Friday, March 5, 2021

Ten Mile Dunes

Ten Mile Dunes on the Mendocino Coast
3.5 miles loop, 300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate, some basic route-finding necessary
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

The Ten Mile Dunes are the largest sand dunes on the Northern California coast but receive little attention. These coastal sand dunes reach about a hundred feet in height and the interior of the dunefield is quiet despite being just miles north of the popular coastal retreat of Fort Bragg. There are no established trails leading through the dunefield, which, despite its name, is only about five miles in length from north to south and just under a mile from east to west at its widest point. However, the open landscape of dunes makes navigation through the dunes quite straightforward. The hike described here makes a loop through the most impressive dunes at Ten Mile Dunes and returns to the trailhead with a walk along MacKerricher Beach. Hikers will appreciate that these dunes do not allow motorized recreation but sand dune aficionados may find these dunes small in comparison to better known dunes along the Oregon Coast or at Colorado's Great Sand Dunes.

Due to the trailless terrain of the dunes, you can make whatever type of hike you want here. I'll described a loop that travels clockwise through the most impressive dunes: this route starts off by traveling near the eastern end of the dunefield where the dunes are the tallest and then cuts across the dunes to the coast, where it follows the beach back north to the Ten Mile River and then the trailhead. You don't need to follow the route that I describe here: once on the dunes, you can go where you wish. 

I visited the Ten Mile Dunes during a trip to the Mendocino Coast. The trailhead is just north of Fort Bragg: from the town, I followed Highway 1 north for 8 miles and then parked in a small lot on the left (west) side of the road. The trailhead parking lot- which is mainly used as an access point for MacKerricher Beach- is only marked from the main road from a sign that read "Coastal Access" and the parking area came just before Highway 1 crossed a bridge over the Ten Mile River.

From the parking area, I followed a trail that paralleled Highway 1 while heading to the northwest. This path paralleled Highway 1 until reaching the start of the Ten Mile River Bridge, at which point the trail broke off to the left and began to descend towards the beach. The trail was quite brushy at points here and soon the surface of the trail transitioned to sand. Just over 100 meters after leaving the bridge, the path came to an unmarked split: the more obvious path led to the right, descending down to a more established road trace that ran next to the Ten Mile River. Another trail split off to the left, making a bit of an uphill climb into sandy terrain. I took the left fork here to head up into the dunes.

The trail ended as I entered the dunefield; footprints led off in all directions. It was initially difficult to see far through the dunes from a low point on the side of the dunefield, but the easiest way to reach the high dunes on the eastern edge of the field was to head uphill while keeping the treeline just to my left. Hiking through the dunes was very much a choose your own adventure: there are no established paths, just open sand to wander through. As with most dunes, it's easiest to ascend on the gentler windward slopes of the dunes and to follow the crests of dunes rather than to tackle the steep leeward slopes. 

The foredunes still had many grasses and other vegetation mixed in but the backdunes were largely barren, just an undulating landscape of sand. The dunes here were quiet and felt quite remote, but in reality were only meters away from Highway 1, separated by a line of trees. The farther I wandered, the fewer footprints I saw. Views of the intensely blue Pacific, Laguna Point in MacKerricher State Park to the south, and the Lost Coast to the north opened up as I climbed onto the crest of some of the highest backdunes. 

Sand dunes and the Pacific
Sand, Pacific, Lost Coast
For the most part, the dunes were only about 50 feet high from crest to trough, although the highest backdunes reach over a hundred feet in elevation above sea level. Though not huge, the dunes were still a striking landscape and made for fun exploration. I made my way south through the dunes until a line of trees started to close off the dunefield to the south; at this point, I turned to the right and began heading west to exit the heart of the dunes.

Sand dunes
Ten Mile Dunes
As I hiked across the dunes towards the coast, the dunes became progressively smaller and had more vegetation. Grasses held some of the coastal foredunes in place, unlike the more mobile backdunes. Somewhere along the way here, I crossed the MacKerricher Haul Road, which runs from Ten Mile River south to Fort Bragg and was once used to transport logs during the heyday of lumber corporations in the area. The segment of the haul road through the dunes has since been buried in sand and I passed it without noticing.

Grassy sand dunes
After a circuituous walk through the maze of dunes, I arrived at the foredunes closest to the beach. From these dunes, I had views back to the expanse of sand that I had hiked through. The forested hills of the California Coast Range rose in the distance, an abrupt ecological transition from the mini-Sahara that I had hiked through.

Gazing back over the Ten Mile Dunes
Arriving at the beach, I turned right and followed the beach north for a mile and a half to return to the trailhead. I saw no other hikers in the dunefield but did pass a couple of visitors walking along the beach here. This stretch of MacKerricher Beach was fairly quiet and I enjoyed my walk through the wet sand, observing washed up kelp, crab shells, and sand dollars. The view of the Lost Coast to the north from this beach was quite impressive; north of the Ten Mile River, the flatter and gentler seaside landscape near Mendocino transitions to mountains rising from the coast, which culminate in the longest roadless stretch of the California Coast where the impressive King Range rises 4000 feet directly from the waters of the Pacific. The Lost Coast includes the westernmost point in California, Cape Mendocino, which marks the geological transition from the transform boundary of the San Andreas Fault to the convergent boundary of the Cascadia subduction zone.

MacKerricher Beach and the Lost Coast
I followed MacKerricher Beach north until reaching its end at Inglenook Fen, an estuary where the Ten Mile River meets the ocean. From here, I finished up my loop hike by following the shore of the fen inland (to the southeast) through some low sand dunes until joining up with the road trace of the MacKerricher Haul Road. After following the haul road briefly, I hopped onto an unmarked but obvious sandy path that led off to the right, heading back uphill to the trailhead parking area along Highway 1.

Inglenook Fen, the estuary of the Ten Mile River
This was an enjoyable hike to visit a set of sizeable of sand dunes on the Northern California coast. Many visitors to the Mendocino Coast may be looking more for redwoods, New England-style coastal villages, and seastacks rising over beaches filled with sea glass, but the Ten Mile Dunes are a chance for a slightly different experience on this famed stretch of coast.

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