Considering that most of Mendocino isn't surrounded by land at all, but by the crashing Pacific Ocean, it's amazing just how many diverse eco-niches you can explore near this coastal town. Rivers and streams wind their way past sword ferns and huckleberry bushes. Redwoods reach for the sky near pygmy pine forests. Waterfalls, blowholes, and wildflower-dotted bluffs invite even the most timid of outdoor enthusiasts to take a closer look.
Luckily, the state of California recognized the value of this ecological bonanza and began setting some of it aside for preservation in 1932. The result is five state parks, five state beaches, a state forest, and a state reserve within a 12-mile radius of the town. Whether you're a surfer, cyclist, or bird-watcher, the area simply begs to be explored.
So after napping in front of the fireplace, window-shopping along Mendocino's gallery-lined streets, or eating a rich meal prepared with regional foodstuffs, devote some time to nature. We've picked three unique spots as a starting point: Jughandle State Preserve, Van Damme State Park, and the Mendocino Headlands State Park—with walks ranging from a casual boardwalk stroll to a moderately difficult hike along an interpretive trail.
Dances with Pygmies: Jughandle State Reserve
Earthquakes serve as jarring reminders of the power of the tectonic plates deep beneath the Pacific Coast. But 4 miles north of Mendocino, Jug Handle State Reserve provides a more tempered view of how the Earth's plates have shaped the evolution of the landscape.
The park preserves a series of five marine terraces, collectively known as an "ecological staircase." The name is a bit deceiving: The 100-foot elevation changes don't manifest themselves as cliffs but as a steady slope that shifts flora and fauna about every 100 feet. A 5-mile (round-trip) interpretive trail takes you on a gradual, 300-foot climb to explore the youngest three of the five terraces, with the option to continue along a fire road to the top two levels.
While the differences between the terraces may be evident, a 50-cent brochure (available near the parking lot) helps explain the ecological and geological forces that have caused these variations. Marked numbers along the trail correspond with plant descriptions in the brochure.
The interpretive trail begins by winding its way in a 1/2-mile loop along the bluff above Jughandle Bay, where wildflowers abound during the summer months. From this windswept terrace the trail branches off and then quickly forks. Beachcombers should head left to the sandy beach. For the interpretive trail, keep right and pass underneath Highway 1.
Soon the commotion of toppling waves and laughing gulls gives way to a quiet wind rustling through gnarled Sitka spruces and Bishop pines on the second terrace. Elderberry and willow trees arch over Jughandle Creek, filtering the amount of sunlight and keeping the creek's temperature ideal for local fish such as coho salmon and steelhead trout. When the rains begin in late November and early December, you may see the salmon returning to their birthplace to complete their life cycle.
Further on lies the third terrace: a coastal redwood grove sprinkled with western hemlock, Douglas fir, and blue huckleberry bushes. The undergrowth thins as you enter the grove, and mushrooms and woodpecker holes adorn the trees.
As the trail leaves this world of soaring giants, it intersects a fire road. Turn right and follow the interpretive signs to the most surreal of the trail's ecosystems: the pygmy forest. Here, fully matured trees such as Bishop and Bolander pines and Mendocino cypress stand at heights that will make any hiker feel like Paul Bunyan. Most don't even make it to 6 feet, thanks to leached soil one thousand times more acidic than the soil found in the redwood grove.
Hikers can plunk down on conveniently located benches to ponder the trees' stunted frames and listen to the roar of the ocean still audible almost 3 miles away. Real go-getters can continue further down the fire road to the fourth and fifth terraces, located in Jackson State Forest.
For more information about Jug Handle State Reserve, call the Mendocino State Parks office at (707) 937-5804 or visit them online at www.mcn.org. The office also arranges guided hikes in the park.
Move over Jean-Claude: Van Damme State Park
Easy access to a sandy beach and a coastal valley, along with an abundance of campsites, makes Van Damme State Park perfect for both daytime exploration and overnighting in the great outdoors.
Located 2 miles south of Mendocino, the park offers a number of activities. Ample sand and space make beachcombing a viable option. Abalone divers and sea kayakers prowl the waters of the protected cove amid sentinel-like sea stacks and underwater rock shelves. But Van Damme's star attraction is the Fern Canyon Trail, a 5-mile round-trip hiking and biking trail with an elevation gain of only 200 feet.
Before setting out, pick up the 50-cent brochure at the ranger station for a self-guided, interpretive tour of the life cycle of the coho salmon, a species native to the park's creeks and waterways. From the station, continue down the paved road; veer right at the fork to reach the trailhead next to campground No. 26.
