Coastal Trail Guide

Mendocino Land Trust

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Central Coastal Trails

Hike Our Trails

Mendocino Land Trust has pioneered the way in California for nongovernmental organizations to open and operate public access trail easements. The abundance of coastal access trails helps contribute to the local economy, providing healthy opportunities to get out and enjoy our beautiful coast to residents and visitors alike.

The California Coastal Trail is managed and maintained by a wide variety of Federal, State, County, City, and non-governmental organizations (non-profits) throughout California and on the Mendocino Coast.

  • No cell phone receptionThis location has no cellular reception. Please plan accordingly. We recommend that you download the PDF trail data sheet below to your device prior to your trip to this location.

    The Jug Handle Ecological Staircase Trail, located within the Jug Handle State Natural Preserve, is a 2.5-mile trail that explores the intriguing and unique pygmy forest. The ecological staircase is a series of several marine terraces, each with its own geology, soils, and plant communities. Jug Handle received a "Natural National Landmark" designation because of the site's unique natural history. 

    The Jug Handle Farmhouse, owned and operated by the Jug Handle Creek Farm and Nature Center, offers a variety of overnight accommodations. For those interested in learning about the Jug Handle Ecological Staircase, or the fascinating story of John D. Olmsted and his vision for the "Across California Trail," this is a great place to spend the night.

    The Jug Handle Farm provides a campground and cabins, as well as a Farmhouse lodging for those who may want to stay overnight. To schedule a guided trail walk, contact Jug Handle at (707) 964-4630 or (707) 937-3498.

     

    Dowload the PDF of the Ecological Staircase Self-Guided Nature Trail

    Jug Handle Trail trail map

    Click or tap to view the full-size map.

    Jug Handle Farm has ecological staircase maps as well as State Parks trail maps available.

    Trail Latitude (X): 39.375

    Trail Longitude (Y): -123.817

    Mapping: View vicinity on Google Maps (see Trail Map above or Trail Data Sheet PDF under the Information tab for a more precise map)

    Highway One Mile Marker (north end): 57

    Highway One Mile Marker (south end): 55.75

    Trail Length: 2.5 miles

    There are five distinct layers, or terraces, on the Mendocino Coast. For millions of years, shifting tectonic plates under the ocean pushed up layers of soil and sedimentary rock, forming our iconic cliffs and mountains.  The oldest terraces are furthest from the ocean; the fifth terrace is estimated to be 500,000 years old. The pygmy forest, on the fifth terrace, formed as a result of these tectonic plate movements. Pygmy forest soil is nutrient-deprived because the oldest marine terrace is flat and poorly drained.  After thousands of years of nutrient leaching, the soil became highly acidic, stunting plant growth.  This combination of plate tectonic activity, geology, and ecological process has created the unusual pygmy forest that you find on Jug Handle Ecological Staircase’s top terrace.

  • No cell phone receptionThis location has no cellular reception. Please plan accordingly. We recommend that you download the PDF trail data sheet below to your device prior to your trip to this location.

    The northern trailhead for the Caspar Uplands trail is at Caspar Headlands State Beach, a much-loved pocket beach offering surfing, snorkeling, and picnicking. Just east of this beach, on the Caspar Uplands Trail, is an unusual bench dedicated to Art and Jean Morley. This bench was made by local woodworker Greg Smith, of redwood salvaged from the Pudding Creek Trestle. This hiking trail winds south through fir and riparian forests around Doyle Creek, and then uphill through the southernmost stand of Sitka spruce forest in North America. If you are hiking in the spring, you will hear the whistle of osprey pairs nesting in these trees, and perhaps even catch a glimpse of one returning to its young with a fish in its talons. There are coastal trail connections from the Caspar Uplands trail to both the north and south, though it requires a little ingenuity to find them- to the north is Caspar Headlands State Park, and to the south is Point Cabrillo Lighthouse State Historic Park. If you look at the map, you should be able to figure out how to extend your hike a little longer to include one of these other beautiful state parks.

    Caspar Uplands Trail trail map

    Click or tap to view the full-size map.

