Paul Andrews

Ride Review: Soquel Demonstration Forest, Santa Cruz CA

In Mountain Bike Trail Reviews, Mountain Biking on December 14, 2009 at 3:57 am

Soquel Demonstration Forest is a ridge-top network of trails in the northernmost section of Forest of the Nisene Marks, a prime mountain biking haunt near Santa Cruz CA.

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks exploring the Demo Forest, as it’s called. If you haven’t been there, or it’s been awhile, here’s what you’re looking at in trail options.

Getting to the Forest involves a mostly pleasant, half-hour, 30 mph drive along a narrow, winding but paved road along the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountain range. You take Highway 17 either from the ocean side in Santa Cruz or the Bay Peninsula side from San Jose and climb to Summit Road. Watch for the sign, because the intersection isn’t well-marked and comes up pretty fast on the twisty and usually trafficky Highway 17.

Once on Summit Road, follow the signs to Highland Drive. And take your time. The road is narrow, with lots of blind corners, and every once in awhile a BMW or moto will come ripping around a turn with almost no clearance. Your patience and discretion saves their stupid little lives.

After what seems like way too long on pavement, you’ll come on a staging area where cars and trucks, many with bike racks, mark the parking lot. You can park on Highland or take a short spur road up to a large dirt lot. There always seem to be other mountain bikers around, especially on weekends.

Now for the ride.

One route is to head up Highland Drive (yes, on pavement) for a couple of miles to Aptos Creek Road, a dirt road that accesses Soquel Demo from way back down in the tiny town of Aptos (tiny but well-known to mountain bikers for the Post Office Jump Park that’s honed the skills of slopestyle greats like Cam McCaul and Greg Watts, winner of last summer’s Whistler Crankworx’s signature event).

(You also can access Demo Forest by riding the 12 or so miles up from Aptos, but it’s a long haul. Still, if you hang out in Santa Cruz, it’s an option.)

There’s also a gray trail from just beyond the parking lot up to the Aptos Creek Road, but it’s steep and crosses private property. For pavement haters it’s the preferred option, though.

Aptos Creek Road isn’t marked as such off Highland Drive, but it’s right across from a sign denoting Ormsby Trail. There’s a large sign on Aptos Creek Road noting its closure to vehicles from Oct. 15 to April 15.

You ride up this dirt road for a couple of miles to the trail marker for Summit Trail, which takes you along the ridge spine till you choose a trail to ride down.

Summit is a fun romp, not too challenging but twisty and fast. Your options heading down are, in order from the top, Corral, Braille, Tractor and Sawpit. Of the four, I hugely prefer Braille Trail. It has a lot of features, including launches, log rolls and teeters. The other trails have some of these as well, but not nearly as many or as big as Braille. And Braille may be the longest of the four (if not, it’s tied with Tractor). Braille also has the advantage of starting at higher elevation (Summit Trail loses elevation from the top).

All of the above said, my preference is not to ride Highland up to Summit but to ride the dirt road, Hihn’s Mill Road, from the parking lot down to Tractor, then ride Tractor up to Summit and take Braille back down. Tractor is easily climbable, with a few granny sections and the very upper part being the only possible hike-a-bike (a short one at that).

You could do this one loop all day long. I have done this one loop all day long. It’s monotonous in only one respect: The climb back up gets a little old.

You can also take Hihn’s down to Sulphur Springs, a steep fire road that takes you back up to Summit Trail, and ride back down that way. And of course you can ride Tractor up and take Summit to the other trails besides Braille.

If you don’t have a trail bike ā€” if you’re single-speeding or hardtailing it or have an XC rig ā€” you may not want to do Braille. Most of the structures have ride-arounds, but where’s the fun in that? You could get away with doing the launches on an XC bike but you need to be good. I’ve even seen dual-crown forks on 40-lb. rigs doing Braille.

The Demo’s primary drawback is the relative shortness of the trails. No trail takes more than a handful of minutes to descend (the longest is just 1.5 miles), unless you do a playground thing around the structures. But the climbs back up are real grinders.

Finally, you have to leave something in the tank to get back to the parking lot. The fire road ride on Hihn’s isn’t steep, but it is long.

Soquel’s big attraction is its versatility. You see lycra’d XC riders in the lot along with big-hit, padded freeriders. There are lots of options. You can spend all day at a playpen on Braille doing skillz or ride ride ride up and down all the trails.

Soquel Demo Forest is one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s signature draws. If you live close enough to go frequently, you’re among the lucky ones. If you’re just visiting, this is one place you’ll want to include on your itinerary.’s review queue.

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