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Aptos, California, United States

Loma Prieta Grade Loop

The Forest of Nisene Marks SP boasts an old Lumber Railroad Grade.

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Difficulty: Easy
Length: 4.1 miles / 6.6 km
Duration: 1-3 hours
Family Friendly
Overview: An introductory walk into the lower reaches of Nisene Marks. This trail is highly popular with the locals for an afternoon break. It's a good one for walks, jogging, and much of it is accessible to bikes. The trail also provide access to the trail heading deeper into this 10,000 acre state park.

Dogs are OK on the fire road.

Much of this particular walk traces the old lumber railroad grade. The rugged region was extensively logged between the 1880's and about 1920. The second growth forest is now an outstanding example of the regenerative powers of redwood and fir forests. This walk includes redwood and fir forest, maple, alder, oak, madrone, and other broad leaf

Nisene is also the home of the epicenter of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. It became a state park in 1963 when the Marks Family donated the property to the State in honor of the memory of Nicene Marks.

The park's activities include:
Bike Trails
Environmental Campsite: (831)763-7064 for availability.
Horseback Trails
8 Picnic Sites

Additional statistics from the park's brochure include:

Between Nicene and the adjoining Soquel Demonstration Forest there are over 62 miles of recreational trails and roads.

Of that:
20 miles are exclusive to hiking.
42 miles are available for both hiking and biking mixed use trail.
24 miles are open for horseback riding.

More information is available at the Seacliff State Beach Visitor's Center. Call 831-685-6444 for hours and information.

Tips: Location:
Aptos Creek Road
Soquel Drive
Aptos, CA

Latitude: 36.9856
Longitude: -121.905

The park is four miles north of Aptos on Aptos Creek Road.


Operating Hours:
Sunrise to Sunset

First-come first-served camping, contact the park directly for information.

Dogs are OK on the fire road.

Seasons and Climate:

The weather can be changeable; layered clothing is recommended.

There are currently no officially (wheelchair) accessible activities listed at this park. Some of the roads, parking areas, picnic benches, and restrooms may be.

Call the park or email: for current details.

Points of Interest


Park Entrance and Getting There

Exit HWY 1 at the State Park Drive off-ramp and head north.

Turn right (southeast) onto Soquel Drive.

There will be a gully on a broad curve with both a road and railroad bridge. Keep an eye open for Aptos Creek Road. Turn left at the road. There's a large Train Station looking building with both parking and railroad tracks in front.

Follow Aptos Creek Road through the forested subdivision. Take it at a reasonable speed - it's narrow and there can be quite a few walkers/joggers.

Note: exiting and continuing west at the HWY off-ramp will take one to Seacliff State Beach.

Park Entrance Booth

If the park's entrance booth isn't manned it can be a challenge to get a copy of the brochure and Trail Map. Both the park's web site and document's areas have nothing. There is a generalized one available in the General Plans section of the park's page that's somewhat useable.

Another possibility is to stop at the district office first:

Santa Cruz District
303 Big Trees Park Road
Felton, CA 95018-9660
(831) 335-6318

Stop and take a look at the park's Trail Brochure. If there's none available there's parking and a restroom to the left (west). A park information board is available.

When done, continue up Aptos Creek Road. The road will continue to service ranchetts and other private properties. Paralleling the road down in the gully is parks lands and several additional trails.

Loma Prieta Grade Trail Head

Head up the paved road toward the bridge over Rancho Aptos Creek. On the other side bypass the driveways onto home-sites (westerly side of the road).

The bridge itself is a pretty interesting old iron lattice structure crossing a deep river cut. There are trails down to the creek below.

The initial part of this walk starts on the access road up to the upper picnic areas as it appears quite popular with local bikers, joggers, hikers, and moms out with strollers. Best of all it's closed to vehicles from late fall through April or early May!

George's Picnic Area

On this trip the upper reaches of the park were closed to automobile access. Find a spot at George's Picnic Area.

The picnic area is a large sunny spot outfitted with picnic benches, a restroom, and other trail heads.

Trail Heads

Of interest:
Rancho Aptos, Terrace Trail, Vienna Woods.

Dogs are allowed on leash.

Pay Phone

Just in case...


The location of the gate blocking off-season vehicle travel to the upper picnic sites and trail access points.

Continue past the gate.

Hoses not allowed.

Dogs OK on leash.

