Walking in the Graveyard
Hiking the SDSF/Nisene Marks Loop
Neil Wiley


In his book To Timbuktu, Mark Jenkins says, ďIgnorance is the root of adventure.Ē No matter how much you plan, no matter how many maps you study, no matter how many guides you read, every hike is a walk into the unknown. Even if youíve been down the trail before, you and the conditions are different.

I rode a motorcycle through Soquel Demonstration State Forest before it was owned by the state. I traveled through SDSF by SUV on several tours sponsored by CDF. And this last month, I trekked the eastern sections of the forest.

I got there by driving east on Summit Road, and continuing on Highland Way, past Radonich Evergreen Farm where the Mountain Art Guild will hold its show in June. I stopped at the intersection of Highland, Mt. Bache and Spanish Ranch Road, then remained on Highland for four miles to the Soquel Demonstration State Forest entrance, just past Rattlesnake Gulch on the left, an area now owned by Midpen Open Space but defined only by a high wire fence. Watch closely, and youíll see the SDSF sign on the right. Itís one of the smallest entrance signs to ever mark state property. You turn right off the road, cross a bridge, and travel only a short way before the road opens to a giant parking lot. For some reason, cyclists rarely use this lot, preferring to park on Highland.

According to many threatening signs, you arenít to leave the trail. For the first half-mile, you are traveling through Redwood Empire land. This company has one of the worst reputations of any lumber company in the state. Some call it the ďrapist of Eureka Canyon.Ē Yet this same company performed the last major timber ďharvestĒ in SDSF, a parcel of timberland purchased by California and administered by CDF. The forests are to be used for demonstrating sustained-yield timber management, education, research and recreation.

You walk through a gate and hike a slow grade down Hihnís Mill Road. F. A. Hihn once owned thousands of acres in the Soquel Augmentation Ranch, an area of almost 33,000 acres extending from Soquel to Loma Prieta. Although he arrived in Santa Cruz County nearly broke in 1851, he became one of the countyís most influential people, building roads, railroads and saw mills. He built his first saw mill in 1883. Included in the Hihn forest were Tracts 11 and 25 of the Soquel Augmentation Ranch that later became the Soquel Demonstration State Forest. The Augmentation also included the area now known as Nisene Marks State Park. Together, these two adjoining state properties occupy 40% of the total Soquel Augmentationóover 14,000 acres.

History has not been kind to the area. Logged since 1884, it is filled with stumps, fallen logs, broken branches and debris. Death is ugly. Although recent logging has been accomplished under better rules and practices, the forest is slow to heal. Although many young trees provide good cover, I still felt that I was walking in a graveyard.

At 2.3 miles down Hihnís Mill Road, I turned left on Sulphur Springs Trail. Although it leads uphill the grades are rather moderate, and the trail is only 1.5 miles long. Near the top of Sulphur Springs I saw five men cutting and splitting firewood. Although the sound of a chain saw disturbed the quiet forest, Thom Sutfin, SDSF manager, says that removing dead oak and madrone provides a fuel break and improves access to the road. The areaís only heliport is at the top end of Sulphur Springs on the Ridge Trail.

Thom had suggested turning left on Ridge Trail, then going back down to Hihnís Mill Road via Tractor Trail. Instead, I decided to turn right and follow Ridge Trail for 1.5 miles to link up with the Aptos Creek Fire Road in Nisene Marks.

I did this for several reasons. I prefer loops rather than backtracking. I wanted to honor the runners of the Forest of Nisene Marks marathon, half marathon and 5K run held on June 1. And who could deny a walk on a road called Buzzard Lagoon.

Ridge Trail proved to be interesting. It is a narrow two-foot wide path through heavy stands of small madrones. It was very quiet and appeared relatively untouched. I met only two cyclists over the entire trail.

When I emerged out of the dark forest trail into the bright sunlight of the Aptos Creek Fire Road, I felt like I had found a giant highway. Although only a dirt road with occasional gravel, it seemed too wide, too hot and too boring. It was a long walk to Buzzard Lagoon Road, a nicely unimproved trail, where I turned left to walk down to the intersection of Highland Road, Ormsby and Eureka Canyon.

The Ormsby sign was particularly uninviting. I donít know why anyone would want to walk or drive up Ormsby but the neighbors donít appear too friendly. Iíve noticed that people living in more remote areas are the most protective of their privacy. I guess thatís why they live there.

The walk down Highland was a pleasant surprise. The road follows along the east branch of Soquel Creek. Itís quiet, shady and the creek makes happy gurgling noises. There is relatively little traffic, and you can walk in the duff along the roadside, which is easier on the feet than asphalt.

The only low point was walking past Camp Loma. This was once a beautiful 4-H camp, complete with swimming pool, large meadows and interesting little trails. I remember several great Loma Prieta Fire and Rescue barbecues held there. Now it looks like a dump. Fronted by spilled garbage, an old broken car, a truck trailer and other debris, the little house near the road looks abandoned.

A little further along Highland, my spirits were lifted by a giant raven, the biggest Iíve ever seen. He flew; I walked. I turned left at the little SDSF sign, crossed the bridge and found my car alone in the giant parking lot.

This is a good trip for cyclists, but not as appealing for hikers. Although the trip does offer redwoods, mixed hardwoods, riparian and chaparral ecosystems, it doesnít offer much variety. In all fairness, however, the south end of Nisene Marks (See mnn, December, 1999 issue, pages 20-21) and the west end of SDSF (Badger Springs area with picnic area and protected first growth redwoods) that I didnít hike on this trip are more interesting. Unfortunately, they arenít as accessible.

Signs and maps for SDSF are excellent, and trails are well maintained. Better access and trails that didnít require backtracking would improve both SDSF and Nisene Marks.

Many mnn readers have traveled through these forests. I hope they will tell me about their experiences.

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