White’s Lagoon, Five Fingers Falls, and the Epicenter
A Strenuous Hike in the Forest of Nisene Marks

Neil Wiley

When Sandy Lydon, our hiking class leader, warned us that this all-day hike was strenuous, he wasn’t kidding. Although the distance was something less than eight miles, the ups and downs were steep, long, and many. But while I still prefer the solitude of solo hiking, Sandy’s on-site observations and stories made the hike worthwhile. He has taken students into the Forest of Nisene Marks for over thirty years. He wrote the history of Aptos Canyon for the park’s general plan, and he helped to convince the State Parks Commission to adopt the park. All this, and he tells great stories with enthusiasm and humor.

When we met behind the Aptos Station, it looked like we would have an easy time. Doughnuts were served, and rather than walk, we were driven into the park via truck. We rode past the entrance station, George’s picnic area, the Mary Easton picnic area, and the Porter family picnic area. Gates opened magically as we climbed up past the Loma Prieta mill site, then around and up switchbacks to the "top of the incline."

The "incline" was a steep rail line that lowered stacks of split wood on narrow-gauge flatcars by wire cable and a steam donkey. It lowered these cars 600 feet in elevation over a distance of 2250 feet. In case of emergency, a rider would jump off the car and ring one of the bells next to the track. They rang often.

We were herded back into the trucks, and then driven up the Aptos Creek Fire Road to White’s Lagoon Trail, over five miles north of the Porter family gate. Finally, we began hiking.

It was an easy walk of less than half a mile and only sixty feet of elevation gain to White’s Lagoon. The lagoon was shallow and thick with reeds, grasses, and willows. We saw many signs of feral pigs.

We cut back to the Big Slide Trail, which took us about a mile and a half to Aptos Creek Trail. The first half mile was a gradual descent, but then we plunged steeply down about 600 feet in elevation through a series of switchbacks. When we reached Aptos Creek Trail, we could look down about 150 feet over the canyon. We could also see several long fissures from the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. Sandy explored this area with geologists shortly after the quake, and he believes the "hypocenter" of the quake was deep under the ground at this location.

Thinking deep thoughts, we displayed our disregard for this news and ate a quick lunch. My thought was that the earthquake did far less damage to the forest than the loggers did.

A left turn on Aptos Creek Trail led us to one of the most beautiful areas of the park. We stayed high on the canyon wall for about half a mile, and then dropped down into a thicket of horsetail ferns. We entered a redwood grove, complete with a shaded field of redwood sorrel and ferns (sword and five finger). We visited Monte Vista Station, a logging camp and tourist site where nothing remains but a few twisted rails.

Another quarter mile upstream took us to Five Finger Falls, a little waterfall that bursts out of a rocky cliff to fall 15 feet into an emerald green pool. Sandy brought fish eggs to feed the hungry steelhead trout, another species doomed by logging, pollution, and population growth.

Then came the hard part. We retraced our steps back up the trail, past the intersection with Big Slide Trail, and continued another four miles back to the Aptos Creek Fire Road. We passed Emerald Pond, massive landslides at Hell’s Gate, a sign reporting, perhaps falsely, the epicenter of the 1989 earthquake, and up and down many, many switchbacks.

We lost some hikers along the way, but after some delays, we reassembled at Aptos Creek Fire Road. We could have waited for trucks, but now on automatic pilot, we stumbled on down to what was once the town of Loma Prieta, then visited the mill site, and walked on to the Porter family picnic area. The very welcome trucks came and took us to the Aptos Station, our cars, doughnuts, and civilization.

Although the last few miles reminded me too much of basic training, and I wanted more time to take pictures (and dawdle), I met many nice people and enjoyed Sandy’s running commentaries.

I recommend this hike only to kids and old people who don’t mind complaining and have plenty of excuses. If you are a young, fit adult, you may find this trail too tough.



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