Second-growth redwoods and red alders tower above the valley floor as the trail weaves through five-finger, deer, and sword ferns. Had it been called the Green Canyon Trail, the name would be just as appropriate as its current moniker: The canyon's verdant vegetation would give a big box of Crayola crayons stiff competition for varieties of green.
The trail encourages dawdling as it meanders over the river several times. During the winter and spring, some rock hopping may be required to avoid getting your feet wet. Along the way, you'll see remnants of retaining walls built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the late 1930s and early '40s. The CCC also built rock crossings on the Little River, though many impeded the progress of migrating salmon and have been replaced by wooden bridges.
After continuing east, the train ends at a 3.5-mile loop trail along an old logging road. This loop is more difficult than the Fern Canyon Trail but the extra sweat may be worth it to see the pygmy forest of Bishop pine and Mendocino pygmy cypress. Stunted by highly acidic soil, the trees reach heights of only 5 to 6 feet and can do wonders for anyone with a Napoleon complex.
For those who'd like to visit the pygmy forest without the hike, drive south on Highway 1 from the park, turn left on Little River Airport Road, and continue approximately 3 miles east to the pygmy forest parking lot. From there, a 1/4-mile boardwalk trail provides wheelchair access to the trees.
If you're interested in sleeping under the stars, Van Damme State Park maintains 74 drive-in campsites, as well as three shower facilities. Campers interested in getting even closer to nature may want to reserve one of the 10 hike-in environmental sites, popular with long-distance cyclists pedaling their way down the Pacific Coast. The sites are located 2 miles from the Fern Canyon trailhead in a conifer forest scattered with redwood stumps—the hulking remnants of the valley's logging era.
There's a $2 fee to drive into the park, but day-hikers can avoid paying by parking at the beach or pygmy trailhead lots. At the entrance to the park, a former CCC recreation hall houses the park's visitor center and museum that's open daily 10-4 (weekends only in winter). For more information about Van Damme State Park, call (707) 937-5804. For camping reservations, call (800) 444-7275.
On the Waterfront: Mendocino Headlands State Park
Trails wind alongside sandstone cliffs. Flowers flourish on the windswept bluff. Tidepools swarm with life. Take a look around and you'll see that Mendocino Headlands State Park has done more to preserve the charm of Mendocino than any historic building in the village.
Mendocino was added to the National Historic Places list in 1971 with the intent of forever being a 19th-century New England-style village stranded on the left shore. However, if not for the creation of the surrounding park in 1974, the timeless character and picturesque views of Mendocino might have been sullied by destination resorts and condominiums.
Thanks to the park, visitors to Mendocino are never more than a few minutes walk away from open space—including 3 miles of trails, windswept beaches, and a surf-spouting blowhole. With hundreds of acres to explore, there's a chance to absorb the coastline's convoluted beauty in relative solitude, even though the area attracts almost a million visitors each year.
A stroll down Main Street reveals several entrances to the park's southern headlands. The trailhead is located at the junction of Main and Heeser streets, and the maze of paths eventually descends the bluff to Big River Beach. From the trailhead, continue steadily east along the well-defined path for an easy 3-mile round-trip.
Below the bluff, the gusty winds so common in the northern and western sections of the park abate, making it a popular destination for picnickers. Beachcombers will find the 1/4-mile-long, sandy beach at the mouth of the Big River inviting, while fans of the surf can venture out into the waves.
The park's western and northern headlands can also be reached from the trailhead by turning right at the first fork in the trail. A blowhole awaits investigation soon after the fork, after which the trail continues for a mile to the northern edge of the park. Visitors who would rather drive can follow Little Lake Street west to a parking lot overlook.
Between the months of December and May, binocular-toting whale-watchers head to the northern and western parts of the park. More than 18,000 California gray whales make the run from the Bering Sea to Baja California and back, with peak sightings occurring in March. Mothers with calves have also been spotted in July.
Other uses for those binoculars include scanning the area for seabirds. Oft-sited species include oystercatchers, cormorants, murrelets, and gulls, who make their homes on the islands just off the coast.
The park permits day use only and camping is not allowed. For more information, contact the Mendocino State Parks office at (707) 937-5804 or online at http://http://www.mendocino.org/html/parks.html. Free interpretive park walks sponsored by the Mendocino Area Parks Association leave from the Ford House Museum (735 Main Street, 707-937-5397), which also displays artifacts and memorabilia from Mendocino's early years.
This article was first published in July 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.