Fir, tan oak, fir, maple, and redwood mixed forest.


The road is straight as an arrow, probably the old grade. It's been built up over the surrounding topography.

There are periodic unnamed side trails, none with signage through the redwoods.

Aptos Creek Overlooks

The dirt road continues with easy curves and a gentle grade. Frequently views of Aptos Creek emerge with the creek at least 80 feet below.

Trail Head: West Ridge Trail

West Ridge Trail Head

Hoffman's Historic Site: 4.7 miles
West Ridge Trail Camp: 8 miles
Sand point Overlook: 8.4 miles
Buzzards Lagoon Road:12.5 miles

No bikes, dogs, or horses.

The road widens considerably here for registered hiker's parking.

Continue through. Plenty of vistas of Aptos Creek and tantalizing suggestions of the forest and shelved land beyond.

Mary Easton Picnic Area

Mary Easton Picnic Area has parking, an extensive picnicking site, and restrooms under a grove of Redwoods with plenty of remnant stumps from logging. What makes these interesting is that quite a few have the rectangular cutouts from the "Springboards" used by the old loggers.

Springboards were wood planks with a metal tooth at one end that plugged into the holes cut into the tree's base. They allowed the logger to have a working platform above the unusable tree base to start his cut.

As the tree began to fall, the springboard had another potentially lifesaving purpose - it acted as a springy diving board, allowing the lumberjack to jump well clear of the falling tree.

There are BBQ's at each site.

Porter Trail Head

Porter Trail Head, an alternate route off the access road to the Porter Creek Picnic Area about a mile up the road.

This trail is limited to people on foot. No bikes, pets, or horses.

This walk continues up the road.

Views over the Creek

Additional views through the maturing 2nd growth redwoods over the river some 80 vertical feet below and down the steep slope.

Views over the Creek

Additional views through the maturing 2nd growth redwoods over the river some 80 vertical feet below and down the steep slope.

Porter Family Picnic Area

Porter Family Picnic Area.

Signage at the Aptos Creek Fire Road Gate:
Loma Prieta Grade: 0.2 miles
Loma Prieta Mill Site: 0.6 miles
Mill Pond Trail: 0.8 miles
Aptos Creek Trail and Epicenter: 1.5 miles
Top of Incline: 3.1 miles
Sand Point Overlook: 5.7 miles
Buzzard Lagoon: 20.0 miles

Picnic area, restroom, a large parking area, and bike racks. This point represents the highest and most inland staging area in the park for visitors.

On the westerly side of the parking area is the large oak shaded picnic area.

Porter Trail Head

Informational signage with park map and trail options with descriptions.

Through the gate take the Loma Prieta Grade Loop (1.8 miles). It will take you up to the Loma Prieta Town Site, Porter House Site, and Mill Pond area and about 1/3 of the distance into the park.

Junction: Loma Prieta Railroad Grade

Easy hiking and biking grade.

The "Y" shaped junction for the Loma Prieta Railroad Grade. Take the high road on this one (left side) and come back through on the lower road (right side), which will include the old Mill Site.

The RR Grade trail provides access for additional trails that include:

Bridge Creek Trail: 1.1 miles
Huffman's Historic Site: 2.3
West Ridge Trail: 3.5
Bridge Creek Historic Site:3.7
West Ridge Trail Camp: 4.8 miles

Closed to bikes and dogs.

Immediately signs of old skid trails become apparent off trail as does what appear to be the faint remains of logging platforms.

Old rail and a bridge crossing site

Old, very lightweight railroad rail in the trail. Sections six feet long largely buried in the trail. Shortly after this point the grad disappears into space off the edge of the trail and over the river gully. This would be the location of a trestle or bridge crossing.

The trail narrows to a simple footpath, following the gully upstream. Below there's no hard evidence of remnant trestling or piles to support the bridge structure. There are what appear to be several fallen trees or logs in the streambed but no visible evidence from the trail of spikes, joinery, or fasteners.

Continuing through the trail, you will cross a short footbridge over the creek, round the gully and return to a point across from the last way-point.

Creek Crossing

The small footbridge over the creek.

Bridge Abutment Site

The other side of the bridge. Just off trail will lie the northern side of the bridge. On the ground one will find neatly set about a number of the remnant timbers decomposing back into soil. They're intact enough to easily dimension them.

