Mountain Biking the Soquel Demonstration Forest

Will Chase

I bunny-hopped the log pyramid, and whipped my bike around the corner, hovering slightly over the seat, gently guiding the bike by pressing my inner thighs against the saddle. We pushed through the deep, lush forest, spinning past thick stands of redwoods. The trail suddenly dropped off before me, and descended into a sharp right turn bordered by a deep wash of sandy dirt, just waiting to catch my front wheel and pitch me over the handlebars. While negotiating the chunky rocks and drop-pockets, I had to edge edge EDGE (!) over to get on the thin strip of solid ground that would ensure me a safe line out of here, and save me from a header into the redwood tree staring me down.

“OK, she was right,” I thought, “this was worth the drive.”

We had come from San Francisco to the Soquel Demonstration State Forest, home to arguably the best legal singletrack in the Bay Area. And if you mountain bike around here at all, you know just how rare it is to see the words ‘legal,’ ‘singletrack,’ and ‘Bay Area’ in the same sentence. And here I was blazing on it, pie-eyed, a perma-grin stretched across my face, while the forest canopy whipped by high above my head.

What Exactly Is a Demonstration Forest?

Soquel is the only publicly-accessible demonstration forest in the Bay Area, and its 2,681 acres can be found nestled just north of Aptos. Demonstration forests (there are 8 of them in total, representing 71,000 acres) are run by the California Department of Forestry to conduct research projects and demonstrate improved forest management practices, from timber production and environmental stewardship, to public recreational uses.

Soquel’s trails wind through a lush, canopied forest rich with thick stands of Douglas fir, redwood, tanoak, and madrone trees, making for a welcome respite from the hot, exposed trails we’ve become accustomed to in the Bay Area. If you slow down long enough, you’ll see fairy circles of redwood trees, several overlooks to catch some beautiful views, and at some point, you’ll probably catch a whiff of the “forest fart” of the sulfur springs.

All that being said, there is some incredible riding to be had here.

Getting There

From Highway 17 at the border between Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties, exit Summit Road. Drive south on Summit Road about 4 miles, at which point Soquel-San Jose Road departs to the right, and Summit turns into Highland Way. Continue straight on Highland Way (there’s no stop sign heading south or north). At the junction with Mount Bache, about 1 mile further south, turn right and then quickly left at Spanish Ranch Road to remain on Highland. Continue on Highland about another 4.3 miles, then park on the right side of the road near the signed entrance.ptimal Looping

Once you’ve parked your car, saddle up and ride a mile south on Highland Way, taking a right onto Buzzard Lagoon Road. Climb on this fireroad, and you’ll enter the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. After about a half mile, you’re presented with two options. You can take a right and climb the … ahem … boring Santa Rosalia Mountain Road fireroad (unmarked), or continue straight on Buzzard Lagoon for another 3/4 mile or so to an obvious right turn onto some fun singletrack that will drop you up higher on the Santa Rosalia fireroad. Take a left on the fireroad and follow it for about a mile past a gate until you reach the overlook. Enjoy the view, then spin around, and you’ll see the green sign marking the entrance to the Ridge Trail. It’s time to strap in, gear up your anticipation, and blaze.

The Ridge Trail is some of the most fun roller coaster singletrack around, letting you rip through the beautiful, cool forest. Take a look at the map, and take your pick between Corral, Sulphur Springs, Tractor, Braille and Saw Pit … they’ll all drop you down onto Hihn’s Mill Road. From there, you can take a right and make the gradual climb back out to your car or, if you’re feeling strong, pick another trail, take it back to Ridge and make another loop. All of the trails and distances are clearly marked with green signs, so it’s pretty foolproof.

The consensus best route is to take Braille down and take a right on Hihn’s Mill, then climb back up Sulfur Springs Trail back to Ridge, take a right on Ridge, take Tractor Trail down, and climb the gradual 2 miles out Hihn’s Mill back to your car. All told, one loop will take about 3 hours, and two loops will take you around 4 hours or more.

Eenie, Meenie, Miney Moe?

Braille is the more technical of the trails, and features log piles, teeter-totters, opportunities for air, and some all-out sphincter-contracting sections. For the intermediate rider who’s into self-preservation, the toughest sections offer bailout side trails that will assist you in your quest to keep your collarbone intact.

The Tractor Trail is more intermediate, and is the place to get pure singletrack speed. You can really open it up on this one, and splatter some bugs on your teeth. Just to keep things interesting, it’s got some log jumps and erosion control berms that will launch you into orbit if that’s what trips your trigger.

Saw Pit is the longest route of them all, and getting to it on the Ridge Trail sends you through some seriously sketch technical sections that expert riders will love to take on, and intermediate riders will likely walk. The rutted, rocky, loose stuff in the steeps makes for some harrowing descents. And just before you meet up with Saw Pit, there’s a climb that few have claimed to have cleaned, and many have had trouble even walking.

Sulphur Springs — 1.5 miles of grinding fireroad — is probably the best route to climb from Hihn’s Mill Road back up to the Ridge Trail, from which you can loop around some more.

Get out there and enjoy these incredible trails!

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