Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Point Cabrillo Lighthouse

Point Cabrillo Lighthouse
2 miles loop, 150 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrace fee required

Point Cabrillo Lighthouse rises on a headland above the Pacific along California's Mendocino Coast just miles away from the area's two main towns, Mendocino and Fort Bragg. The lighthouse is accessible via a short and easy hike that crosses coastal prairies, visits headlands with eroded sea caves, and stops by the historic lighthouse that once guided ships along the foggy, treacherous California Coast.

I visited the lighthouse during a trip to the Mendocino Coast with Anna. Point Cabrillo Lighthouse is a 10-15 minute drive from both Mendocino and Fort Bragg. From Fort Bragg, reach the lighthouse by following Highway 1 south for 5 miles and then turning right onto Point Cabrillo Drive; follow Point Cabrillo Drive uphill from Caspar Beach for 1.5 miles and then turn right into the signed parking lot for the Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park. There was a small lot and ample overflow parking. Visitors with disabled parking permits and visitors staying at the overnight rental units here can skip the hike completely and continue driving from the main parking lot to a second parking lot right beside the lightkeepers' houses and the lighthouse.

We left the parking lot on the North Trail, which departed from the northwest corner of the parking lot and headed due west. This wide gravel trail took us across the coastal grasslands between the parking lot and the lighthouse. The trail descended and narrowed as it went along, passing by a few scattered trees but mostly staying out in grasslands; we ignored a trail the branched off to the right and led north to Frolic Cove, instead continuing due west along the North Trail so that we would quickly reach the coast. After three-quarters of a mile of hiking through grassland from the trailhead, we arrived at the coast, where colorful cliffs rose above the foggy Pacific. Far-off views were restricted due to the thick fog along the coast but we were still able to enjoy this scene of Pacific surf crashing onto rocks of Point Cabrillo.

Headlands at Point Cabrillo
After reaching the coast, we followed the coastline south to Point Cabrillo Lighthouse. While there was a well-established road trace that led directly south to the lighthouse over the grasslands, we followed the social paths that hugged the coastline, delivering constant views on the walk over. Walking out to the end of the headland just north of the lighthouse, we found particularly nice views of both the lighthouse itself to the south and a number of deep sea caves carved into the coastal bluffs in the cove to the north. Low, rolling booms resounded when waves washed into the cove and pushed into the caves.

Point Cabrillo Lighthouse
Sea caves at Point Cabrillo
Continuing south, we reached the protruding headland with the lighthouse. The lighthouse is open 11 AM to 4 PM every day but the inside of the lighthouse was closed during our visit due to Covid-19 rules. Instead, we could only admire the outside of this 1909 structure, which had a rotating Fresnel lens that sent a pulse of light across the ocean every few seconds. The lighthouse helped guide maritime traffic here during the early 20th century, when ships carrying passengers and redwood logs from the forests of Mendocino and Humboldt Counties plied the rough waters of the Pacific Coast. Frequent shipwrecks along the coast- which include the wreck of the Frolic just north of this State Historic Park- made lighthouses a necessary and life-saving development at the time. 

The lighthouse and the headland that it sits on are both named after Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo. Cabrillo led the first European reconnaisance of the California coast but somehow managed to miss the Golden Gate and thus did not discover San Francisco Bay, the most notable feature along the entire length of the state's coast. Consigned for centuries to relative obscurity, Cabrillo's reputation was revived during the 20th century push to recognize and remember European explorers of non-British descent. Cabrillo's legacy in California is still celebrated to some extent today, but it's important to also remember how Cabrillo, the man, participated in brutal enslavement of native peoples in Central America for gold mining and how Cabrillo's journey to California ultimately spelled the beginning of the end for native cultures all along the California coast, from the Chumash to the Ohlone and the Pomo.

Point Cabrillo Lighthouse
We walked around the headland that the lighthouse was on and found a secluded, stagnant cove just to the south of the lighthouse, where narrows between cliffs of two different headlands prevented waves from washing into a calm saltwater pool. Looking down, we spotted numerous jellyfish hanging out in the seawater below. Marine life is abundant along the Mendocino Coast due to upwellings of nutrient-rich, cold water from the depths of the ocean, which power a robust food chain here. On clear days in the winter, Point Cabrillo is a good spot to watch for migrating gray whales offshore.

Jellyfish in a cove
From the lighthouse, we returned to the trailhead by following the road that led out to the lighthouse. This road passed by the Head Lightkeeper's and the Assistant Lightkeeper's Houses, both of which were well-built and had large yards that at one point were likely gardens in which the lightkeepers would've grown their food along with their lighthouse-tending duties. These two houses and the cottages behind them are now available to rent as lodging for anyone who wants to stay at the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse; the road leading out here is restricted to guests only.

Lightkeeper's houses
We followed the road for two-thirds of a mile to return to the parking lot. The road picked up about 150 feet of elevation gain along the way, although the ascent was fairly gentle and the hike as a whole was quite easy. There were a number of educational, kid-friendly placards along the road that taught interesting facts about the gray whales that can often be seen along this coast during the winter.

Overall, this was a nice hike; the lighthouse was cute but in our opinion is not among the most scenic of California's lighthouses. If you're spending a few days on the Mendocino Coast this is a worthwhile stop but if time is short you might find it a better use of your time on other coastal hikes.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Laguna Point

Black sand beach at MacKerricher State Park
0.6 miles loop, 20 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

Laguna Point is a headland with nice views along California's Mendocino Coast. The most popular attraction at MacKerricher State Park, this short hike starts a black sand beach, passes by a set of tidepools, and ends at a seaside overlook with views up and down the coast. It's a nice hike and worth a short detour, but I did not find it to be one of the highlights of the Mendocino Coast.

