Most Nisene Marks visitors enter the park from Aptos
via Aptos Creek Road. The road is wide, dusty, and not particularly
interesting, but this main thoroughfare forms the spine of the park. Itís
a long walk to narrower, more tempting side trails that take you out to
the quieter, more remote areas.
For those of us in the mountains, two northern
entrances are available. We can enter from Highland Way through the Soquel
Demonstration State Forest and take the Ridge Trail to Aptos Creek Road.
Or we can continue on Highland Way to the intersection with Eureka Canyon
Road and Buzzard Lagoon Road, then on to the northeastern entrance on
Aptos Creek Road.
Although bikers may enjoy the climb through the
Demonstration Forest, none of these entrances are too appealing to hikers.
Again, the roads are too long, too wide, and too dusty.
But there is a fourth way. This way begins with an
unsigned entrance that is difficult to find. This way climbs up a logging
road, one of the steepest in Santa Cruz County. This way, even in summer,
can be foggy, wet, and dark. So why did I like it?
First, I liked the challenge. Even finding this
entrance was a "puzzlement." I drove down Old San Jose-Soquel Road, and
then turned left on Olive Springs Road (just past the fire station).
(Olive Springs was named for George Olive, a 49er, who operated a sawmill
and developed the springs as a campground. In 1897, the Santa Cruz Surf
reported, "Nowhere in the Santa Cruz Mountains can one get nearer to
Natureís heart than in this sequestered canyon, and hundreds are already
willing to testify to the medicinal value of the waters.")
Across the road from a red building with the sign
"Olive Springs Quarry," I saw a blue gate with its own unfriendly sign:
"No Trespassing." Although the first half mile up this road is private
property, park visitors have access rights, so I scrambled around the gate
to find Hinkley Fire Road.
A series of unbridged streams posed another challenge.
Strategically placed rocks made it relatively easy to cross them, but in
the winter, fording could be dangerous. Even in summer, the whole area was
dark and wet. A Report of the State Mineralogist (circa 1945) said
of this area, "Hinkley Creek flows through a deep canyon here, the walls
of which stand nearly vertical. Seepages and springs occur at numerous
points in the creek bed and in the sandstone formation which forms the
The next challenge was passing by a few private homes.
Most look like something out of Appalachia, complete with old vehicles and
"unassorted" junk. I tiptoed by each homestead, expecting to see toothless
giants with chainsaws and shotguns. I didnít.
And now I faced a greater personal challenge, a steep
trail that climbed about two thousand feet in three and a half miles.
Within a half mile I reached the park boundary, distinguished only by a
gate and a very small sign.
Another half mile up took me to the unmarked site of a
Loma Prieta Lumber Company sawmill. Originally, the mill was built further
down in the canyon, but it was destroyed in a January 1906 thunderstorm
when the millpond dam broke, freeing huge logs that battered the mill to
pieces. It was still being rebuilt when the 1906 earthquake buried it in a
hundred-foot wave of earth that killed nine men and destroyed the mill.
I continued uphill through dark forest, but it was not
absolutely pristine. Even after entering this ten-thousand acre park, I
saw a few privately owned houses. Some resulted from an ill-fated 61-site
housing development of Capitola millionaire Allen Rispin. Unfortunately
for Mr. Rispin, he was in the midst of development when he was bankrupted
by the market crash of 1929. Through the trees on the right side of the
road, you can still see a golden meadow that was once the floor of his
For several miles, the road continues up. Fortunately,
it is a relatively smooth road with few switchbacks and a cool, heavy
forest that makes the climb bearable. In less than an hour, I began to see
patches of sky, the hikerís sign that a ridge top is near.
Now my climb became a walk in the park. As I got closer
to the ridge, I entered a half-mile wide, relatively flat area. It was a
broad boulevard with light forest on each side. This was an area where the
Molino Timber Company cut trees for grape stakes, pickets, posts, and
other "split stuff." It is also the area where the ten-ton narrow gauge
engine Betsy Jane slipped off the rails and slid down the hill, never to
be seen again. I couldnít find it, perhaps because it was buried under
tons of rocks and earth.
Looking for present-day comforts, I continued on to the
West Ridge Trail Camp. I had visualized a friendly encampment, complete
with tables, benches, fire rings, and a nice view. Instead, the camp was
in a dark, cold forest, without even a clearing, but supplied only with a
spooky dead tree and an ugly privy. I decided to postpone lunch.
Just beyond the camp I crossed a trail that takes you
along Hinkley Ridge to a good overview, then down Big Stump Gap Trail and
the Ridge Connection Trail to Hoffmanís Historic Site, where once stood 25
buildings, including a cookhouse, meeting hall, bunkhouse, blacksmith
shop, and several cabins and stables. From this site, you can either loop
over to the Aptos Creek Fire Road and up to Sand Point, or backtrack to
the West Ridge Trail Camp. (I must admit that I didnít take this side
trip. Let me know if itís worth the walk.)
Instead of taking this trail, I continued on the main
trail up to Sand Point Overlook, also known as Salt Rock Point. It was an
easy 0.4-mile walk. According to Jeff Thomsonís book Explore the Forest of
Nisene Marks State Park, Sand Pointís 1600-foot elevation is considered to
be the best viewpoint in the park. He says that "on a clear day you can
see the city of Santa Cruz, the Pacific Ocean, UC Santa Cruz, and the
Santa Cruz Mountains..." But on my hike, even at noon, all I could see
were two large trees looming in the fog.
It didnít matter. My feet and I loved the two
comfortable benches where I ate lunch while imagining the view. And after
all, when hiking, it isnít the destination; itís the walk.
Although I enjoyed the solitude of the rarely traveled
Hinkley Fire Road, it was good to see people again. Several bikers stopped
at my bench to say hello. Some were going north to Soquel Demonstration
Forest. Others were heading down to Aptos. After another turkey stick, I
backtracked down Hinkley to my car. It was a lot easier going down.
I liked this fourth way into The Forest of Nisene
Marks. Although itís a bit of a slog up miles of hill, the deep, cool,
intensely quiet forest holds a sense of mystery and solitude. And that
alone is worth the walk.