Bay Area residents who prefer to hike in cooler, coastal temperatures in the 50-70 degrees range rather than hotter, inland temperatures in the 90s-100s will usually find more comfortable conditions in Mendocino. Of course, just as living near the ocean means the temperature is moderated, it also can mean morning fog that burns off (or lasts all day), so wearing layers of clothing is advised. When you take the second hike described in this series, you will move through a couple of micro-climates, so expect some changes and carry water.
The Ecological Staircase walk in Jug Handle State Natural Reserve (SNR): Jug Handle SNR is on Highway 1, one mile north of Caspar and about halfway between Mendocino and Fort Bragg. This is a three to four drive from the S.F. Bay Area.
The Ecological Staircase is a fine choice for those wanting a peaceful getaway from the busy Bay Area, and for those who are interested in the area’s geological history, it’s a fascinating study. As described, this is a five-mile, moderate hike climbing 300 feet; allow two-three hours.
Jug Handle State Natural Reserve is a rare place because there are few places on earth where one can so easily see a series of terraces, each of which demonstrates one stage in a series of successional environments.
There are five terraces; each has been formed by the actions of glaciers, the sea, plate tectonics, and wind. Each of the terraces was uplifted and modified by natural processes 100,000 years before the terrace below it. Because the highest terrace has been exposed the longest, it has had the longest time to show the effects of weathering and for the vegetation to evolve.
Your hike: Grab a map of the park to begin your self-guided tour and then follow the signed trail west toward the ocean through the pine forest carpeted with low-growing iris, blackberries, and grasses. You’ll soon be on a windswept prairie of native and non-native grasses sprinkled with golden California Poppies and sea thrift. Upon reaching the ocean-side bluffs, you can see the exposed layers of sandstone of this first terrace—the first step of the ecological staircase that you are going to ascend.
Your path follows the bluffs around to the north and east on a narrow dirt trail passing many Sitka Spruce, firs, and pine trees bent and gnarly from the near-constant prevailing winds. Then the trail ducks under the highway and crosses Jug Handle Creek on a wooden footbridge. Here there appears to be more varied vegetation—including willow, alder, current, and elderberry—and birds.
As you climb—each level about 100 feet higher than the next—you won’t find signs indicating where you are leave one level and enter the next, but you will notice that the vegetation changes—spruce and Grand fir trees now predominate. Rhododendron and leathery-leafed tanbark grow profusely. You enter a redwood forest—redwoods that occur along the West Coast from southern Oregon to central coast of California because of the summer fog and moderate temperatures.
Finally, you reach the pygmy forest—a habitat with hundreds of trees that are short, stunted versions of their relatives downhill. It's all because of the poor soil that has low nutrient content and is extremely acidic. That’s caused in part because the thin top layer of soil sits over hardpan—a solid layer of rock and soil that plants' roots can’t penetrate. In addition, the layer of soil overlying the hardpan has become oxygen-deprived because of water during the rainy season that doesn't run off, but sits and saturates the soil.
The trail now becomes a boardwalk to avoid the slippery conditions during the rainy season. Though several kinds of trees and plants have managed to adapt to this environment, they look weak. Bollander Pines that might grow to 75 feet tall in richer soils and with better drainage are here only a few feet tall even though many of them are a century old. The rhododendrons here are about three-feet tall and look anemic and scrawny compared to the ones found in the redwood forest at lower elevations.
When you reach the end of the trail at the highest level, you can either retrace your steps or (recommended) hop onto Gibney Fire Road for a quicker return to the main trail leading back to the parking area.
Open: Sunrise to Sunset, parking area. Ranger’s office phone number in Fort Bragg is (707) 937-5804. No parking or entrance fee. Restrooms and drinking water.
Accommodations: The closest accommodations are at the Jug Handle Creek Farm and Nature Center. There you’ll find a campground, cabins, and farmhouse. Guests staying in the cabins and farmhouse can use the kitchen, library, bath and shower rooms, and other common rooms in the farmhouse. Jug Handle Creek Farm is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) nature education center and overnight lodging facility. Its 39 acres include a native plant nursery, community gardens, forests, meadows, and nature trails.
There are also a wide range of other accommodations in the area including B and B’s, hotels, and motels, and state and private campgrounds.
Coming up: Exploring Fern Canyon Trail in Van Damme State Park and a luxurious stay at Heritage House Resort near Little River.