I visited MacKerricher State Park during an October trip to the Mendocino Coast with Anna. The state park is easily accessible from both Fort Bragg and Mendocino and is just north of Fort Bragg. From Fort Bragg, we reached MacKerricher State Park by taking Highway 1 north for 3 miles and then turning left at the sign for MacKerricher State Park. Upon entering the park, we passed a display that included an impressive grey whale skeleton. Shortly after passing the entrance station- which did not collect fees for day use- we arrived at a T-intersection with Mill Creek Drive. Here, we turned left, passing the campgrounds and then following the road to its end at the state park's main parking lot, where there was room for about 50 cars.

The trail- which was boardwalk for its entire length- left the trailhead and headed into a grove of cypresses by the shoreline. From the trailhead, we had nice views of MacKerricher State Park's black sand beach, one of a number of such beaches along the North Coast. Low forested ridges rose behind the beach.

Mendocino Coast from Laguna Point Trail
Leaving the trailhead, we quickly arrived at a fork in the trail for the two directions of the loop hike; we took the right fork, which kept us close to the coast on the hike out to Laguna Point. There were numerous viewpoints along the trail where we stopped to enjoy the waves of the Pacific crashing on nearby rocks or on the black sand beach. On a clear day, views to the north would likely extend to the Lost Coast; the time of our hike was unfortunately foggy, limiting us with views that stretched to nearby mountains and the Ten Mile Dunes just to the north.

After we stopped by a viewing platform on a headland that jutted out to the north, we arrived at a spur trail that led down a staircase to a rocky stretch of coast with many tidepools. We followed the staircase down to the beach and did some brief exploration of the tidepools here: we found sea anemones and hermit crabs, among other sea life, inhabiting these rocky saltwater pools. While the rest of the hike was on boardwalk and could be easily done in most shoes, exploring the tidepools required stepping on uneven and slippery surfaces and would be best done with hiking boots or some other water-resistant shoe with good traction.

Tidepools off the trail
Returning to the boardwalk, we soon joined up with the other leg of the loop, where we turned right and then arrived at the far point of the loop: Laguna Point, a low bluff jutting out into the Pacific. On the day of our visit, there was patchy fog up and down the coast, limiting the range of our views, but we could still see south to Fort Bragg from the point. In winter, Laguna Point is a good spot for spotting gray whales offshore here: the whales migrate annually between the cold but rich waters of the Bering Sea and the warm waters off Baja California. Humpback and blue whales can also be seen at certain times of year from the Mendocino Coast.

Laguna Point
While our visit was too early for spotting gray whales, we did still see a group of harbor seals lounging out on the rocks off the Laguna Point. Lounging amidst a forest of sea palms and sprayed constantly with Pacific surf, these harbor seals made their presence known with constant barking.

Harbor seals on Seal Rock
After taking in our fill of the view here, we took the other leg of the loop back to finish a counterclockwise circuit to Laguna Point. This return leg cut straight through the prairie before returning to forest and closing the loop just meters away from the parking lot.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Devil's Punchbowl (Mendocino Coast)

Sea caves carved into the headlands at Russian Gulch State Park
0.7 miles loop, 50 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Russian Gulch State Park entrance fee required

Devil's Punchbowl is a unique formation in California's Russian Gulch State Park on the Mendocino Coast where a sinkhole by the coast opens up into a sea cave. This short hike visits the intriguing Punchbowl and also delivers plenty of other good views in the coastal part of Russian Gulch State Park. This is a nice stop for some brief exploration for visitors to this stretch of coast.

I visited Russian Gulch State Park during an October trip to the Mendocino Coast with Anna. The state park is easily accessible from both Fort Bragg and Mendocino, as it is between the two towns and just north of Mendocino. From Fort Bragg, we reached Russian Gulch State Park by taking Highway 1 south for 8 miles and then turning right at the sign for Russian Gulch State Park and Point Cabrillo Light Station. After making the right, I immediately arrived at a second four-way intersection where I made a left to enter Russian Gulch State Park. We passed the entrance station to the park where we showed our Golden Poppy Pass and then followed the park road downhill briefly to a four-way intersection. Here, we turned right to head towards the picnic area; we followed this road to its end at a parking lot and a picnic area overlooking the ocean. 

The hike is an unsigned, unofficial trail that leads south from the parking lot along the edge of a series of coastal bluffs until coming to the massive Devil's Punchbowl sinkhole; from there, a wider and better defined gravel path leads back to the trailhead.

We started out on the path leading along the coastal bluffs that headed off to the left from the parking lot. After crossing some prairie and trees, the path started following the coast directly. There were superb views here of both the Pacific Ocean and of the Russian Gulch Bridge, an attractive arch bridge that carries Highway 1 over Russian Gulch. We saw the first of numerous sea caves along the hike here: I was surprised by sheer quantity of sea caves we saw during our four days in Mendocino, more than I've seen anywhere else.

Russian Gulch Bridge and a sea cave
We continued along the trail leading around the edge of the headlands and soon spotted a natural rock bridge that had been carved out on one of the lower bluffs.

Natural bridge along the Russian Gulch State Park coastline
As we continued along the generally flat bluff-top path, we were treated to more views of Mendocino to the south and sea caves and sea tunnels close by. After following and exploring these coastal paths for about a half mile from the trailhead, we finally came to the most impressive sea cave of all here, the Devil's Punchbowl.

Sea tunnel
Sea caves in a cove at Russian Gulch State Park
The Devil's Punchbowl is a massive, round sinkhole that is ringed by a wooden fence to prevent visitors from falling in. A tunnel connects the Punchbowl to the ocean and waves constantly wash into the rocky beach at the bottom of the Punchbowl. At high tide, the ocean fills the bottom of the Punchbowl, making this an eerie view down to an apparently landlocked area of seawater; during low tide, unfortunately, the ocean only laps at the edges of the sinkhole, making the feature seem like a large but more pedestrian sinkhole. 

