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.

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