Timber look like a collection of 9" x 9" and 6" x 6" timbers.

The trail returns to the old railroad grade.

The Abutment Remains

The ground is still somewhat contoured for the bridge footings.

Reminant or Restored Timber Culvert

An old style redwood timber culvert under the trail. The area has the feel of an old staging area and logging deck for loading timbers onto railroad flat cars. There's also several old skid trails converging in the area.

Reminant Cribbing

Remnant cribbing on the downslope side of the trail. A series of logs set adjacent to each other lined up pointing down the slope toward the creek below. They may have been elevated at the uphill end adjacent to the track.

On the way into this point were a number of remnant ties exposed in the trail.

Reminant Railroad Ties

A line of remnant railroad ties in the trail. Look closely, they tend to blend into the moist surrounding soils.

Logging Cable

Remnant 1" steel logging cable. This was likely attached to a steam powered winch (a steam donkey) and used to drag and maneuver logs for loading.

Up-slope is a broad flat area.

Loma Prieta Town Site

Junction 3" x3" post. Up the hill the Loma Prieta Grade Trail continues. Hoffman's is 1 mile up this trail. This trail is too steep to be railroad grade. We will head toward the Mill Pond Trail on what appears to be the actual grade.

From the informational sign.

This spot was once a small residential area housing the loggers and families of the Loma Prieta Logging Company. Established in the 1880's it was unusual in that it was constructed of solid buildings suitable for families rather than the typical roustabout cabins of male logging crews. The town boasted a population of up to 300 people. It was named after the company secretary, Warren Porter who later became a Secretary Governor of California in 1907.

The town also had residences for various company officers and a seven bedroom "cottage" to house visiting Board Members.

Porter House Site

Junction: Mill Pond Trail

Just off the junction is a sign with a trail heading into the bushes on what appears to be old railroad grade. Just inside may be the site of Porter's house. All that remains is graded soil, a few exposed loose bricks, and some rotten shaped lumber looking sticks under the trees.

The flat the trail is on continues through the site as a narrow footpath.

Mill Pond Trail

Back at the junction sign we'll pick up the Mill Pond Trail down into the creek, it will fork shortly. Take the southerly trail that heads toward a bridge crossing the creek.


View of Aptos Creek

Extra nice view of Aptos Creek below through the redwoods.

Along this stretch are a few areas in need of repair work due to slumpages along the road at overhanging road cuts (it's late April and it's clear the park is getting ready for the high seasons clearing just this sort of damage).

Aptos Creek Crossing

Nice bridge, nice bench, pretty creek surroundings!

Junction: Aptos Creek Fire Road

Aptos Creek Fire Road. Head down the valley (southerly) back toward the Trail Head. This portion of the walk will pass on the opposite side of the valley which tends to be wider and sunny. On the way we'll pass the Mill Site.

View of the Creek

POI A view of the creek, this time backlit and from a lower, more open vantage.

Just a bit down the road, a fir tree climbing a rock outcropping above the road. It looks like the root system is reaching, climbing up the rock face!

Loma Prieta Mill Site

Start looking toward the creek about 100 feet before the way-point for geometric shapes. These will be remnants of the mill structure wall bases or foundations poking through the ground coverings.

The sawmill was originally built in 1883 and operated until 1899. It remained until the structure existed until 1942 when it was burned, likely destroyed by arson.

Signage requests that people stay off the structure, it's unsafe footing.

A trail will take one down to the creek. Few remains are visible, just a broken, worn section of brick wall. Upstream it appears the mill side is heavily overgrown.

Below the site, the vegetation transitions primarily to maple.

Margaret's Bridge. Elevation Point.

A steel and wood bridge crossing the creek under the overhanging trees. Nice views up and down stream.

An elevation marker here indicates 238 feet. Go ahead and check the vertical accuracy of your GPS!

Bench and nice creek spot to relax.

Junction: Return to the Grade.

A return to the Loma Prieta Grade Junction. Head on back to the Trail Head, retracing ground already covered.

Return to Trail Head

End of the walk.

This walk has barely scratched what The Forest of Nisene Marks has to offer. At points along this walk are access points to the upper reaches, the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake Epicenter, historic sites, and a lot of camping activities.

The park gets an amazing amount of local traffic, It is evidently a popular place to unwind after work and on weekends.
Pictures in this guide taken by: Craig_H

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