Devil's Punchbowl
We watched the waves wash into the well for a while and then followed a wide, well-defined gravel path on a slight uphill climb to return to the parking area. We stayed a little over half an hour here on a Friday afternoon near sunset and saw just two other visitors by the Punchbowl, but I am certain that this spot will get plenty of visitors at midday on weekends due to its proximity to Mendocino. While this may not be a can't miss spot in California, it is a fun stop for visitors who are already on this part of the coast.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Pygmy Forest Discovery Trail

Pygmy forest
0.25 mile loop, 20 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee, limited parking

The pygmy forests of the Northern California coast are an ecological curiousity: here, trees that may be hundreds of years old grow to be only as tall as a human. The easiest way to see one of the remarkable forests is to visit Van Damme State Park on the Mendocino Coast, where a pygmy forest of pint-sized pines, cypress, and rhododendron can be seen on a flat quarter-mile boardwalk loop. This is a short and easy hike and one of the more unique sights to see in the Mendocino area.

I visited the Van Damme State Park pygmy forest during an October trip to the Mendocino Coast with Anna. The pygmy forest is easily accessible from both Fort Bragg and Mendocino; it is just a few miles south of Mendocino near Little River. It's important to note that the trailhead for the Pygmy Forest Discovery Trail is not at the main entrance to Van Damme State Park, which only provides access to the Van Damme Beach and Fern Canyon. Instead, this trailhead is off of the Little River-Airport Road. From Fort Bragg, we reached the pygmy forest by taking Highway 1 south for 13 miles, passing Van Damme State Park's main entrance and the Little River Inn and then turning left onto the Little River-Airport Road. We then followed the Little River-Airport Road uphill for about 3 miles, passing a community called The Woods and the airport itself, before arriving at a confusing five-way intersection; here, we made a right turn onto a road that was marked Pygmy Forest and followed it for a final hundred meters to a parking lot with spots for about a dozen cars. Although this hike is in Van Damme State Park, which requires an entrance fee, there is no fee collected for accessing the park from this trailhead.

The trail departs from the north end of the trailhead, quickly heading onto a boardwalk for the length of the loop to avoid damaging this delicate and rare ecosystem. The trail quickly splits into the two legs of the loop: we took the right fork here to do the trail counterclockwise but you can go either direction- it really doesn't matter too much.

The forest of pygmy cypress, bolander pine, and bishop pine was initially still fairly tall but became quite small by the the time we reached the far side of the loop. These trees can usually grow up to a hundred feet tall in good soil and climate conditions. Here, trees around the trail were just five to eight feet tall; a few branches that had been sawed off revealed the trees' growth rings, which were extremely dense, packing tens of rings per centimeter. There was ample rhododendron growing in the area, too; while the growth of these bushes were slightly stunted, they approached a normal size much more closely than the surrounding miniature trees. About two-thirds of the way through the loop, we came to a second intersection; here, the trail heading to the right led out to a fire road, while the left fork continued the loop. We took the left fork here and returned to the trailhead to finish the very short hike.

Pygmy forest
Why do the pygmy forests of the Northern California coast exist? The answer to this ecological question is in the geological history of this landscape. The coast of California is steadily being uplifted as the North American Plate makes contact with the Pacific Plate, rising from the ocean at a rate of about an inch a century. Thus, much of the landmass that now rises along the coast was once submerged. The gradual uplift of this landscape has created a stair-step like series of terraces, each of which were once submerged- this makes up Mendocino County's Ecological Staircase, a phenomenon best explored at the nearby Jug Handle State Natural Reserve. These flat wave terraces have uniquely bad drainage: as a result, the soil here is extremely nutrient poor and acidic. Iron and other nutrients that leach from the soil have formed an iron hardpan under the soil that traps rainwater and heightens the local soil acidity. As a result, the trees and other plants of the pygmy forest struggle to grow in these soils, which are a thousand times more acidic than the soil in surrounding forest. Thus, even century-old pines and cypresses can be just five feet tall here.

This is a fairly popular spot and parking is quite limited at the trailhead; as it was nearly full on a weekday afternoon, I'm certain that it would be difficult to visit on a weekend. There are multiple other pygmy forests along the coast, including a bit to the north at Jug Handle State Natural Reserve and further south at Salt Point State Park. However, if you're looking to see one of these forests with a minimal physical effort, this particular pygmy forest will probably satisfy your curiosity.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Jug Handle Ecological Staircase

Kelp forests near the headlands in Jug Handle State Natural Reserve
5 miles round trip, 320 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee

The Jug Handle Ecological Staircase Trail is one of the most interesting and varied hikes along California's Mendocino Coast. In 2.5 miles with just a smidge of elevation gain, this hike packs in coastal bluffs with views of white sandy beaches and the Pacific, a fern-lined creek, second-growth redwood forests, one of the southernmost groves of Sitka Spruce, and a pygmy forest of cenutury old pines and cypresses that grow to be only as tall as a person. If you're uninterested in ecology or forest hikes in general, you might want to stick to the coastal part of this hike; otherwise, this can be a very interesting and rewarding hike that, unlike other hikes in the area, involves a little bit more than watching waves pound the coast. 

The trail is best appreciated if you can refer to a copy of the ecological staircase brochure during your hike; as the brochures often run out at the trailhead and you may not have signal on the trail, it's a good idea to download the brochure before you head out. Additionally, many trail junctions on this hike are unmarked or poorly signed, so it is easiest to do this hike with a good map.

