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.

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