This tiny, intimate Forest of Nisene Marks wedding melted me. Held in the dead of winter – and bursting with joy, love and fun. The redwood forest may have still been coming back to life that January, but Nicole and Lucas were so ready to bask in this glorious wedding experience.

Sometimes wedding ceremonies are best done simply, intentionally and guerrilla-style 😉

Nicole + Lucas’ wedding took place in this beautiful redwood forest, Nisene Marks State Park, Aptos CA. In this article, I’m going to tell you how you can have your own guerilla wedding in the Forest of Nisene Marks!

Forest of Nisene Marks beautiful wedding quote about their relationship

Features of Forest of Nisene Marks

This is quite a rugged, wild state park. As Google describes it:

Hiking, biking & jogging trails on varied terrain rising from sea level to steep coastal mountains.

And from AllTrails:

Situated just east of Santa Cruz, centered around the Aptos Creek Canyon, the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park is a semi-wilderness with miles of trails for hiking, biking, and nature viewing. Rising all the way from sea level to 2,600 feet, visitors find lush forests covering steep coastal mountains.

The Forest of Nisene Marks is a refreshing retreat from the busy towns and beaches along Highway 1 near Santa Cruz. Its dense second- and third-growth redwood forest rises from near sea level to steep coastal mountains.

Despite the off-season timing of the wedding, it was bright, sunny and even pretty warm.

There are 17 moderate trails in The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park ranging from 1.7 to 25.8 miles and from 114 to 2,604 feet above sea level. If you’re planning a wedding here, you’ll definitely want to try out some trails and scope out a location that suits!

how to plan a wedding at the forest of nisene marks, santa cruz CA

Where to park for your wedding ceremony at Nisene Marks

For this wedding, here’s where we parked. It’s a little hard to tell on Google Maps, because the parking isn’t actually marked but here’s how to find it.

The parking lot isn’t huge. From memory I’d say there’s room for about 25 cars. The parking fee was $8 at the time of this wedding (early 2019). In early 2021 when this article was updated, the price remained $8.

Here’s a map below and you can click here to be taken to Google Maps: The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park Entrance Station

The parking lot is located very close to the Ranger Station. From there, for this wedding we headed north.

Unfortunately, there is no record of the trail we took : ( My correspondence with the bride has since been deleted (it’s years later as I edit this blog post) and my phone didn’t get any signal to be able to trace my steps with Google’s Timeline feature.

All I know is that we headed in a northern direction, along Aptos Ranch Trail, from one random bit of signal that my phone gave out.

Planning a Guerilla wedding in the forest – plan A!

The couple knew they wanted to do something different for their wedding. Something small, for sure. The wedding grew from a couple-only elopement to a small wedding with 11 guests.

It turned out to be a good decision because it meant that Nicole’s dad, who had a heart transplant 7 years ago, was able to give her away.

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OK so the first plan was actually to get married at Big Basin State Park in nearby Boulder CA. That was going to take place at Gazos Creek Rd & N Escape Rd, California 95006. (Follow that link to take you right to the pin location on Google Maps). The location they had wanted to get married (but didn’t) was on the Creeping Forest Trail Loop.

It takes 50/60 minutes at a slow pace without stopping to complete that 1.7-mile loop. The couple had wanted to do a modified version of this trail (skipping the Dool Trail and cutting back on Gazos Rd.)

Though this wasn’t what they ended up doing, I thought it would be helpful for couples who are in the early stages of planning and are not too sure which of these parks (Big Basin or Forest of Nisene Marks) to choose. They definitely have similar features and a look and feel.

forest of nicene marks state park wedding with bride trekking with father

The relaxed, laid back wedding vision – Plan B!

This wedding was planned right around Christmas time. Planning tasks, venue scouting, vendor search etc had to fit around a family trip to NC and countless other seasonal obligations.

Nicole and Lucas, who live in nearby Pacifica, decided at the last minute they decided to switch to the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. While doing a “hike through” of the trail, it was more strenuous than Nicole had remembered.

A flatter hike was found that would be easier on parents and actually closer to their reception and accommodations at Sand Rock Farm – only 5 miles away. So it worked out even better than they could have hoped.

What you need to be prepared for with this kind of wedding

Being a Guerilla wedding, there were a couple of snafus. Firstly, the rangers at the Forest of Nisene Marks don’t take kindly to these kinds of unpermitted weddings taking place. While it isn’t my place to say whether a Guerilla wedding is the right thing to do or not, I am here to service my clients’ needs if I decide to undertake a project.

Every photographer will have a different level of tolerance to photographing events that go against the official rules of the location in question.

So, basically, there was a moment where I as the photographer needed to hide out of the way! But to be honest, the rangers would have been well within their rights to turn us away and forbid us entry, as weddings are not permitted here unless you purchase a permit (and even then, I’m not sure, as this this kind of planning is 100% on the couple to take care of).