What is an ecological staircase and why does it matter? The ecological staircase actually has a geological origin: each level of the staircase is a former marine terrace that has since been uplifted. The coast of California is steadily rising at a rate of about an inch a century as the North American Plate makes contact with the Pacific Plate. Thus, much of the landmass that now lines the coast was once submerged. The gradual uplift of this landscape has created a stair-step like series of terraces, resulting in the ecological staircase moniker. The conditions that shaped the formation of each terrace over hundreds of thousands of years in turn have determined the soil quality of each terrace, which in turn affects the plant life and ecology of each terrace. At Jug Handle, each of the three marine terraces displays defining ecological characteristics, making this a lovely natural classroom to illustrate how geology can shape vegetation.

I hiked the Ecological Staircase during an October trip to the Mendocino Coast. Jug Handle State Natural Reserve is easily accessible from both Fort Bragg and Mendocino, lying about halfway between the two towns. From Fort Bragg, I reached Jug Handle State Natural Reserve by taking Highway 1 south for 5 miles and then turning right at the sign for Jug Handle State Natural Reserve into a parking lot for about 40 cars. Although this property is part of the California State Parks system, there is no charge for access at the time of writing.

Two trails branch out from the parking lot: the trail to the right leads towards the beach and the inland portion of the Ecological Staircase, while the trail to the left leads out onto the Jug Handle headlands to start the hike. I took the trail to the left, which quickly left the forest for the open prairie that lines much of the Mendocino Coast. There is a network of trails out on the prairies of the headlands; while it may be confusing where to go, I decided just to follow the main trail straight ahead, bearing slightly left at a major but unmarked fork with another wide trail. This trail brought me to the edge of some coastal bluffs after about a fifth of a mile of hiking. From this point on the coast, there were nice views to the south, where coastal bluffs were covered in blooming yellow flowers. A few houses were mixed among the woods to the south, a reminder of Mendocino's patchwork coastal preservation.

Jug Handle headlands
I passed a precariously perched cypress that seemed about to fall off a cliff as I followed the path along the coastal bluffs west out to the far point of the headland. A set of large seastacks lay just offshore here, including off large rock that had a small hole cut into its base. I enjoyed watching the rough surf of the Pacific crashing against these seastacks and against the headlands on which I stood.

Seastacks off the Mendocino Coast
There were even nicer coastal bluffs as I followed the trail around to the north side of the bluffs. Here, the bluffs overlooked the inlet at the mouth of Jug Handle Creek. In the sunlight, the water below had a beautiful aquamarine color, illuminating a kelp forest just offshore. The waters of the Pacific near the Mendocino Coast are extremely productive due to upwellings of deep, cold, and nutrient-rich waters here, which set the stage for the complex and populous marine ecosystems along the coast. The arch bridge carrying Highway 1 over Jug Handle Creek rose at the far end of Jug Handle Beach's striking white sands.

Jug Handle Beach and the bridge over Jug Handle Creek
After about 0.6 miles of hiking and wrapping around the Jug Handle headlands, the trail reached a stand of windswept trees growing next to the bluff. Here, the trail passed a stand of small Sitka Spruce and then delved a grove of massive trees, each with extraordinarily thick and contorted trunks and branches. The prairie and coastal forests of this first stretch of hike together make up the ecosystem of the first terrace of the ecological staircase.


Gnarled, windblown trees near the coast
The trail cut through the fir grove and was a bit faint when emerging on the other side. This is one of the most difficult parts of the trail to follow as a number of social paths cut through the area, each roughly as distinct as the actual trail; most of these paths, however, will end up connecting up to the start of the trail down to Jug Handle Beach, which is the trail you'll want to be on. The Ecological Staircase Trail briefly followed the beach trail but the two diverged at a signed junction; here, I turned right to follow the Ecological Staircase trail through a dark arboreal tunnel formed by dense trees growing directly over the trail.

Arboreal tunnel along the Ecological Staircase Trail
Emerging from the dense arboreal tunnel, I entered a forest of hundred-foot tall Bishop Pines, which concentrated their branches in their upper extremity into small, bulb-shaped leafy crowns. Bishop pines are quite common along the Mendocino Coast; it was interesting to see these trees grow to full size here, as I would later see these trees at miniature size in the pygmy forest.

Forest of Bishop pines
After passing the Bishop pines, the trail passed right underneath Highway 1 by crossing beneath the span of the Jug Handle arch bridge. Shortly after emerging on the other side of the bridge, the trail made a turn to descend a staircase (a hiker staircase, not an ecological one) down the canyon of Jug Handle Creek. At the bottom of the canyon, the trail- here a well-constructed boardwalk- crossed the creek and then followed the creek's banks briefly downstream through a lush riparian zone filled with ferns.

Boardwalk along Jug Handle Creek
When the boardwalk ended, the trail embarked on one of the few steep climbs of the hike: the trail ascended about 120 feet up the north side of the canyon, making one switchback on the way up. On the other side of the canyon, the trail passed through a stand of Monterey Pine as it ascended up to the second terrace of the ecological staircase. Here, Sitka spruce, grand fir, and Douglas fir dominated the forest, with ferns and salal across the forest floor and red huckleberry bushes growing along the trail. Visitors from the Pacific Northwest might find that the composition of this forest sounds familiar and indeed this forest is similar to those of the Northwest, displaying much of the characteristic lushness found in the Northwest forests. In fact, Mendocino County marks the southern extent of the range of Sitka spruce; coming from the south, Mendocino is the first place where you can find such forests, in part because this part of the coast receives substantially more winter rains than the California coast further south.

