Olive Springs to Sand Point Lookout
The fourth way into the Forest of Nisene Marks

Neil Wiley

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 canyon wall."

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 artificial lake.

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.



Best map:

The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park official plastic-coated map is available from the Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks (Call 831-429-1840), State Park stores (Natural Bridges, Wilder, and Seacliff), and Bookshop Santa Cruz.

Best book:

Explore The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park, A Visitorís Guide by Jeff Thomson

To purchase a copy, mail $9.95 to Walkabout Publications, PO Box 1299, Soquel, California 95073. The book is also available at many Santa Cruz area bookstores. For more information, call the author at 831-462-3370.







(c) 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 mountain network news All rights reserved.