Blauert on Outdoors: Nisene Marks is a great place to explore the forest and waterfalls

06/24/2014 6:03 PM

06/24/2014 6:03 PM

Just a week ago, I returned home from camping with 38 students who were part of the Merced Union High School District’s Environmental Science Academy summer school program.

The students camped for three nights at Sunset State Beach and four nights at Wawona in Yosemite. Their days were filled with hiking, hands-on experiences and learning from rangers and scientists.

One place where they went to learn about interactions between humans and their environment was the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park in Aptos, near Santa Cruz. Because of the redwood’s durability, size and strength, most of California’s redwood forests have been logged. Only 4 to 5 percent of the redwood groves are unlogged old-growth forests.

Most of the trees at Nisene Marks are second growth, and quite a few are surprisingly large. Nisene Marks is a great place to see a forest that has recovered and now thrives 90 years after logging ended. What makes the park truly special, however, is the combination of relatively large trees, lush vegetation, a remarkably steep canyon and peaceful creeks.

If you’re up for a workout, there are two waterfalls to enjoy – Maple Falls and Five Finger Falls. The waterfalls are best in the wet season, but even during our June 11 visit there was water dropping over the precipice of Maple Falls.

No matter whether you make it all the way to one of the falls, you’ll still have a pleasant walk at the Forest of Nisene Marks. The main trail along Aptos Creek is easy, wide, gradual and beautiful. The park offers more than 30 miles of trails that connect to other parks such as the Soquel State Demonstration Forest. Some are wide fire roads; others are narrow single track.

For an easy hike, I recommend the 4-mile round-trip trek to the epicenter of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. For a harder route with a gorgeous reward at the end, the 7-mile round-trip hike to Maple Falls is a great choice. The canyon gets narrower the further you go and in some places follows a cliff with a vertical drop of about 75 feet. There are rough sections of trail, especially the last half mile to the falls.

The trek was a great challenge and team-building experience for the students. They worked hard and were tired by the time they reached the falls. To return from the falls, they had two options: the way they came or a harder route that required a climb up the side of the canyon. Surprisingly to me, nearly two-thirds chose the harder route.

We climbed for a long time and then paralleled the creek at a high elevation. The trail surface was so soft from accumulated plant debris and fog that 25 students and adults could walk almost silently. Several times I had to turn around to make sure they were still behind me. Along the way, we saw the ruins of a couple of wooden buildings left from the logging days. Besides the stumps, these piles of rotted wood represent the only remnants of the logging days.

It’s hard to tell this forest was once a center of human settlement and economic activity – most of the remnants of towns, railroad tracks and the sawmill have completely vanished.

Don’t expect a massive Yosemite-style waterfall at the Forest of Nisene Marks. Maple Falls is a graceful plunge of water over a 50-foot sandstone cliff into a small pool. The fall is memorable because of gentle beauty, not its size.

If you hike in the Forest of Nisene Marks, make sure you know how to identify poison oak. There’s plenty of room to walk on the fire roads without coming into contact with it, but other trails are narrow pathways between persistently creeping oak leaves. For information and a good map, go to and click on the “Maps/Brochures” link.

In the dry months you can drive further into the park, making this a 7-mile loop. In the wetter months, it becomes a 9-mile loop.

A $6 entry fee is charged per car at the entrance station. You can also see a few old-growth trees by following signs for the Advocate Tree and the Twisted Grove. If you want to see more old-growth trees, try nearby Henry Cowell State Park.

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