    Trail Latitude (X): 39.360

    Trail Longitude (Y): -123.816

    Mapping: View vicinity on Google Maps (see Trail Map above or Trail Data Sheet PDF under the Information tab for a more precise map)

    Point Cabrillo Drive Mile Marker (north): 2.25

    Point Cabrillo Drive Mile Marker (south): 1.5

    Trail Length: 1.3 miles

  • No cell phone receptionThis location has no cellular reception. Please plan accordingly. We recommend that you download the PDF trail data sheet below to your device prior to your trip to this location.

    The Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park is well worth visiting. It is operated by the Point Cabrillo Lightkeepers Association in cooperation with State Parks. There is a lot to explore at the Light Station.  There are three buildings that are open to the public, including the lighthouse with its museum and gift shop, the first assistant light keeper’s house, and a Marine Science exhibit with a 270-gallon saltwater aquarium. These facilities are open from 11 am-4 pm throughout the year. The lighthouse is an active “aid to navigation” with lens tours offered (for a $5 fee) eight times a year.  These offer visitors the rare opportunity to see a brilliant 100-year-old third-order Fresnel lens up close.  See the Point Cabrillo Lightkeepers website for dates.

     

    Since Point Cabrillo is a significant peninsula, whale watching is particularly good here, especially between November and April, during the California Grey Whale migration between Alaska and Mexico. The ocean around Point Cabrillo is a Marine Protected Area, and the offshore rocks are part of the Coastal Monument.

     

    The coastal trail network here extends north to Frolic Cove, which is where the Baltimore clipper brig “The Frolic” wrecked in 1850. This shipwreck led to the “discovery” of huge redwoods on the Mendocino Coast, bringing loggers and European settlers to an area already inhabited by indigenous people.

     

    A short walk north of the Lighthouse parking lot on Point Cabrillo Drive takes adventurous hikers to the Caspar Uplands Trail, which leads to nearby Caspar Headlands State Beach. Parking is free at Point Cabrillo, with a suggested donation of $5 at the museum.

    Point Cabrillo Lighthouse Trail trail map

    Click or tap to view the full-size map.

    Trail Latitude (X): 39.349

    Trail Longitude (Y): -123.813

    Mapping: View vicinity on Google Maps (see Trail Map above or Trail Data Sheet PDF under the Information tab for a more precise map)

    Point Cabrillo Drive Mile Marker (north): 1.5

    Point Cabrillo Drive Mile Marker (south): 1.5

    Trail Length: 2 miles

  • Russian Gulch State Park is beloved by both locals and visitors. This park offers the best of the Mendocino Coast - a beach with a towering bridge overhead, a blowhole/sinkhole in grassy headlands, pygmy and redwood forests, creeks and a waterfall, 15 miles of trails, an historic recreation hall, camping, and an electric vehicle charging station.  Russian Gulch also offers kayaking, diving and snorkeling opportunities. This protected cove is home to red abalone, sea stars, crabs, mussels, oysters, fish, and seasonal harbor seals. In fall and spring, visitors can sit at picnic tables near the bluffs, watch for whales, and enjoy the sunset. The “Devil’s Punchbowl” on the Russian Gulch headlands was carved by years of crashing waves. It started out as a small cave on the ocean side of the bluff edge. Wave action on soft rock eventually caused the ceiling of the cave to collapse, creating a punchbowl.
     

    East of Highway One, there is a 2.5-mile trail to a waterfall. This trail starts at the east end of the campground and winds through a sword fern-lined canyon and under towering redwoods to a gorgeous 35-foot waterfall. There are a small bridge and benches near the base of the waterfall, providing a great spot for photos.  You can also access the waterfall from the top of the hill; park on Road 409 near the Russian Gulch Horse Camp and head downhill for a 1.5-mile round trip.
     

    Russian Gulch State Park has a small campground that is very popular during the summer, so it’s best to reserve your spot ahead of time on ReserveCalifornia.com. All campsites in Russian Gulch offer parking and tent camping. There are no hook-ups, and trailers over 24 feet are not permitted. Please note that this park closes during wet weather.
    Russian Gulch State Park trail map

    Click or tap to view the full-size map.

    Trail Length: 15 miles

  • The Mendocino Headlands State Park is a 347-acre park that surrounds the village of Mendocino. With spectacular trails and nearby amenities, it's no wonder it is such a popular destination. Don’t forget to bring your binoculars, because whales and birds can be seen throughout the year.  You might want to stop by the Ford House visitor center on the southern headlands, where you can learn more about Mendocino’s natural and human history. 
     

