Big Loop to West Ridge Trail Camp and Five Finger Falls, Part 2

From camp the next morning, continue east on the fire road past Sand Point Overlook. The trail winds up to 1,600 feet, reaching its highest point of the hike. Deer take to the trails in the wee hours, but mornings tend to be chilly and damp—it may be best to linger in your tent and let the night unthaw.

From the fire road, turn left at the sign for Big Slide Trail. A half mile later, a spur on the left leads to White’s Lagoon. There are unmarked turnoffs, some of Nisene’s many bushwacked and game trails confusingly split off beforehand, but to reach the pond, wait until you see a fork with a blank post (the sign is missing) marking the way to continue on Big Slide. Veer left here for the short walk to the lagoon—an algae-laden ribbon of still water thick with reeds and ringed with redwoods. There’s no beach, but its eastern edge, furthest in, offers the best resting spots and clear reflection.

Retrace your steps to return to Big Slide—the trail is often littered with tree debris and begins to blend with the woods. At first a gradual descent, the path then plunges deeply down about 600 feet of elevation through a series of switchbacks, some slippery with mud.

After 1.5 miles, Big Slide Trail ends in a sunny spot at the edge of Aptos Creek Canyon, looking down 150 feet. Five Finger Falls is a romping mile left on Aptos Creek Trail. Stash your pack off-trail for the more strenuous hour and a half excursion into one of the prettier, more remote areas of the park.

The spur to the falls stays high along the canyon wall, then descends into a bed of horsetail. It crosses one wooden footbridge, then another. Just after the second bridge, as soon as the trail turns down toward Aptos Creek, cross over at the small sandy beach (there are well-placed stepping stones, or you can just get your feet wet), then up the other bank and turn left. It’s easy to get a little lost among the many unmapped side trails. Just around a bend, past pockets of sword and five-fingered ferns, the falls appear, carved into the canyon’s sandstone bulge and dropping 35 feet. A small pool lies at the falls’ base—good for a cold dip on a sunny day. (The sun hits this spot mid-afternoon.)

Back from the falls, begin the final three-mile trek along Aptos Creek Trail to where it meets up with Aptos Fire Road. This track’s too treacherous for bicycles. Zigzag high above the canyon, then steeply down, down, down, passing Emerald Pond along the way. Two miles in, you’ll cross a bolted log suspended over an abyss where landslides washed out the path. Aptos Creek Trail eventually mellows along its titular creek and shimmies under a quick succession of fallen trees. Large red-belted conk fungus (Fomitopsis pinicola) grow like shelves on the dead wood.

Wind up a hill, back down into the gorge, and past the epicenter of the Loma Prieta Earthquake. Another half mile and you’re back on the fire road, an hour’s stroll down to the winter gate.

—Garrett McAuliffe

Back to Big Loop, Part 1

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