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.

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