Jughandle State Reserve features a 2½-mile self-guided nature trail called the Ecological Staircase. Starting by the ocean, this trail goes inland up a series of five ancient terraces formed by waves, glacier, and tectonic activity. Each terrace was uplifted from the sea about 100,000 years after the previous was raised. The lowest terrace is prairie, followed by a pine forest, then a redwood forest, and finally a pygmy forest with knee-high trees that are decades old. The trail features an amazing variety of trees, since the ecologies of the different terraces vary widely.
Trail markers point out: (5) Sitka Spruce; (6) Grand Fir; (8) Pink Currant; (9) Bishop Pine; (12) Shining Willow; (13) Red Alder; (14) Red Elderberry; (17) Monterey Pine; (2) Douglas Fir; (21) Hairy Manzanita; (22) Rhododendron; (23) Tanbark Oak; (24) Redwood; (26) Red Huckleberry; (28) Western Hemlock; (31) Blue Huckleberry; (33) Bolander Pine; and (35) Pygmy Cypress.
The Pygmy Forest only occurs in a few places in northern Caliofrnia. Trees and shrubs are stunted by an extremely nutrient-poor, very acidic soil (1000 times more than a redwood forest, equivalent to vinegar). This soil covers an iron hardpan – the five terraces along the trail. Since the soil never dries out beneath the surface, only certain plants can tolerate the low oxygen levels in the soil. Be sure to stay on the boardwalk to avoid damage to the fragile ecosystem here!
Access: the reserve is on Highway One, 4¾ miles north of Mendocino, and 3 miles south of Fort Bragg. Turn west off Highway One into the well-marked parking area. 707-937-5804
Distance and Time: 5 miles round trip; about 3 hours.
Alternate: a short, easy trail goes west from the parking lot down to Jughandle Beach.