The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park is a beautiful redwood park situated in Central California near Santa Cruz. The nearby Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park typically steals all the spotlight (and attracts big crowds), which makes this hidden gem even that much better if you enjoy solitude and serene hiking trails.
Enchanting redwood groves, waterfalls, fern-covered canyons, and historic logging sites are just a few of the things that you can experience in this stunning redwood forest.
In this post, we share everything you need to know for a day trip out to visit and hike at The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park!
We cover how to get there, the best trails, and where to stay if you’re coming from out of town. Let’s get started!
How To Access The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park
Before we dive into the details, here are a few tips for accessing The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park:
- There is one road – The Aptos Creek Fire Road that leads in and out of the park. This is a narrow dirt road that is also used by bikers, hikers, and dogs.
- Upon arriving at the Park Entrance Station, you will need to pay an $8 entrance fee. This pass is good for one day so if you plan to return the next day, you will need to pay this fee again.
- The main visitor area is located by the entrance station. There is a small lot with a restroom, picnic tables, and park maps.
- More parking is available in several lots along The Aptos Creek Fire Road but it can fill up quickly. Due to limited parking, I recommend arriving early in the morning, especially on the weekends.
- The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park does allow dogs but only in certain areas. If you’re looking for dog-friendly trails, check out the:
- Aptos Creek Fire Road
- Aptos Rancho Trail
- Split Stuff Trail
- Terrace Trail
- Vienna Woods Trail
Google Map Location: The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park
Where To Stay Nearby
Planning a trip from out of town? Here are some of the top places to stay while visiting redwood parks near Santa Cruz.
The Fern River Resort is nestled in a wooded property off Highway 9 that connects many historic logging towns and the surrounding Redwood State Parks. All around the Fern River Resort, you can enjoy stunning views of towering redwood trees, the San Lorenzo River, and lush, well-kept gardens.
The cabins at The Fern River Resort come equipped with all the comforts of home and are filled with thoughtful touches for a cozy experience. There are several cabin options to choose from for various budgets and traveling group sizes.
Beach Street Inn and Suites is considered to be one of the best places to stay in Santa Cruz thanks to its overlooking Main Beach. Some of the best local attractions such as the boardwalk and Pier are just a short walk from the hotel.
The bookings come with ocean or pool views and kitchen basics like a microwave, and a fridge. Complimentary coffee and cocoa bar are offered in the lobby to start your day off right.
You’re sure to fall in love with the beach-style décor and the outdoor pool area that features a heated pool, hot tub, and fire pit. All in all, the Beach Street Inn and Suites is a wonderful place to stay on a family vacation or a romantic getaway for two. And this hotel is just a 30-minute drive from The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park!
Santa Cruz Redwoods RV Resort
If you’re looking to spend a few days RV camping near Santa Cruz, we’ve got the perfect place for you! The Santa Cruz Redwoods RV Resort is a great alternative to standard State Park camping that offers amazing amenities for its guests.
Here RV Resort guests can enjoy conveniences like a Clubhouse, firepits, outdoor grills, bathrooms with hot showers, and full hook-up RV sites. Take your pick from standard RV camping sites for $80 a day, or if you’re up for a splurge, the river view sites go for $125 a day. Each of the full hook-up sites includes water, sewer, electric, and cable.
Top Trails At The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park
The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park has over 40 miles of hiking trails ranging in various distances and difficulty levels. Here are a few of our favorite trails that we hiked within this State Park!
Old Growth Loop
The Old Growth Loop is an enchanting trail that is easy and less than 2 miles long round trip. This hike starts at The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park entrance station and goes in a short loop while passing several interesting attractions.
Along the Old Growth Loop, you can stop and observe views from the Waggoner Overlook platform, marvel at giant redwood trees, and enjoy a relaxing picnic by the river at the Pourroy Picnic Area.
On the west part of the Old Growth Loop Trail, you can visit Marcel’s Forest, the largest and best-preserved old-growth grove within this State Park. Unfortunately, most of the original redwood trees in this region were logged from 1880 to the 1920s.
The redwoods that visitors can see at The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park are second and third-growth forests. Today less than 5% of the old-growth redwoods remain in California.
To continue along the trail, you will need to walk on a bridge that spans across Aptos Creek. Here you can see views of the moss-covered Fern Grotto. In winter it may not be possible to cross this creek due to higher water levels, so the Old Growth Trail is best done in the summer months.
One of the most notable attractions of the Old Growth Loop is The Advocate Tree, a giant fallen redwood that can be reached via a short side trail.
This enormous tree used to be 250 feet tall, 45 feet wide and is estimated to be over 1000 years old. After it fell in 2017, two plaques were installed on the tree trunk highlighting some of the most relevant events of the past 1000 years that this tree lived through.
If you have the time and energy, be sure to go on a short detour to the Twisted Grove where you can see a small grove with unique warped trees.
Historic Loop Trail To Maple Falls
The Historic Loop Trail is less visited than other hikes within The Forest of Nisene Marks, but this hidden gem provides amazing scenery, a bit of solitude, and stunning views of Maple Falls.
The Historic Loop Trailhead starts near the Porter Family Picnic Area. To reach the trailhead take Aptos Creek Fire Road to where it ends. There is a large area where you can park your car for the hike.
If you do the entire loop, it comes out to be around 7.5 miles total. I would classify the Historic Loop Trail as moderate due to its length.
Before doing this hike I recommend downloading an offline map from the AllTrails hiking app. You’ll encounter several junctions and turning points which can get very confusing.
The main highlight of the trail is Maple Falls, a towering waterfall rushing down a tall cliff. To reach the waterfall you will need to cross Bridge Creek several times, climb across giant rocks, and up cliffs with exposed tree roots – which may not be doable during the rainier months.
