Trail Tuesday: Soquel Demonstration Forest, Santa Cruz, California

When I hit the road this summer, the Forest of Nisene Marks & Soquel Demonstration Forest held a respectable #8 place on our list of the top mountain bike trails in the world, and had for a long time. While it is no longer on our top 10 list to day (currently ranked #36), at the time I knew I had to make it a priority to ride there!

My ambitions were affirmed by the many San Francisco locals I met and asked for recommendations, all of whom mentioned the “Demo Forest” as one of the best trails in the Bay Area. However, classifying Soquel Demonstration Forest as “in the Bay Area” is a little bit of a stretch, as it is 70 miles from downtown San Francisco and about 40 miles from the actual Bay.

Take off for a step down.

I think the reason so many San Francisco riders want to claim the Demo Forest as their own is that it is just so good! Demo Forest is home to the only legal downhill/freeride trails in the region… so if you are into pure XC riding, you’ll probably want to pass on this place.

While the trails can be partially shuttled, there will be a good bit of pedaling or pushing to get back to the car from the bottom of the trail. But if you are riding a trail/AM bike with 5-7” of travel, you can definitely ride up to the trailhead and earn all of your vertical by climbing up the Highland Way road to get to the top of the more aggressive trails.

Sunset at the Demo Forest. Photo: gab26.

I parked at the popular lower trailhead on Highland Way, and completely disregarded the recommendation in the guidebook to ride up the pavement to the top of the trail system. I opted instead to ride across on the gravel road and then climb up to the top. What I soon discovered was that Sulpher Springs and Corral Springs roads climb from the bottom of the singletrack up to the trailhead, which meant I descended from the trailhead on a boring gravel road, forcing me to climb even more elevation to reach the top of the singletrack. If you are out here on an AM bike and are going to do multiple laps (as I did), it’d probably be faster to climb from the bottom up via the Sulpher Springs trail/road for the second lap as I did, but heading up the pavement for the first lap (or catching a shuttle) would be smart!

Fast black dirt.

Once my tires were pointed down, the fun really started! There are a number of options for dropping back down to the bottom of the mountain, with some being more focused on steep, technical riding and others having more flow and air opportunities.

The tighter, more technical trails featured several steep, eroded chutes full of gnar and some loose soil to keep things interesting. Most of the dirt at Soquel is rich and rather loamy, but some of the steeper parts throw in loose stuff to keep riders on their toes.

These are definitely old-school freeride trails, with natural features such as down trees and old logs forming takeoffs for drop-offs, step downs, and step ups. Despite the homegrown look, the flow of almost all the drops and jumps really sets you up for the landing and works into the overall rhythm and flow of the trail. Since this trail system has been around for a long time, I think it has been a work in progress for many years, slowly being refined and perfected by the locals until it reached its current state.

Improvised jump.

On one of the trails, I was just amazed at the number of features that had been packed into such a small area! This place should be progressively more fun each time you ride it since you would have a chance to memorize the position of each element and learn how to link everything together into a line as you descend the mountain. Knowing the features would also be advantageous as you could learn the speed required and the amount of air that each would serve up. Going into many of these drops and jumps for my first time, it was often hard to tell how much air or how much of a drop off it would be, so I ended up bypassing quite a few of the features. I would love to return here again with a local and get a chance to really send it on some of these booters!

If you aren’t into hucking your meat and catching air, almost all the stunts have bypasses. But if you do enjoy shredding fast, steep descents on tacky black dirt, don’t pass up Soquel Demonstration Forest quite yet!

Your Turn: Do you have any cool freeride trails near you? Tell us about them!

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