Sitka Spruce forest
At 1.5 miles into the hike, the trail came to an unsigned junction with a wider trail; here, I turned right to continue the hike. The trail continued through a Douglas fir forest on the second terrace of the staircase, crossing a power line clearing at 1.8 miles. Manzanita and rhododendron lined the trail.

After crossing the power line clearing, the forest transitioned once again and was now dominated by second growth redwoods. The forest here is much more familiar to California hikers, as this type of forest- dominated by soaring trees with parallel trunks with fern-covered forest floors- occurs frequently along the California coast from Big Sur to the Oregon state line. Although the trees here are second growth, many had grown quite wide and tall in about a century in the favorable climate of Mendocino County. I passed two named redwood groves during the hike. 

Redwood forest on the second terrace
At 2.3 miles, the trail passed by a bog to the left of the trail that was populated with soaring hundred-foot tall trees. These are actually the pygmy cypresses that are found commonly in the North Coast pygmy forests; however, here the trees soar as they are growing under favorable nutrient conditions. The understory here had a few blue huckleberry bushes, some of which still had fruit in October; I tasted a couple of berries but determined that they were far inferior to the sweet, juicy alpine huckleberries found in the meadows of the Cascades in Washington State.

Soaring pygmy cypresses in a bog
As the trail reached the boundary of the Jackson State Demonstration Forest, the trail curved off to the left and became a dirt road. Here, the trail had arrived on the edge of the pygmy forest, in the third terrace of the ecological staircase. Although I was not yet at the heart of the pygmy forest and was not yet seeing the most extreme effects of this third terrace, the vegetation here was already stunted, with trees just 20 or 30 feet tall around me rather than towering a hundred feet above. There was plenty of sun reaching the forest floor now. The fire road arrived at a four way intersection at 2.7 miles from the trailhead; here, I went straight through the junction and followed the fire road just slightly further. Soon, I saw a sign indicating that the trail headed off to the right; I took this turn, which brought me onto a boardwalk leading into the heart of the pygmy forest.

The pygmy forest was dominated by miniature versions of bolander pine, Bishop pine, and pygmy cypress, with a good amount of rhododendron mixed in. Here, trees that grow to impressive height elsewhere were barely taller than a person, with many century-old trees that were just five to six feet tall. Near the boardwalk, a few trees had had their branches sawed off; here, I was able to look at the tree rings, which were extremely dense as these trees had grown decades to centuries to achieve just a small size. At the center of the pygmy forest, the boardwalk widened to a small, slightly elevated viewing platform that provided a view over the forest. Here, a plaque noted that this ecologically significant forest had been declared a national natural landmark. Pygmy forests are quite rare; in the United States, there are just a small number of them, mostly concentrated in the forests of the North Coast.

Pygmy forest on the third terrace
You might ask: why is the pygmy forest part of the ecological staircase? After all, other terraces on the staircase support mature, well-formed forests. The answer lies in the history and shape of this particular terrace. Some of these marine terraces are uplifted from the sea as flat tiers and maintain that levelness over time. These flat terraces have extremely bad drainage: as a result, the soil here is extremely nutrient poor and acidic. Iron and other nutrients that leach from the soil have formed an iron hardpan under the soil that traps rainwater and heightens the local soil acidity. As a result, the trees and other plants of the pygmy forest struggle to grow in these soils, which are a thousand times more acidic than the soil in surrounding forest. Thus, even century-old pines and cypresses can be just five feet tall here.

Jug Handle pygmy forest
The boardwalk was about a sixth of a mile long and ended as the trail emptied out onto another fire road. At this junction, I turned right and hiked just 200 feet back to the four-way junction that I had come upon earlier, having completed the loop trail through the pygmy forest that marked the farthest extent of the hike. Back at the four-way junction, I turned left and followed the trail 2 miles back to the parking area, skipping the path along the headlands on my return trip for a total hike of 5 miles.

This was an enjoyable and educational hike: I saw a handful of other hikers here on a Friday morning, so it's likely that this trail may be fairly popular on weekends. However, as most visitors to this part of the state concentrate on oceanside activities, I am sure that the upper reaches of this trail as it passes through various forests to reach the pygmy forest would be lightly visited at most times. Overall, I do recommend this hike to visitors who like seeing odd ecological phenomena and learning about them.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Fern Canyon (Mendocino Coast)

Little River flows through Fern Canyon
5 miles round trip, 120 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Van Damme State Park entrance fee required

The lush Fern Canyon in Van Damme State Park is one of the more enjoyable hikes along California's Mendocino Coast. Although the start of this hike lies just a few hundred meters from the Pacific Ocean, this hike never visits the coast, instead following the Little River up its narrow and extraordinarily verdant gulch. Ferns, fungi, and redwoods grow in the canyon, where the flat and wide trail makes numerous crossings over the Little River on pretty bridges. The focus of this hike is on the lushness en route rather than any particular destination, so hikers with less time can come here for a shorter hike and still be able to appreciate much of what makes Fern Canyon special.

I hiked Fern Canyon with Anna during a trip to the Mendocino Coast. The trailhead is over a three hour drive from the Bay Area but is just a short drive south from both Fort Bragg and Mendocino; from either town, reach the trailhead by taking Highway 1 south to the town of Little River and turning left into Van Damme State Park. After passing the entrance station, follow the park road, staying to the right at every single intersection, passing the campground and crossing a narrow bridge before coming to the trailhead at the road's end, where there is a small parking lot. 

From the trailhead, we followed the wide and flat Fern Canyon Scenic Trail further upstream along the Little River. The trail is actually a former road trace, meaning that the trail through the canyon is consistently wide and level; however, the path is a bit too bumpy for wheelchairs and strollers in most places. Still, with minimal elevation gain, this was an easy hike. The lush surroundings of Fern Canyon started immediately from the trailhead: the slopes of the gulch were covered with dense fern foliage while numerous firs and redwoods rose above to form a high, green canopy.

