High Marks for a Redwood Forest

One of the largest state parks in Central California, The Forest of Nisene Marks, has few facilities, but it is this very lack of development that makes it attractive to anyone looking for a quiet walk in the woods.

The woods, in this case, are second-growth redwoods. The park is on land near Santa Cruz that was clear-cut during a lumber boom lasting from 1883 to 1923.

Loma Prieta Lumber Co. had quite an operation. Using steam engines, oxen, skid roads and even a railway, loggers ventured into nearly every narrow canyon of the Aptos Creek watershed.

After the Loma Prieta Lumber Co. left Aptos Canyon, the forest began to regenerate. Today, a handsome second generation of redwoods is rising to cover the scarred slopes.

The Marks, a prominent Salinas Valley farm family, purchased the land in the 1950s. In 1963, the three Marks children donated the property to the state in the name of their mother, Nisene Marks. As specified in the deed, the forest must not be developed and the natural process of regeneration allowed to continue.

Ferocious winter storms in 1982 and 1983 battered the canyons and ruined part of the park's trail system, in particular the paths in the upper reaches of Aptos Canyon. Railroad grades and trestles that had withstood a century of storms were washed away. Volunteers and the California Conservation Corps have since repaired most of the damage.

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 turn-of-the-century lumber camp that once housed 300 workers.

Directions to trail head: From Highway 1 in Aptos, exit on Soquel Drive (this road, like Highway 1 at this point, is running east-west) and head west a short distance. Turn right on Aptos Creek Road and drive four miles to a locked gate at The Forest of Nisene Marks' Porter Picnic Area.

The hike: From the picnic area, follow Aptos Creek four-tenths of a mile to the Loma Prieta Grade trail head. (An old mill site is a short walk up the road.)

For a short stretch, the trail stays near Aptos Creek. This creek rises high on Santa Rosalia Ridge, is joined by the waters of Bridge Creek, then spills into Monterey Bay at Rio Del Mar Beach. Silver salmon and steelhead spawn in the creek.

The old railway bed makes a gentle trail except for a few places where the old bridges have collapsed into steep ravines. Your destination of China Camp, now called Hoffman's Historic Site, has a few wooden structures.

You can return the same way or take the Ridge Connection Trail over to West Ridge Trail. This latter trail runs south and connects with Aptos Creek Road near the trail head. Be warned that West Ridge Trail is sometimes crowned by large amounts of poison oak.

Where: The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park Distance: Fromo Porter Picnic Area to Hoffman's Historic Site, 6 miles round trip,with a 400-foot elevation gain. Several longer hikes are possible. Terrain: Maze of ridges and canyons with second-growth redwood forest and oak woodlands. Highlights: A rugged, little-developed state park with 30 miles of hiking trails. Degree of difficulty: Moderate Precautions: Lots of poison oak. For more information: Contact the Santa Cruz Mountains District, California Department of Parks and Recreation, 101 N. Big Trees Park Road, Felton, Calif. 95108, (408) 35-4598.

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