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West Ridge Trail

Forest of Nisene Marks State Park

April 25th, 2015

14.4 miles
1850 vertical feet
Total Time: 7:21

Starting elevation
244 feet
Max elevation
1644 feet

Rating: 7/10

Directions: From Santa Cruz, take Highway 1 south to Aptos. Take the State Park Drive exit and turn left onto State Park Drive. Turn right onto Soquel Drive, then left onto Aptos Creek Road (there's no sign here and the street sign is small; you may miss it if you're not ready for it). Follow Aptos Creek Road into the park. Parking is $8 (as of 2015).   View Driving Map

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GPX File

As soon as we drove up Aptos Creek Road toward the park, we could see lots of runners coming toward us. This might be the Fleet Feet fun run that apparently enters the park every Saturday morning. They didn't cause any problems for us, though, as I think they were basically finishing up as we were arriving a bit past 10am.

We parked at George's Picnic Area, just before the steel bridge. It had rained the night before, so the ground was a little muddy, but after a dry winter it wasn't too bad. We started off under sunny skies, though the trees would block the sun for most of the hike.

We crossed the steel bridge, then continued up the wide dirt and gravel road which is the Aptos Creek Fire Road. You do share the road with cars, but traffic is light and slow (15 mph). I had read that the park was not signed very well, so when I found a single track trail leading to the west (left), I thought it might be the West Ridge Trail that we were planning to take. I explored it for a minute or two before deciding it was too overgrown. I backtracked back to the main fire road. Less than a minute later up the road, about 0.4 miles from the parking lot, we encountered the real start of the West Ridge Trail, which was well-signed. In fact I didn't really have any problems with signage in the park.

Starting the West Ridge Trail

We started off on the West Ridge Trail, which immediately enters a beautiful section of forest with lots of redwoods. The trail follows a stream for a while. It reminds me of some scenes from Jurassic Park. We crossed the stream on a footbridge, then paralleled the stream before crossing it again and started to climb. The West Ridge Trail is mostly flat or slightly uphill for most of the way up to Sand Point Overlook.

West Ridge Trail

West Ridge Trail

West Ridge Trail

West Ridge Trail

Bridge on West Ridge Trail

Looking back on the West Ridge Trail

As we climbed, we noticed a decided shift in the forest. Whereas the first part was dominated by redwoods, the next part was dominated by moss-covered trees. We continued along the sometimes muddy trail, climbing further still without much in the way of views. The forest is pretty thick in most directions. The only place I noticed a break in the forest was where power lines soar overhead right through the park.

Redwoods next to the trail

Mossy trees after the redwoods

The next trail intersection is not until about 4.4 miles into the hike. The Ridge Connection Trail leads downhill to the right toward the Loma Prieta Grade. We stayed straight, heading up toward Hinckley Ridge. We finally started to see some breaks in the forest, with views of the Pacific Ocean to our right. I also started to notice tire treads on the trail, which surprised me a little since I didn't think bikes were allowed on the trail here (they aren't). We did in fact run into one cyclist on the West Ridge Trail single track section (before the trail camp).

Further up the trail

Nearing the Ridge Connection intersection

View from Hinckley Ridge

View from Hinckley Ridge

We finally reached the West Ridge Trail Camp at about 6.4 miles into our hike. This is a reservable camp available to backpackers or bike campers. We had considered using the picnic tables here for our lunch. However, there was a group already camped here. Though they weren't using the tables at the time, I figured they wouldn't appreciate a couple of kids bothering them (especially with one of them prone to saying "Because I'm Batman!" repeatedly). So we kept going on to Sand Point Overlook. There are two benches here with a great view of the forests leading to the Pacific Ocean.

Continuing along the West Ridge Trail

View from Sand Point Overlook

We saw several mountain bikers and a couple hikers at the overlook. After our lunch break, we started the downhill hike at around 3:15pm. I knew it would be easy going since it was downhill and all on a wide fire road. The trail twists and turns as it descends back to the start, but it is pretty easy. Of course we shared the trail with mountain bikers. I must admit it's not my favorite thing, having to listen for mountain bikers coming downhill at speed while I'm hiking. I might actually have preferred just doing an out and back, using the West Ridge Trail in both directions, but I know that would have been harder.


The cyclists in general were all pretty good (except perhaps for a couple of young teen boys going down a bit too fast). We passed a trail intersection where the Big Slide Trail is accessed to the left. That would be an alternative to the fire road, but since it immediately starts climbing, it wasn't very inviting. We stuck to the Aptos Creek Fire Road instead. There is one fairly steep downhill section near the middle, but otherwise the descent is pretty gradual.


Near the bottom of the steep section is a bike rack, an interpretive display sign, and a trail that leads to the Loma Prieta Earthquake epicenter. Again, we just stuck to the fire road. We took a brief snack break at the Loma Prieta Mill Site (there's a sign here, but not much in the way of ruins). One thing I noticed is that the trail started getting dark even at around 4:30pm. The forest cover is that great.

We left the mill site at about 5:40pm. It only took us about 35 minutes from there to reach our car. If I had to do it again, I might park at the Porter Family Picnic Area instead to shave off about 0.8 miles. As it was, the entire loop was 14.4 miles (the book I had said it would be 12.5 miles). Starting at Porter would have cut it to about 13.6 miles.

Heading down the Aptos Creek Fire Road

Aptos Creek Fire Road

Bridge over Aptos Creek Fire Road

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