Fern Canyon Scenic Trail along the Little River
The scenery generally stayed the same over the course of the hike; the Fern Canyon Scenic Trail ends 2.5 miles from the trailhead at a junction with trails that lead towards the Van Damme State Park pygmy forest. Hikers short on time can turn back at any point, as the scenery is generally quite constant, although it's extremely pleasant to walk through this overwhelming green landscape. We turned back about a mile and a half up the canyon.

Fern Canyon
Along the way, we passed by a couple of notable landmarks: the most incredible was a massive redwood stump that I initially thought was a rock. This stump approached about 20 feet in diameter- a reminder that as beautiful as Fern Canyon is today in its second-growth form, the old growth forests that once filled this canyon must have been even more impressive. Unfortunately, most of the old growth redwood forests along the Mendocino Coast have been downed and fed to lumber mills in nearby towns.

Massive redwood stump
Fern Canyon
The landscape here was remarkably lush for California and was more remniscent of the Pacific Northwest in many ways. Undergrowth covered the ground and fungi grew from the sides of fallen tree trunks; in places, redwood trees sprouted from the stumps of former trees.

Fungi growing on a log
The trail crossed ten scenic, well-built bridges on its way up the canyon; a few of the bridges spanned streams feeding into the canyon but most of these bridges were beautiful, slightly-arched spans crossing the Little River itself. In late October, before the arrival of autumn rains, the Little River really was a very little river- there was barely any flow left. However, once rainfall begins replinishing the river in late fall, coho salmon will swim back up the Little River to spawn. A number of interpretive placards along the trail discussed the recovering salmon populations of this river, mentioning how well-intentioned Civilian Conservation Corps projects to build a path through this canyon had resulted in rock barriers along the Little River that prevented salmon from traveling upstream.

Bridge across the Little River in Fern Canyon
This is a lovely hike in the Mendocino Coast region, a perfect option for a foggy day when there are few views along the coast. We encountered few other hikers on this trail on a fall Friday, but this hike is quite popular when the Mendocino area receives an influx of Bay Area visitors each weekend. 

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Big Hendy

Big Hendy
1.5 miles loop, 20 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Hendy Woods State Park entrance fee required

The towering old growth redwoods of Hendy Woods offer a quiet woodland escape in the Coast Range of northern California. Located amidst the vineyards and apple orchards of Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, Hendy Woods is a beautiful and impressive redwood grove that sees fewer visitors than more famous groves to both the north and south. Big Hendy, a grove on a floodplain, showcases the most spectacular redwoods in the park and can be explored on a short and flat hike. There is a network of trails running through Big Hendy; the most scenic and rewarding hike is to start on the Discovery Loop and then explore the more remote corner of the grove on the Upper Loop Trail. Big Hendy is a good stop for travelers heading to Mendocino; if you're looking specifically to see redwoods, there are many groves closer to the Bay Area that are quiet and require less driving to access and there are far more extensive redwood forests further north in Humboldt and Del Norte counties.

I visited Hendy Woods State Park with Anna during an October trip to the Mendocino Coast. Hendy Woods is just under an hour's drive from Mendocino and Fort Bragg and is about two and a half hours from San Francisco. To reach Hendy Woods State Park from the south, follow US 101 north from the Bay Area to exit 522 at the north end the town of Cloverdale. After exiting, turn left onto the North Redwood Highway and follow it south for a mile, then turn right onto CA Highway 128 heading west towards Mendocino and Fort Bragg. Follow windy Highway 128 northwest for an hour from Cloverdale past the towns of Boonville and Philo and turn left onto the Philo-Greenwood Road, following signs for Hendy Woods State Park. After crossing a narrow bridge on Greenwood Road, turn left at the sign indicating the entrance for Hendy Woods State Park; follow the state park road to its end at the picnic and day use area, stopping at the entrance station to pay the entrance fee along the way.

The parking lot lies just outside the redwood grove, so there were no redwoods visible when we started the hike at the trailhead. We headed out on the flat All Access Trail, a broad path that quickly brought us into the Big Hendy grove. After just a tenth of a mile of hiking, we crossed a bridge and arrived at a junction with the Discovery Trail. Here, we turned left and took the Discovery Trail into the heart of Big Hendy. The Discovery Trail quickly split into the two different directions of a loop; we took the right fork first to do the loop counterclockwise.

Big Hendy
The Discovery Trail was flat as it traveled through this 80 acre grove of soaring trees in the floodplain of the Navarro River. Some of the largest trees of the hike were along the Discovery Trail. At times, the trail was a flat dirt path; at other times, it was carried through the grove by a boardwalk, which allowed us to closely approach some of the massive redwoods in the grove without compacting the soil near the trees and damaging their roots. 

Massive redwood on the Discovery Trail
Some of the trees in the grove were truly enormous, soaring over 300 feet tall. Coast redwoods are the tallest trees in the world and at one point in time, the tallest known tree in the world was here in Mendocino County, at a separate inland redwood grove, Montgomery Woods. The biggest tree that I saw in the grove was next to the boardwalk and had a diameter at its base that was easily 20 feet in diameter.

Soaring redwoods
Many of the redwoods in the grove had blackened bark at their base, scars that tell stories of a past fire in the grove. More than a few trees had burned out cavities at their base, some of which allowed visitors to walk through a tree entirely. While these scars illustrated the power of fire, the fact that so many of the giants in this grove still stood even after fires was a testament to the hardiness of these trees; it also gives me hope that perhaps the redwoods of Big Basin and the sequoias of Camp Nelson, both of which suffered terribly in the raging 2020 California wildfires, will have survived these latest insults as well.

