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Forest of Nisene Marks State Park

A natural refuge in Santa Cruz

Forest of Nisene Marks by Davidlohr Bueso, Flickr Creative Commons
Photo by Davidlohr Bueso, Flickr Creative Commons

Park Information

Forest of Nisene Marks State Park Brochure

HIGHLIGHTS: The Forest of Nisene Marks, only 5 miles northeast of Santa Cruz, is wild and expansive. The property was clearcut in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. But it’s recovering nicely-and offers hikers and mountain bikers a chance to explore 30 miles of trails that rise from near sea level to 2,600 feet. The park’s name honors Nisene Marks, the nature-loving mother of the Salinas farm family that bought the land in the 1950s. Her children donated 9,700 acres to the state in 1963 with the provision that it never be developed. Save the Redwoods League helped add an additional 357 acres, including two key inholdings acquired in 2007 and 2010.

ACTIVITIES: Running, hiking, picnicking, camping, backpacking. Mountain biking only on the Aptos Creek Fire Road and four single-track trails below Steel Bridge and west of Aptos Creek. No horseback riding.

VISITOR CENTER: No visitor center. Call the park at (831) 763-7062 for recorded information.

CAMPGROUNDS: It takes stamina to reach the park’s six primitive campsites, which are 6 miles from the trailhead. The campsite is closed in the winter and has no drinking water. To reserve a site, call (831) 763-7063. The park recommends that you do not drive your RV into the park because of narrow roads and tight turnarounds.

TRAILS: 30 miles of trails. The Forest of Nisene Marks made national headlines as the epicenter of the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. The Loma Prieta Grade Trail is a pleasant 6-mile round-trip with a 400-foot elevation gain. Back in days of the logging boom, an old steam train ran along this gentle uphill route. Closer to the entrance at the south end of the park, the Old Growth Loop showcases a small grove that survived the logging boom. If you come during the rainy season, you may want to try one of the long, but rewarding hikes to Nisene Marks’ beautiful falls.

MUST-SEE UNIQUE FEATURE OR SEASONAL HIGHLIGHT: Sand Point offers “one of the best views in Santa Cruz County,” says Park Ranger Gabriel McKenna. It’s a 9-mile hike or bike up the Aptos Creek Fire Road. Along the way, look for banana slugs (the mascots of the University of California, Santa Cruz), acorn woodpeckers, black-tailed deer and other wildlife.

HIDDEN GEMS: Few people see them, but silver salmon and steelhead spawn in Aptos Creek after the first big rains in the fall.

FEATURES ACCESSIBLE TO PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES: 0.12 miles of the Waggnor Trail to a creek overlook.

DOGS: On leash. On paved roads, in picnic areas, and on designated fire roads and trails. Not beyond Porter parking lot.  

ENTRANCE FEE: $8 for day-use vehicle entry; no charge to walk or bike into the park.

MORE INFORMATION: Go to the park’s website (external link), call (831) 763-7062 for recorded information, call (831) 763-7063 for campsite reservations, or write to the park c/o Sunset State Beach, 201 Sunset Beach Road, Watsonville, CA 95076. You can also visit the Advocates for the Forest of Nisene Marks website (external link) for volunteer information and park news.

Trip Ideas from Our Staff and Friends

EAT: Pick up some tasty bites at Aptos St. BBQ (external link).

Katie Veni, former League staffer, recommends Manuel’s Mexican Restaurant (external link) in Aptos.

FAVORITE HIKE: Loma Prieta Grade Trail follows parts of an old railway bed. A narrow-gauge steam railway ran from a mill to China Camp. A few ramshackle wooden buildings are all that’s left of this lumber camp that once housed 300 workers.

FAVORITE PARK ATTRACTION: Rent a bike at Epicenter Cycling (external link) and take the shuttle to the top. You can ride down the fire road through the beautiful majestic redwoods and end up at the ocean.

Tell us your favorite stops, hikes, places to eat, and more when visiting this park!

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