Demo Forest (Braille Trail)
39% SINGLETRACK46% FIRE ROAD15% ROAD
Soquel Demonstration Forest is a location that probably ranks in the top three of the favorites of most mountain bikers around the Bay Area. Its official status is different from most other mountain biking locations: Instead of being an open space preserve, or a national, state, county, or city park, Demo Forest is a state forest. Nevertheless I'd be surprised if I learned that at least the singletrack trails at Demo Forest were not designed specifically for mountain biking. It's that good. And mountain bikers are the most commonly encountered users of the trails here.
There aren't too many roads that lead to Demo Forest. The only alternative to the commonly used Highland Way is to take Eureka Canyon Road from the south. The problem is that much of Highland Way is situated on a steep slope that's prone to frequent slides that close the road. This seems to happen every other year. When it does, since the Eureka Canyon Road option is quite out-of-the-way for most folk going there from the Bay Area, many riders opt to park their cars on Highland Way, as far along it as they can go before the point where it's closed, and bike their way in from there. So, you should be prepared to have to do something like that. It couldn't hurt to research this in advance, either, by looking through recent postings on the MTBR forums.
Demo Forest has been subject to intermittent bouts of burglary of parked vehicles. I believe the consensus as of this writing is that the problem still exists. At various times, I've read different people recommending parking on Highland Way instead of in the main parking lot, or vice versa, for better safety. I suppose it might depend on which of the two is more crowded on that particular day. It's not like you can count on your window being broken the very first time you go biking there. Then again, it might. Neither I nor any of my immediate acquaintances had any negative first-hand experience there so far, though. Just know about the possibility, and, perhaps, opt to drive there in a less valuable (or better insured) vehicle, if you have the choice. And, certainly, make especially sure that you don't leave any visible belongings (valuable or not) in the parked vehicle.
One other peculiar thing to note about Demo Forest is that, if you're lucky, you might rarely notice a faint smell of sulphur while riding in the area. This will make you realize that it wasn't an arbitrary choice that one of the trails is named Sulphur Springs Road.
A typical ride at Demo Forest involves starting by tracing around the eastern edge of the park initially on pavement and continuing mostly on fire roads (Highland Way - Buzzard Lagoon Road - Aptos Creek Fire Road) to get to the singletrack Ridge Trail, descending from Ridge Trail down to Hihn's Mill Road via one of several options, and then climbing back up Hihn's Mill Road to return to your car.
This ride might be my favorite one at Demo. It's the version that takes Braille Trail to descend from Ridge Trail to complete the loop, which is indisputibly the most advanced and technical trail here.
You start the ride by taking paved Highland Way heading east. You turn onto the Buzzard Lagoon dirt road at the intersection of Highland Way, Buzzard Lagoon, and Eureka Canyon Road. Buzzard Lagoon will keep climbing until its junction with Aptos Creek Road. You continue on Buzzard Lagoon for a little more distance as it starts descending. The singletrack fun of the ride begins about a quarter mile after the start of that descent, when (what is almost but not exactly) Cusacks Trail starts off the right-hand side of Buzzard Lagoon Road with no sign or forewarning. So, make sure you keep an eye out for it. It's easy to miss.
Cusacks Trail takes you from Buzzard Lagoon Road to Aptos Creek Road. Along the way, it keeps you working since its average attitude is uphill. This is a tight singletrack and it allows you to put your line selection skills to good use in at least a couple of short downhill technical stretches. What's more notable about the trail is a short uphill scramble that looks like a dry rapids where you'll have to struggle over and around boulders (or simply walk, of course). This singletrack also features what must be the most deeply gouged trail segment I've ever seen anywhere (too much clay in the soil?), just before it drops you onto Aptos Creek Road.
Aptos Creek Road is a wide fire road that's exposed to the sky in a couple of sections. It alternates between moderate climbs and moderate descents until you reach the beginning of Ridge Trail, at the Santa Rosalia Overlook (or "Ocean View"), where you can see Monterey Bay over the trees in the distance. This spot also happens to be where you would be entering Demo Forest if you had taken Aptos Creek Road through The Forest of Nisene Marks all the way from the coast.
Ridge Trail is a deliciously technical singletrack trail. On average, it's a descent from Aptos Creek Road, but it does have a couple of short and steep climbing sections that might catch you by surprise on your first time here (though the worst of these has been bypassed by an easier segment since I originally wrote this paragraph). For the most part, it continues like an amusement park ride, and occasionally throws challenging technical sections at you. To me, the most characteristic feature of Ridge Trail are its many well-banked S-curves. Along the way, you pass by the junction with Corral Trail (an option for a shorter loop) and past a helicopter landing area at the junction with Sulphur Springs Trail.
Braille Trail would probably qualify as a black-diamond trail (though not by any truly formal designation). It features a number of optional stunts along the way, including some jumps and at least one seesaw. They all have bypass routes, though. The trail does get seriously steep in its descent in a number of places, but even if you're not an advanced rider, you'll hardly be caught off guard by any of these. You'll always have a chance to stop and walk down the trickier parts, unless you're really not paying any attention. Still, definitely be extra cautious at least during your first ride down Braille Trail.
At the "bottom" of Braille Trail, you emerge onto Hihn's Mill Road—a fire road. This will be your uphill grind to return to the parking lot. It's not a particularly steep climb (around 8 or 9% grade, initially) but it might feel unwelcome near the end of your ride. Thankfully, its slope gradually slackens as you go higher. And the final half mile to the parking lot, as you go through the private property of a lumber company, is a very welcome gentle descent.
When it comes to extending your ride outside Soquel Demonstration Forest, you won't find many options without getting into choices of questionable legitimacy. More importantly, why would you want to do so, when the trails at Demo Forest are so excellent? For this reason, it's much more common for mountain bikers to extend their Demo Forest ride by doing additional loops here. After having descended to Hihn's Mill Road, one common route for getting back up to Ridge Trail to "do it all again" is up Sulphur Springs Trail. Then try a different trail to descend back to Hihn's Mill Road, or use your favorite one again. Rinse and repeat.
If you look for a place to grab a bite or a sip after your ride, the option that's closest at hand will be Summit Store, which many of you will have driven past on Summit Road on your way to the ride. While this is technically "merely a supermarket", it has something to satisfy every taste, including packaged or freshly made deli sandwiches, hot entrees, good cheese and bread, wine and beer, sushi, an impressive variety of pastries, not to mention the sort of packaged food and bottled drinks that you'd find at any good market. The only things you won't find are tables and waiter service. Looking for other options, if your return trip will be taking you south on Route 17, you'll have one or two road-side choices like Casa del 17 (though this particular one will be on the opposite side of the road as you're heading south). Beyond that, it will have to be some place in Scotts Valley or Santa Cruz that's most handy for those heading south, and downtown Los Gatos for those heading north.
© Ergin Guney
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