Redwoods of Big Hendy
After following the Discovery Trail for a fifth of a mile, we came to a junction between the Discovery Trail and the Upper Loop Trail. We went straight at this intersection onto the Upper Loop Trail, which we took to explore more of the grove. We followed the Upper Loop for 0.3 miles to another junction, this time with the Back Loop Trail. Skipping the Back Loop, we took the left fork at this intersection and cut north across the grove on the Upper Loop. Shortly afterward, the Back Loop Trail rejoined the Upper Loop and we passed a junction with a trail that led out of the grove to the banks of the Navarro River. We stayed on the Upper Loop Trail through all of this and continued onward until we rejoined the Discovery Trail at 1.2 miles into the hike. At this junction, we continued straight on the Discovery Trail and closed the loop when we returned to the junction with the All Access Trail; we then turned right and followed the All Access Trail back to the trailhead.

Redwoods
Frequent visitors to redwood groves know that ground cover in these forests can help shape the beauty and atmosphere of a grove. Big Hendy is known for its ferns and carpets of redwood sorrel on the ground, which is likely how the grove looks during spring and in wetter months. We visited Hendy Woods in late October, after a particularly dry summer and found only patchy redwood sorrel and ferns here; the understory was a bit brown and dusty. Nevertheless, the sheer size of the trees were still enough to make this a beautiful grove.

Big Hendy
Hendy Woods' name derives from Joshua Hendy, an engineer and industrialist who founded a major American engineering company- Joshua Hendy Iron Works- that ran from the mid-1800s until being bought out by Westinghouse in 1947. Ironically, Hendy achieved his initial fortune by building one of California's earliest redwood lumber sawmills along the Navarro River, launching a booming timber industry along the North Coast that swallowed vast tracts of massive old-growth trees in Mendocino and Humboldt counties. Hendy's company- founded in San Francisco but later based in Sunnyvale- later produced mining and earth-moving equipment that was used to regrade Seattle's downtown and dig the Panama Canal. Interestingly enough, Joshua Hendy cared enough about the redwoods in this particular grove to protect them; despite contributing to the demise of redwood forests along the rest of the coast, Hendy requested in his will that his sons protect the old growth redwoods of Hendy Woods. However, his sons later sold this land to timber companies and it was the state of California that ultimately stepped in to purchase and preserve this grove of thousand year-old trees.

Big Hendy redwoods
This is a worthwhile redwood grove to visit if you're driving through Anderson Valley; since the hike is short but the grove is beautiful, this can easily be a half hour or half day stop. If you're visiting the park in the autumn, be sure to stop at one of the nearby apple orchards to enjoy cider and buy some heirloom apples.

Sunlight filters into Big Hendy

Friday, February 5, 2021

Castle Rock State Park (SF Bay Area)

Santa Cruz Mountains from Goat Rock
4.5 miles loop, 1050 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate, some mild rock scrambling
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Castle Rock State Park entrance fee required

Castle Rock is a popular state park just outside San Jose, California with enjoyable views over the forested Santa Cruz Mountains. This loop through the park utilizes the Saratoga Gap and Ridge Trails and delivers some great views over canyons and ridges of redwoods. While a shorter version of this loop is an extremely popular hike with locals, considering doing this slightly longer loop for more views and to have a brief escape from the crowds that pack this trail on weekends.

Castle Rock is a very short drive from San Jose and the South Bay. Approaching from CA Highway 85, we took the exit for Saratoga Ave and followed Saratoga Ave southwest through the town of Saratoga, where it became CA Highway 9. We followed the windy CA Highway 9 through many twists and turns up to Saratoga Gap and then turned left onto Skyline Blvd (CA Highway 35) at the gap. We followed Skyline Blvd south for 2.5 miles and then turned off on the left into the Castle Rock State Park parking area. This newly constructed entrance for Castle Rock State Park has a large parking lot with well over a hundred spots; still, this is a popular destination and parking can fill on nice weekends. State park entrance fees were payable at a kiosk at the trailhead.

Two trails lead out from the new parking area: we took the one on the right, which leaves from right next to the ranger kiosk and passes a picnic area. This trail- the Waterfall Connector Trail- then descended into the forest and joined with the Saratoga Gap Trail at 0.3 miles. At the junction, we took the right fork, which followed the Saratoga Gap Trail downhill along Kings Creek through some scenic woodlands.

Woods along the Saratoga Gap Trail
We crossed a footbridge over Kings Creek and came to a second trail junction at 0.45 miles. Here, the Ridge Trail ascended off to the right while the Saratoga Gap continued a gradual descent to the left. We stayed on the Saratoga Gap Trail to the left, continuing through the forest.

At 0.6 miles, the trail passed by a viewing platform for Castle Rock Falls. This platform was closed at the time of my second hike but had been open during a previous visit; however, you're not missing much if it's closed. I was very unimpressed by the waterfall during my initial visit: it's simply a trickle down a smooth rock face. This waterfall could be worth seeing after heavy rainfall but otherwise is fine to skip.

The descent ended shortly after passing the waterfall and the Saratoga Gap soon opened up into the chaparral-covered southern slopes of Goat Rock. The trail had many short stretches of ups and downs here and crossed over many small rocky outcrops; while not particularly difficult, some hikers may find that they need to use their hands. For the next mile and a half, the trail was filled with constant views, mainly to the southwest, encompassing the redwood-filled San Lorenzo watershed below us and stretching all the way to the Pacific Ocean. A large swath of these forests were burned in the 2020 CZU August Lightning Complex Fire, which was sparked by an intense thunderstorm in the area and ended up burning the better part of a hundred thousand acres of the San Francisco Peninsula, including the redwoods of beloved Big Basin State Park. 

