great way to trim 20 or 30 degrees off a hot day is to
head to the coast.
The weatherman has spared us scorching days so far, but it is officially summer now, and we will soon be seeking refuge from the heat. One great way to trim 20 or 30 degrees off a hot day is to head to the coast.

The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park is a 10,000-acre park that encompasses the watershed of Aptos Creek and its tributaries on the flank of Loma Prieta Mountain. I have taken short hikes into this park near Santa Cruz. It reaches much further up the slope than I have ventured. I decided to do a big loop and see what lies hidden above.

Aptos Creek Road turns off Soquel Drive in Aptos just above the Britannia Arms pub. After a mile, a fee is due at the park kiosk, then a dirt road reaches another 3 miles until you arrive at a gate and a small parking area at the Porter Family Picnic Area.

I have said that the forest is not my favorite place to spend a day out. Open and spacious vistas trump the closed canopy and near views of the forest every time. But this second-growth redwood forest offered an excellent case for its own charms. As I started up the Loma Prieta Grade, Aptos Creek softly gurgling past, a woodpecker working in some tree top, and the haunting song of a Hermit Thrush were the only sounds breaking the hushed calm of the morning. The cool still air seemed to make every subtle sound resonate and sustain as though I heard it inside the hollow body of a concert acoustic Martin guitar.

Up, up, slowly but surely.

Along the way, signs marked various historical sites from logging operations dating from the late 1800s to the 1920s. At Hoffman’s Historic Site, a sign included a picture of a large active outpost – a train track, a large house with a white picket fence and several buildings – that I could not imagine in this now densely forested spot.

From a starting elevation of 200 feet, Loma Prieta Grade climbs 5 1/2 gentle miles to Sand Point Overlook at 1,600 feet. The walk is through forest the entire way, but, as you climb to a brighter and warmer environment above the usual summer fog, coast live oaks, tanoaks and other broadleaf trees enter the mix.

Like portholes on an ocean liner, there are only a couple narrow outlooks that reach beyond the immediate forest and overlook the country below. From a viewpoint along Hinckley Ridge, I was surprised to look down the course of Aptos Creek for miles and see nothing but trees. How can I see so much country here without any signs of settlement? It was easy to imagine that you were the first person to set eyes on this land.

From Sand Point Overlook, Aptos Creek Fire Road drops steadily toward home through a dense redwood forest. It was remarkable to see how this watershed has recovered from a complete clear-cut 100 years ago. Like nearly all California coastal redwood forests, this is a second-growth forest. But it is impressive to see what a redwood tree accomplishes in a century. Some of these specimens, often growing from the trunk of a predecessor, tower to great heights.

Hearing the trickle of Aptos Creek told me I was nearly back. I passed the trail junction that leads to the epicenter of the Loma Prieta earthquake of October 17, 1989. I have been there, and it looks like the rest of the forest.

Take a long walk in the woods or just picnic by the creek. The Forest of Nisene Marks is a cool quiet forest sanctuary.

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