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Rainy Day Redwood Hike

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A hike in the rain under the redwoods at Nisene Marks State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

by Traci Hukill

Feb. 6, 2014—It was the kind of winter afternoon that in most years we get lots of: overcast, chilly, damp from an overnight rain. This year, of course, we've been tormented by an endless chain of glorious sunny days no one can fully enjoy on account of it seeming so much like the apocalypse. So last Sunday, after an inch of rain had moistened the driest winter in recorded history, misty redwood forest was a-calling. I bailed on the Superbowl (no sacrifice there) and headed to Forest of Nisene Marks State Park for a classic rainy day, clear-your-head hike. The Old Growth Loop, with its wide paths, boardwalk creek crossings and ancient redwoods, was the day's siren song.

I saw my first banana slug on the Aptos Rancho Trail, just before the intersection with the Old Growth Loop Trail. Banana slugs hibernate during hot and dry weather, so this was a cheery sight. At the intersection I followed the trail off to the right toward the Pourroy Picnic Area, asking myself for the hundredth time why signage in California state parks (and on California highways too, actually) is so often confusing. In very small print over "POURROY PICNIC AREA" (all in caps) was the name of the trail and the information I actually needed: Old Growth Loop Trail.

The Old Growth Loop Trail is a "lollipop" route, with the picnic area at the intersection of candy and stick, if you will. The "stick" part, by the way, is quite lovely. A quarter-mile to a half-mile long, it wends among fairy rings in spacious redwood forest and down some rutted, rooty sections toward the creek. (Although Old Growth Loop is not difficult, it's not Grandma-and-toddler easy, either.)

The seasonal bridge comes down each rainy season, so I had to ford Aptos Creek pioneer-woman style. Sadly, it was incredibly easy, even after a rain. Between rock-hopping and log-walking, I crossed the 6-inch-deep stream in about 8 seconds. There's also a large fallen tree across the creek farther downstream that probably works just fine when the stream is fuller (though you might have to scoot across).

Strange Trees: Nisene Marks' Twisted Grove

At the Pourroy Picnic Area I decided to go right on the loop. The trail leads up and away from the creek; by the time you get to the Twisted Grove, you're maybe 100 feet above the water. The grove is very cool—all the trees are twisted like Red Vines your teenage niece couldn't stop playing with, and they're bent like palm trees. It's all very Mystery Spot.

Just past the Twisted Grove I admired what I am certain is a completely illegal rope swing hanging out over the gorge, admired my second banana slug of the day and crept up to a rather terrifying overlook nearby with a clear view to the creek far below: watch the young 'uns here.

Though the signage back on Old Growth Loop Trail isn't terribly clear about it, the short path leading to the Twisted Grove should be treated as a spur. Once you've had a good look, go back down to the Old Growth Loop Trail and continue on your merry way. Near the place where you see your first old growth tree, off to the left, you'll find an intersection at right and a trail sign with no trail names at all, just arrows pointing, Bugs Bunny cartoon-style ("This-a-way. That-a-way."). The trail, by the way, is Oak Ridge Trail, and it loops around to Twisted Grove or to Terrace Trail, so all is not lost if you become disoriented and take it.

The Nisene Marks Advocate Tree

A charming boardwalk bridge crossing of a little creek marked the far end of the long, skinny Old Growth Loop; now I was headed back to the Pourroy Picnic Area. It was here things start getting extra pretty. A few huge old-growth trees that escaped the logging frenzy of the late 19th century rose from the bottom of the ravine to my left; up the hill at right a spectacular snag, or dead tree, and a fallen Douglas fir framed the scene and marked time. The path rose and fell gently. Ferns grew knee-deep. This was dinosaur country.

As the trail wound around and started to curve back to the left for the final leg back to the picnic area, a sign (a good one, to be fair) invited a visit to the Advocate Tree. It's worth it. It's 260 feet tall and 39 feet in circumference, and it has a slight lean—which, in addition to its 18-foot-high goosepen, may have saved it. To hang out next to this tree, which grows among ordinary saplings and shrubs and is unprotected by barriers, is to understand in your bones the mass of a fully mature redwood.

Back on the Old Growth Loop I crossed the creek on another wooden bridge and rounded the path back to the Pourroy Picnic Area. Crossing Aptos Creek the way I'd come, I headed up the "stick" of the lollipop back toward Aptos Rancho Trail. The sun had pierced the gloom and was lighting everything up with a platinum glow. On the way through the fairy rings I caught a silvery flash streaking away through the green of the ferns as jays burst into staccato scolding: a coyote making a fast, silent getaway.

Unwilling to end my little sylvan adventure, and eager to see more of the trail, I turned right at Aptos Rancho Trail instead of left (which would have returned me to the parking lot). The trail led past some gorgeous redwood groves, past a remarkable stand of horsetail crowned with bud-like strobili, and next to an old wrecked Chevy Impala that someone had seen fit to spray paint baby blue and silver, painting a lot of leaves in the process. Just a short ways beyond was a bend in Aptos Creek and the fern grotto—a great wall maybe 60 feet tall with ferns and moss sprouting from every available crevice. This is a swimming hole waiting to happen.

Out of time, I turned around and headed back, head clear, camera full, rainy day hike jones fully satisfied.

Visit the Old Growth Loop Trail page.
Visit the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park page.

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