View over the Santa Cruz Mountains from the Saratoga Gap Trail
The trail passed through a forest in a gulch at 1.1 miles; here, a spur trail to the left descended briefly to visit a small grove of second growth redwoods, the only redwoods growing directly along the trail on this hike.

Second growth redwoods just off the Saratoga Gap Trail
Past the redwoods, we returned to the open slopes with wide views. Looking to the south, I soon realized that the views here extended beyond the local Santa Cruz Mountains: I could see all the way down to Monterey Bay and the Santa Lucia Mountains that form the backbone of the Big Sur region. The many rocky outcrops of Goat Rock rose above the trail. Although the views were good, there were few places to stop and enjoy them: the trail was not terribly wide, there were lots of hikers, and the few outcrops and wide spots in the trail were mostly already occupied by other visitors.

Santa Cruz and Santa Lucia Ranges
Goat Rock
While the forests below in the San Lorenzo watershed were lush and filled with redwoods, the southern slopes of Goat Rock were much drier, sporting oak trees and some deciduous bushes. This meant that there was a nice bit of fall color here during our early December visit, with patches of yellow and red color in the bushes and trees.

Fall on the Saratoga Gap Trail
At 1.4 miles, the Saratoga Gap Trail came to a junction with a connector trail leading over to the Ridge Trail. Almost all of the hikers that we saw here took the right fork and headed up the connector trail for a short loop: doing so trims this to a 3-mile loop hike. However, because almost all visitors do shorten their hike here, it's well worth it to continue onward on the Saratoga Gap Trail and enjoy the scenery on the farther loop, which sees minimal foot traffic.

At 1.5 miles, we rounded a ridge and came to a great view to the northwest along the Santa Cruz Mountains. Here, we could see some mountains that we hadn't been able to see earlier on the Saratoga Gap Trail, including heavily forested Butano Ridge. From this point, the Saratoga Gap Trail continued descending steadily over the next half mile through the chaparral covered slopes. We enjoyed the constant views of the surrounding mountains.

Looking northwest along the Santa Cruz Mountains
Redwood-filled drainage of the San Lorenzo River
At 2 miles, the trail crossed a very steep and rocky part of the mountain slope. Some rock scrambling was necessary here and a cable bolted to the rock provided a handhold for a narrow crossing over a cliff. Acrophobes may have a bit of trouble here but this stretch was really not as bad as it looked or sounds. This short cliff walk also marked the low elevation point of the hike.

Cables on the Saratoga Gap Trail
After completing the cliff walk, we caught some final views before the Saratoga Gap Trail returned to the forest and then made a sharp turn around the ridge at 2.1 miles. The trail passed through a drier forest of madrone and oak here, with occasional lusher patches sporting ferns on the forest floor. While the Saratoga Gap Trail had been fairly quiet, we began hearing constant gunshots here, the sound drifting over from a nearby gun club. At 2.3 miles, we arrived a junction with the Ridge Trail and a trail leading to the Castle Rock Trail Camp; we took the right fork here and began the return leg of the loop on the Ridge Trail.

Ferns growing in the understory on the Saratoga Gap Trail
The Ridge Trail started with a steady ascent through a madrone forest to Russell Point, a viewpoint along the ridge of Castle Rock at 2.5 miles into the hike that had a nice view out over the San Lorenzo watershed, quite similar to the views we had seen along the Saratoga Gap Trail. Leaving Russell Point, we started on an extended ascent along the forested ridge. After passing around the back side of Varian Peak, the Ridge Trail dropped slightly to a saddle at 3.2 miles where it intersected with the connector trail that we had passed earlier. We had enjoyed complete solitude while hiking the far end of the loop, but once we passed the junction with the connector trail there was once again a good bit of traffic on the Ridge Trail.

The Ridge Trail continued uphill through the woods. At 3.3 miles, we made a short detour to a nice viewpoint on the right side of the trail where we could see out to the Santa Lucia Mountains again. At 3.7 miles, we took the right fork at a junction with the trail leading to the interpretive center. The Ridge Trail swung to the south and ascended just a bit more to reach the high point of the hike at Goat Rock at 3.9 miles. The rock itself was off to the right of the trail and required some scrambling to reach the top; we decided to skip the scramble and instead visit some of the other nearby viewpoints.

Views from the Ridge Trail
Leaving Goat Rock, the trail dropped a beautiful staircase where distant ridges were visible through the gaps in foliage of the colorful deciduous trees above. 

Forested trail at Goat Rock
At the bottom of the staircase, the trail came to an open rocky outcrop with beautiful views. Goat Rock rose to the northwest; this massive sandstone outcrop has a remarkable honeycomb structure known as tafoni, which occurs in various places along the California coast. The rock is very popular with rock climbers: we saw a couple of climbers on the rock during our visit. Although we were hiking in Castle Rock State Park, many of the best views and most impressive rock outcrops in the park were at Goat Rock: Castle Rock, a sandstone outcrop further to the east, is in a more subdued setting. The overlook also provided some lovely final views of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Goat Rock
Sunset over the Santa Cruz Mountains from Goat Rock

As the sun set, we made our way back down the final stretch of the Ridge Trail, which descended steadily through some rocky stretches to return to the junction with the Saratoga Gap Trail at 4.1 miles. From the junction, we followed the Saratoga Gap and then the Waterfall Connector Trail back uphill to the parking lot.

This is a nice hike that is a very short drive from the San Jose area, which could be either a positive or negative attribute. The views are enjoyable but the trail is often crowded; hike the whole loop to find some solitude as the loop's far end. Visitors with limited time in the Bay would be better served heading to big name summits like Diablo or Mt. Tam but this is a good option for local hikers looking for a scenic half-day jaunt.