You need to be aware that at the last moment, you may get turned away from the park. It’s pretty hard to hide a bride in a white wedding dress and a photographer’s case full of cameras.

The other tiny snafu that happened was this: on the day of the wedding at the Forest of Nisene Marks, the couple couldn’t find the grove they’d previously scouted for the wedding. They completely forgot where they had planned to go. The ceremony took place on a beautiful – but completely randomly selected – spot.

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Moral of the story is that you need to be flexible and hold all your plans lightly when planning this kind of celebration.

You are foregoing the stability and price tag of a typical venue. With that, goes the luxury that allows for  control of the day’s proceedings.

Guerrilla weddings are NOT for the micro-planners or the anxious at heart, that’s for sure!

The redwood forest wedding ceremony

Donna, Nicole and Lucas’ officiant, conducted the spiritual-but-not-religious ceremony. Nicole described Donna as “so warm and loving and has a bond with the redwoods! She’s like a fairy godmother!”

Donna told me she “falls in love with each other her couples”. The tenderness and emotion of the ceremony was palpable. There were tears, laughter, the crunching of leaves, the shifting of mud & mulch underfoot. The occasional voice of a passerby, the scents and swaying of the redwoods, and a beam of sunlight.

intimate redwood wedding guerilla style, northern california

After the ceremony, we went through the formal group portraits. The rest of the group departed to set up the VRBO rental ready for toasting and later, spaghetti.

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Couples pictures in the forest

Nicole and Lucas wanted to head down to the creek for some pictures there, which we did, via some beautiful stops in dark, deep groves of redwood trees, and precious shafts of light streaming through the odd tree.

Shooting by bodies of water is my favorite thing and I encourage all couples to incorporate some water backdrops into their shoot wherever possible! This was a little spot we chanced upon on the Aptos Creek.

forest of Nisene marks state park creek by Zoe LArkin photography

The light can be amazing and is very flattering as it reflects light back up and acts as a giant soft-box.

We had the gift of stepping stones so this was a fun activity to photograph as they waded across the shallow but fast-moving water. Nicole’s hiking boots were perfect for the task (they were also her ‘something blue’!)

After a 20 minute hike back to our cars, we headed to the accommodation for a reception of toasting, cake-cutting and the celebrations continued.

Incorporating some traditional elements into your wedding photos can be so fun. And the beauty is, you can choose exactly what.

santa cruz county intimate redwood wedding by Zoe LArkin Photography

Affordable wedding florals that you assemble yourself!

Don’t you just love Nicole’s bouquet? It was actually her that turned me onto Bloominous, a nationwide wedding floral service with one key difference! They ship the flowers out to you and you (or a very saintly friend!) assembles them yourself. Pretty cool! Bloominous invented the DIY-wedding flower kit back in 2015. They are proud to deliver premium designs at half the cost and they serve the entire United States.

I’ve partnered with them to offer you $100 off your Bloominous order with my exclusive discount code ZLAR19. To benefit from the discount, you’ll need to spend at least $1,000 on one order with them. So be sure to check out their packages for full-service florals including centerpieces, bouquets, corsages, flower crowns, boutonnieres, as well as the full collection that includes pick-and-mix incredible arch decor, floral clusters, bud vases and SO much more!

Vendor love //

Ceremony Venue Forest of Nisene Marks State Park
Reception & Accommodation Sand Rock Farm Bed and Breakfast via VRBO
Florals Bloominous (Pssst – want $100 off your order? Use code ZLAR19, and get $100 off all orders over $1,000 🎉 [BLOOMINOUS PROMO CODE]

Nicole’s outfit JJs House
Lucas’ outfit Bonobos / J Crew
Nicole’s boots Kodiak Boots
Lucas’ boots Lowa Boots
Jewelry Lauren O Jewels
Officiant Donna Rose Gardner
Cake Mazetti’s Bakery

Planning a forest wedding among the Santa Cruz redwoods? I’d love to hear your plans – get in touch here!

Bay Area wedding photographer – Homepage | Bay Area Wedding photographer – Info, pricing, about & portfolio

Looking for more intimate wedding inspiration? Check these out!

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Pin this to your redwood wedding inspiration Pinterest board!

This amazing redwood wedding took place in the Forest of Nisene Marks in Santa Cruz county, CA. It was a guerilla wedding, where the couple hiked in with their guests and simply chose a spot to get married among their favorite redwood trees. Inspiration for your forest wedding and some ideas how to have a ceremony without decoration, just keeping things easy and simple. #redwoodwedding #forestwedding #weddinginspo | Zoe Larkin Photography


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couple kissing at forest of nisene marks wedding in santa cruz redwoods

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Forest of Nisene Marks intimate redwood wedding ceremony

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