Monday, February 7, 2022

Montgomery Grove

Redwoods of Montgomery Flat
1.8 miles loop, 250 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved but narrow road to trailhead, no fee required

A strip of towering coast redwoods- once thought to include the world’s tallest tree- grows on either side of Montgomery Creek in remote Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve, nestled in the mountains of Mendocino County in Northern California. A short and fairly easy hike visits the heart of the forest in Montgomery Flat, home of the 368-foot tall Mendocino Tree that was the world’s recorded arboreal height champion from 1995 to 2006 and remains the eleventh tallest known tree on our planet. This redwood forest is small but enjoyable and has some truly impressive giants, although it cannot match the lusher forests of Humboldt Redwoods and Redwood National Park farther to the north. The grove’s remote location prevents overcrowding, although you’re still bound to see a handful of other hikers here on a nice weekend.

I hiked to Montgomery Grove on a late September day at the end of one of the driest California summers on record. I visited Montgomery Flat far later than the other major redwood regions of the Northern California Coast, in part because of the difficulty in planning a trip around it: it was difficult to justify the long drive from the Bay for such a day hike, there were few other nearby hikes to couple it with for a full weekend outing (besides heading to the Mendocino Coast afterwards), and the windy drive from Ukiah made it an impractically long side trip on my drives up or down from Humboldt County’s more expansive forests. But on a weekend when the intense flames of the KNP Complex Fire were engulfing Sequoia National Park’s Muir Grove on the other side of the state, I remembered the fragility of California’s giant trees and recalled the damage wrought the previous year by the CZU Lightning Complex in Big Basin and decided that I should see Montgomery Woods without delay.

The parking area for Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve is about two and a half hours north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Leaving San Francisco, I took US 101 north for about 110 miles to Ukiah, leaving the highway at Exit 551 for State Street, just north of the town itself. I turned right onto State Street to head north and then after a quarter mile, I turned left onto Orr Springs Road. I followed Orr Springs Road up and over a high, scenic, and grassy ridge into the Big River watershed, descending into the forest along the Big River and passing the handful of houses that made up Orr Springs. The Orr Springs Road was very windy and at times narrowed to such a point that there was no lane divider. About 14 miles after turning onto Orr Springs Road, I came to a sign for Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve and turned off into the small parking lot on the left (south) side of the road, arriving at the trailhead. Hikers arriving from Mendocino can follow the Comptche-Ukiah Road east from that town along the Big River until they reach the trailhead.

Orr Springs Road
I started the hike by following the road trace that departs from the parking lot into the forest. The trail briefly skirted Montgomery Creek before crossing the creek on the footbridge; here, I turned left and took the trail that followed Montgomery Creek upstream. The trail ascended about 200 feet over the next third of a mile, which was the only ascent of note on the whole hike. There were a handful of redwoods along this stretch of trail but generally the forest here was unimpressive.

At 0.3 miles into the hike, the trail rounded the top of a small hump and very suddenly arrived at lower Montgomery Flat. The drier, mundane forest through which I hiked initially was replaced with a cool, shady forest of soaring redwoods. The trail descended slightly to enter the grove and came to a junction where the two directions of the loop split. I did the loop through Montgomery Flat counterclockwise, although there wasn’t a particular reason to pick one direction over the other.

Entering Montgomery Flat
As its name suggests, Montgomery Flat is an alluvial flat of a little over a half mile long along Montgomery Creek. The flatter terrain and moist environment here supports this lovely redwood forest. The most impressive trees in the flat are at the lower and upper ends of the flat, at the start and at the far reach of the loop trail. While I found the redwoods quite impressive in September, visitors coming earlier in the year will likely find even more to enjoy here: Montgomery Creek, dry at the time of my visit, burbles through the grove in spring and supports a dense carpet of redwood sorrel, which had mostly wilted by the time of my visit.

Redwoods in lower Montgomery Flat
Over the next two thirds of a mile, I followed the trail along the south side of Montgomery Creek. Numerous giants lined the trail, their grey and maroon trunks lit by patterned sunlight filtering through the lofty canopy. At particularly scenic stretches, carpets of ferns covered the forest floor, providing a lush complement to the majestic trunks.

Sea of ferns along the Montgomery Trail
Montgomery Woods
Montgomery Woods
Montgomery Woods
The trees became ever taller as I hiked further along the creek, crescendoing until they reached their zenith as I approached upper Montgomery Flat, which was at the far end of the loop. Here, many trunks soared out of sight as they reached into the late afternoon sky. The most impressive trunk here was that of Montgomery Giant, a monstrous redwood that rose from the north end of the footbridge crossing Montgomery Creek at the far end of the loop. Montgomery Giant is the largest tree in Montgomery Woods and, at 360 feet tall, the fourth tallest here. There are two other major named trees in the grove, Norman Hendry and Mendocino, but neither is directly next to the trail. Mendocino was though to be the tallest tree in the world for about a decade starting in 1995 after it was measured to be 368 feet tall; Humboldt Redwoods’ Stratosphere Giant later usurped its crown until Hyperion in Redwood National Park claimed and has held the current champion status at just shy of 380 feet tall.

Montgomery Giant
Montgomery Woods was burned by the 2008 Orr Complex Fire, an early season lightning fire that swept through part of the Mendocino County coastal mountains. Luckily, fire intensity was not too strong and even though the understory in the park was incinerated, the large redwoods here generally remained intact. Visiting just 13 years later, the impacts of this fire were no longer obvious- the groundcover had grown back nicely.

The walk back along the northern arc of the loop was most scenic at first, as I skirted those most impressive redwoods in upper Montgomery Flat. The character of the grove became a bit more plain as I continued along the return leg before finally picking up when I returned to lower Montgomery Flat, where the trail passed through lush fern carpets in the vicinity of a second crossing over Montgomery Creek. After I closed the loop on the trail, I followed the access trail that had brought me to Montgomery Flat back downhill to the parking area.

Upper Montgomery Woods
Upper Montgomery Flat
Montgomery Woods
Soaring redwoods
Overall, Montgomery Grove is a worthwhile destination to see soaring coast redwoods. However, visitors in Northern California who have enough time to drive to Humboldt County should skip this grove to head to Humboldt Redwoods and Redwood National Park, while those with brief time in the Bay Area may still find this a bit too far to be a feasible trip. Ultimately, most visitors here will understandably be locals and Bay Area residents who want to experience a lesser known but still majestic forest.

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