Hike to the Loma Prieta Epicenter


A six-mile hike in Nisene Marks State Park to the epicenter of the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989.

Fire Road to Aptos Creek Trail and back
6 miles (4.2 miles in the summer); 2-3 hours; moderate; or strenuous as an 11-mile out-and-back continuing to Five Finger Falls

by Garrett McAuliffe

As the sun sank on Oct. 17, 1989, two massive slabs of solid rock shuddered then slipped a dozen miles below the Forest of Nisene Marks. The energy unleashed by the Loma Prieta Earthquake tore through Aptos Creek Canyon, snapping redwoods and Douglas fir tops like toothpicks, loosing sand and stone, and sending violent tremors rippling across Northern California. The shaking lasted 15 seconds.

In the months after, Nisene Marks became something of a tourist attraction, drawing hundreds of hikers eager to see the source of such destructive power. Time has returned the park to more of a local’s haunt, but the hike to the epicenter is pretty enough, and evidence from the temblor remains.

During the summer, the winter gate is open and you can park a mile further up the entrance road, at the Porter Family Picnic Area. The rest of the year, find a spot just before the gate and steel bridge, and set foot up the gently graded Aptos Fire Road, past stands of redwood, fir and tan oak.

The scenery lacks the luster of some areas, but you can detour left onto the Loma Prieta Grade just beyond the Porter Family Picnic Area for a more intimate path tracing the old railroad grade. If you do, make sure not to miss the Mill Pond Trail, which forks right to return to the Aptos Fire Road after .6 miles. (Or just stay on the fire road.)

Another mile up the road, you’ll see a panel depicting the major fault line underfoot and a reminder not to get eaten by mountain lions. Turn right off the road here onto Aptos Creek Trail. You’ll quickly cross two shallow streams, then scramble along the canyon’s side for half a mile before reaching a vast chasm left by the quake. But, really, there’s just a simple sign marking the epicenter, which, unless you’re super into seismology, may be a bit anticlimactic. Tree trunks lay in bunches at points along the canyon’s basin and a few landslides are visible where the sandstone cliffs crumbled, streaming white sand down the mountainside.

Return the way you came for a 6-mile roundtrip hike.

To make a full day of it, walk another 2 miles up Aptos Creek Trail, past the washout, then turn left onto Big Slide Trail, which leads to the Aptos Fire Road, dropping you 5 miles above the Porter Family Picnic Area. Or continue straight on Aptos Creek Trail a further mile past the Big Slide turnoff to Five Finger Falls, then return the way you came.

Return to the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park page.