Popular Park For A Good Workout
The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park is 10,000 acres of mainly coast redwood forest with some coastal chaparral. The area was heavily logged for decades before being donated to the state by the Marks family in 1963. The park gets its name from the matriarch of the Marks family. According to the park brochure the Southern Pacific Railroad arrived in Monterey, CA in the 1880s, and financed the logging of Upper Aptos Canyon via the Loma Prieta Lumber Company. Loma Prieta Mill closed in 1924 after processing 140 million board feet of redwood. There is still ample evidence of logging in the form of stumps, old building sites and the railroad that serviced the mill.
This park is quite popular with joggers and mountain bikers in addition to hikers. Many mountain bikers get shuttled to the highest reaches of the park in order to cruise downhill to the main entrance, and these tenderfeet are easily distinguished from the hardier cyclists who actually ride up the mountain.
Hike: The hike starts at the Porter Family Picnic Area in a deep redwood forest. Note that this picnic area can only be reached by auto from late spring to mid-autumn because the Winter Gate closes during the rainy season. Head north along the vestigial dirt road then head uphill on the Loma Prieta Grade Trail just past Margaret's Bridge. This hike has very good signage. This section goes through a relatively open forest with the large tanoaks that characterize logged areas before redwoods begin to reclaim it. You reach a 3-way junction with the Ridge Connection and Big Stump Gap trails after about 2.8 miles and about a thousand feet of AEG. We took Big Stump Gap Trail as it headed steeply uphill to the West Ridge Trail which ends at the West Ridge Trail Camp 4.5 miles and 1,300' higher than the trailhead. Take West Ridge Fire Road from the camp up to Sand Point Overlook (5 miles) which is the high point of the hike. The views here are superb with much of Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay spread out before you. The bench here is a great place for refreshments, but be aware that this is a popular spot. The top of the ridge is covered in coastal chaparral. Indeed one of the interesting things about hiking in the Bay Area is how deep redwood forest seems to instantly transition to 6-feet-high chaparral.
Head downhill on the Aptos Creek Fire Road as it gradually loses 100' over a mile to the Big Slide Trail. You are now in a deep redwood forest. Big Slide descends steeply at times another 500' to put you 7.5 miles from the start at the Aptos Creek Trail. You can head a mile-and-change as Aptos Creek Trail meanders near its namesake to Five Finger Falls. We didn't take this option because the falls are apt to be dry in the early fall. The forest here is genuinely dark with mounds of duff making off-trail travel impossible unless one likes going through mountains of redwood needles and spider webs. Take the Aptos Creek Trail to the right, and enjoy the dark redwood forest as the trail contours down the north side of the creek (with a short, but steep uphill stretch) for 2.25 miles until you hit the Aptos Creek Fire Road. This dirt road is basically the same road that goes from the park entrance to the trailhead at Mary Easton Picnic Area. The forest is a little more open here, and you are able to enjoy the last mile and a half on a relatively level grade.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.