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Nisene Marks

The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park is located in Aptos a bit south of Santa Cruz. This is a nice ride that is generally non-technical in itself, but it connects to the Soquel Demo Forest for those looking for a more technical ride.

Park: Nisene Marks (The Forest of) SP
Date: Multiple
Distance: 25.2 miles
Total Ascent: 3,235 feet
Map: Detailed Trail Map
Overall Rating: 4

You get to the park by going south (from Santa Cruz) on Highway 1 to the State Park Drive exit (Seacliff State Beach). Cross over the highway to the inland side. Turn right on Soquel Drive and drive a short distance past the elevated railroad crossing and Spreckels Drive (on the right) to Aptos Creek Road on the left side. We usually park in the dirt lot behind the first restaurant, but you can also drive further into the park itself to find parking.

The ride starts with a short road ride to the official entrance to the park. Traffic is generally light, but you should look for it, especially on the way back as the road is not too wide. Once in the park, the you start riding through the forest on a paved surface (Aptos Creek Fire Road) until you get to the first gate. This gate may be open or closed depending on the time of year, but it is only there to control car traffic. The paved road then gives way to a very smooth dirt surface that starts a very gentle climb through the forest. There is another gate that is also easy to go around and from that point cars are prohibited. The grade continues to be very slight and the greenery of the surrounding forest gets more and more intense. There are a couple of vehicle-wide bridges along this fire road that are very easy to traverse.

Continue on the main fire road until you get to the narrow bridge over the creek. This is a good spot for beginners and kids to turn around as you are about to start climbing a much steeper grade. The grade is not too bad for riders with some conditioning under their belt, but may be too much for novices to enjoy the ride.

If you continue, you will go up and up, eventually reaching a worn sign indicating "Top of Incline". While it is true that the sign marks the end of a section of climbing, there is still plenty more coming. The grade decreases for the next few miles. We usually continue to an overlook called Sand Point that has two wooden benches and take a short break there. After a short break, continue riding uphill (the trail on the right). After a moderate uphill grade, the grade increases to a noticeably stiffer incline as you start adding elevation in earnest. Continue on this road until you reach the clearing at the top of Soquel Demo Forest's Ridge Trail. At this point, you can figure out how much time and energy you have. You can do a loop or two through SDF or you can turn around and head back. The SDF trails are nice, but remember that you will have to pay for all of that sweet downhill with a corresponding climb back to the clearing at the top.

The return down the Aptos Creek Fire Road is easy and fast. It can be very fast. If you are not careful, you can come up on some of the corners at a higher rate of speed than you think. You also have to keep your eyes open for bikes and hikers coming uphill. This is usually not too hard but you have to remember that you are going much faster than they are. As you pass through the two gates, you will see lots more hikers and joggers and you will have to start watching for traffic. There are some corners on the road past the park entrance that you cannot see cars around, so stay to the right on the road.

The lower part of Nisene Marks is a great place for beginners and kids to get out and enjoy the forest. You can take a lunch or get one afterwards at one of the local restaurants. The upper part offers hill climbs and access to SDF. This route may become the preferred route into SDF once Highland Way falls completely off the cliff (it is in danger of this happening at any time).

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