Aptos Rancho Trail to George’s Picnic Area
Aptos Rancho Trail is one of the best trails within The Forest of Nisene Marks, especially if you’re looking for a hike that allows dogs. This easy and mostly flat trail is also a great option for families with little kids.
You can start the Aptos Rancho Trail in Aptos town or by the park entrance station and take this serene trail to George’s Picnic Area. If you do the full length of the trail, it comes out to be around 4 miles total out and back.
The Aptos Rancho Trail follows Aptos Creek with many options to head down to the water. You will also pass several large redwood groves!
Loma Prieta Grade Loop
If you want to hike a portion of the Historic Loop without doing the full 7.5 miles, the Loma Prieta Grade Loop is a great option. This loop is 1.8 miles long and travels to the Porter House Site, Loma Prieta Mill Site, and Margaret’s Bridge.
After parking at the Porter Family Picnic Area, go past the gate and follow the wide Aptos Creek Fire Road for 0.2 miles until you reach a junction.
To hike the Loma Prieta Grade Loop clockwise, take a left turn and go past the second (smaller) gate. Note that bikes & dogs are not allowed on the Loma Prieta Grade Trail beyond this point.
In 0.8 miles you will reach a junction that leads to the historic Porter House Site. There is a fence marking the location of this old house, but nothing is left of the ruins.
This site was the location of a historic residential area where Warren Porter, the secretary of the Loma Prieta Lumber Company used to live with his wife. This site also included a home for the president and the company’s board of directors for their monthly meetings.
The next major stop along the Loma Prieta Grade Loop is the Loma Prieta Mill Site. Once this dense redwood forest was home to a logging camp, sawmill, railroad station, hotel, store, and many other buildings. Now what remains of the Loma Prieta Mill Site is overgrown with bushes and trees as nature claims back the land.
The last part of the trail crosses Margaret’s Bridge and connects back with the wide road that you can take back to the parking area.
The Buggy Trail is one of the shortest and easiest hikes within The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. The Buggy Trail is located in the lower part of this State Park and is only 0.5 miles long each way.
To start the Buggy Trail, you can park at the George’s Picnic Area. The trailhead is located south of the parking area. The trail follows a narrow path next to the Aptos Fire Creek Road with a slight 100 feet elevation gain.
This trail is so short that I would classify it more like a leisurely stroll in the forest than a hike. If you want to extend the hike, you can connect it with Aptos Rancho Trail and take it to the Old Growth Loop.
Aptos Creek Fire Road
Aptos Fire Creek Road is the main dirt road that travels through the park. This road is also one of the busiest routes in the park used by bikers and trail runners.
The Aptos Fire Creek Road is drivable only for a small portion up to the Porter Family Picnic Area. Trail runners and hikers, however, can keep going on this road for a total of 13 miles each way (or 26 miles round trip – the distance of a full marathon).
This is a great training route for those who love long-distance trail running. We saw many runners along this route all day long!
If you decide to run or walk a portion of the Aptos Fire Creek Road, note that there will be cars passing you for the first 3 miles. Since this is a dirt road you may encounter a lot of dust from cars driving by.
Other Visitor Tips
- The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park is open from sunrise to sunset. Overnight visitation & camping is not allowed.
- Carry plenty of water. Some of the park trails were much longer than we expected so go prepared with extra water and snacks.
- This area is home to mountain lions. Although mountain lion sightings are rare, always be on the lookout for wildlife.
- Use trekking poles if needed. Overall, these are not technical trails but some sections can be challenging and trekking poles can help.
- I always bring a first aid kit, and a portable phone charger, even on quick day hikes.
Things To Do Nearby
The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park is a must-see redwood forest, but don’t miss out on other great things to do in the area as well!
Here are a few interesting places to visit near Santa Cruz to make the best of your trip:
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park
Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is an old-growth forest along Highway 9 that spans across 4650 acres of protected wilderness lands. This State Park is home to some of the oldest and tallest redwood tree species in the world that will simply leave you in awe!
If it’s your first time visiting Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, the 0.8-mile-long Redwood Grove Loop Trail is a great hiking choice. This loop features enormous redwood trees that were preserved in the 1800s from being logged. Some of the trees within this 40-acre grove are over 300 feet tall and 2000 years old!
The Mystery Spot
The Mystery Spot is a quirky attraction and one of the top things to do near Santa Cruz. To experience the Mystery Spot you will need to buy an entrance ticket for a guided tour of the location. The tickets cost $8 per person and $5 for parking.
The main attraction of the Mystery Spot is a slanted cabin that appears to be gravity-defying. Everything about the cabin looks crooked and was built to trick your perception.
The tour guide showed us some fun gravity-defying demonstrations that included water flowing upwards, walking vertically up the walls, and trying to move a heavy wrecking ball. While the location itself is pretty small, the stories kept us mesmerized and entertained for the entire hour!
Tucked away in between towering redwood trees and historic logging communities, Felton is a wonderful vacation spot, especially for those who love outdoor activities and small-town charm. Felton welcomes guests seeking a quiet escape in an old-growth forest near Santa Cruz.
A few of the top things to do around Felton include:
- Taking a historic train through a redwood forest at the Roaring Camp
- Exploring the charming Downtown Felton
- Stopping by the Felton Covered Bridge
- Hiking the Lime Kiln Trail in Fall Creek Unit
Looking for more fun things to do in the area? Be sure to check out these posts next:
- Staying At The Fern River Resort In Felton
- 16 Amazing Places To See Big Trees In California
- 10 Top Rated Vacation Rentals & Hotels In Felton, California
- How To Hike The Lime Kiln Trail In Fall Creek Unit, Felton
- Visiting Portola Redwoods State Park On The Central Coast
- 15 Amazing Redwood Hikes Near Santa Cruz
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