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. 

No comments:

Post a Comment