Big Loop to West Ridge Trail Camp and Five Finger Falls

West Ridge Trail to the campground; Big Slide Trail to Aptos Creek Trail to Aptos Creek Fire Road
14 miles (plus another 2 to the waterfall); 1400 feet elev. gain; 8 hours, or overnight; moderate to strenuous

Water not available, must be packed in. No campfires allowed.
To reserve a campsite, call 831.763.7063, though reservations aren’t necessary. The cost is $5 per person per night to camp.
Can also be done as a long day hike to Sand Point Overlook or Five Finger Falls.

Deep into Nisene Marks, past the scattered procession of joggers, dogs and cyclists, the human rumpus subsides and nature‘s romp holds sway. The runners pass their baton, the woods turn from backdrop into something more immersive and boundless. A waterfall and vistas await.

But first, you’ll need to pack in all your water. Even with a filter, no water sources exist within easy reach of camp. And pick up one of the free maps available at the ranger’s kiosk.

While the winter gate is open (typically from May through October, though exact dates depend on the weather), campers may park at the West Ridge trailhead. Otherwise, park before you reach the steel bridge and set out from there. The West Ridge Trailhead is marked about a half-mile in on the left, just after a dip in the road, along with the typical list of proscriptions—no bikes, no dogs, no fires.

For the first half mile, the trail follows a creek, then crosses over at an unmarked fork. As you wind up the ridge, keep an eye out for the descent of rogue mountain bikers, who, though banned from these single-track trails, love the thrill of them and tend to swoop around banked corners with little warning.

Along the hilltop, poison oak runs rampant and begins to encroach on the trail, along with young nettles and wildflowers in spring. (Oak saplings can be mistaken for poison oak, but tend to lack the telltale three-leaf set.) Sidle carefully by. Then, two miles in, the path opens for a valley view and passes under a power line.

The trail continues, meandering sweetly through oak groves and upland redwood forest. Streaks of stray sunlight dot the hobbit holes and hollows, and the burnt skeletal frames of old growth stumps. After 3.5 miles, the Ridge Connection Trail forks to the right. Follow the sign left. The campground is a leisurely hour’s ascent ahead.

As you venture farther into the park, the woods become both brooding and lyrical. Views are mostly obscured, and you begin to gain the sense you’re very much apart. Or a part, as the case may be. Look for signs of wild pigs rooting through the duff. Sinewy trunks of madrone lurch over a drop on the right in search of light in the canopy. Uphills are mostly gradual and staggered, but the trail begins to steepen towards the end.

At 1,400 feet, you’ll reach one of the park's few areas of chaparral—a dry ridge of sun-baked dirt and thickets of manzanita with decadently peeling, rich red bark. In the bee buzz and heat and sweet blossom scent, it becomes a mildly tougher slog. Striped skinks dart and the trail snakes steeply up the ridge to cooler redwood forest and camp.

Nisene Marks’ only campground leaves something to be desired for those used to more amenities. Sites are closely spaced and no water is available. There is an outhouse and trashcan, but maintenance is spotty. Six campsites are listed, and four are clearly marked, each with a clearing and picnic table. Camp #4 is furthest removed. The fifth site has been abandoned to a fallen tree. Camp #6 can be found if you continue past #4 to a small clearing, marked only with a crude bench and painted “6.” Backpack stoves only, no fires, at these campsites.

Set up camp, and if there’s daylight, walk up the Aptos Fire Road a quarter mile to Sand Point Overlook. You’ll likely meet a few giddy riders at the apex ready to tear for home. Sand Point faces south and looks out over the land you’ve just crossed and Bridge Creek Valley, which once wound down to the now-abandoned town of Loma Prieta. (Imagine a tiny, bustling mill town ringed with logging camps and a feat of railroad track cut along the mountainside.) Now, nothing but trees and the faint gleam of Aptos and the ocean beyond.

Continue on to Big Loop, Part 2.

Back to Forest of Nisene Marks State Park.