    The Mendocino Headlands features 70-foot bluffs with views of rocky offshore islands, tidepools, and sandy beaches below. Allow at least an hour to complete the wonderful Mendocino Headlands “loop” on foot.  Be sure to never turn your back on the ocean, as it is possible to be swept away.  At the west end of Main Street, a path leads to a promontory where there is a blowhole/punchbowl, with steps leading down to Portuguese Beach.  Offshore and north of the west end of Little Lake Street is Goat Island, a large flat offshore rock that is part of the California Coastal National Monument.  You can see a wide variety of shorebirds and seabirds on this rock.  There are public restrooms at the north and south ends of the Headlands- on Heeser Drive and near the Ford House.

    Mendocino Headlands trail map

    Click or tap to view the full-size map.

    Mendocino was the first of several north coast towns founded between 1851 and 1920, during the height of the lumber industry. German immigrant William Kasten was headed for the gold country in 1850 when his ship ran aground on the Mendocino Coast. In 1851 he filed papers claiming land he called the “Port of Good Hope.”  In 1854 Jerome B. Ford, superintendent of the first sawmill in Mendocino and founder of this town, built a home overlooking the Pacific, which is today’s Ford House. The State acquired a portion of these headlands in 1957 and in 1974, through the advocacy of local artist Emmy Lou Packard, this land became what is now Mendocino Headlands State Park.

  • In 2002, Mendocino Land Trust completed the purchase and transfer of 7,334 acres near Big River to California State Parks. This includes a wonderful haul road that travels about ten miles east to connect Big River Beach with the Mendocino Woodlands State Park. Much of this haul road is multi-use and available to equestrians, bikers, hikers, runners, and people in wheelchairs. There are lovely views of the Big River estuary, which hosts birds, seals, otters, and other wildlife. You can walk side-by-side with friends and family, enjoying the quiet beauty of the Mendocino Coast.

    Big River flows through the park to the Pacific Ocean. At its west end, this park has a sandy beach that is constantly reconfigured by the interaction of river and ocean. On the beach, you can picnic near massive pieces of driftwood while enjoying an ocean view.  Or you can explore sea caves that are only accessible at low tides. All visitors to the ocean side of the beach need to be on the lookout for unusual but dangerously large “sneaker waves.”

    Upstream, Big River has calmer waters, with birds, harbor seals and river otters hunting for fish. Big River is a perfect place for canoeing, kayaking, and paddle boarding. Heading upstream, you pass towering redwoods, Douglas firs, historic dams, old railroad trestle pilings, and submerged old-growth timber. There are many interpretive panels along the haul road as well as a lovely bench dedicated to the memory of Matthew Coleman, who coordinated Mendocino Land Trust’s Big River stewardship between 2006 and 2011.

    More information and maps for this park are available through the California State Parks website as well as at the staffed state park entrance gates to Russian Gulch and Van Damme.

     
    Big River Trail trail map

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    Trail Latitude (X): 39.303

    Trail Longitude (Y): -123.785

    Mapping: View vicinity on Google Maps (see Trail Map above or Trail Data Sheet PDF under the Information tab for a more precise map)

    Highway One Mile Marker (north end): 50.56

    Highway One Mile Marker (south end): 50

    Trail Length: 10 miles

    In 1850, a clipper ship named The Frolic” crashed into rocks near Point Cabrillo, just north of Mendocino. The passengers survived after a rowing ten days back to San Francisco. After hearing of their harrowing escape from death, a businessman named Henry Meiggs sent his close friend and business partner Jerome Ford to see if there was anything of value left in the ship’s wreckage. Ford reached the shipwreck site weeks later, only to find that the ship and its cargo had already been salvaged by the native Buldam Pomo people. During Ford’s journey, he saw huge trees along the coast and realized that Big River was the perfect place for a lumber mill.

    The first mill was built on the shores of Big River in 1853, just three years after The Frolic shipwreck. Trees were cut down by hand and cross-cut saws, dragged by oxen to the river, and then floated down to the mill via a series of check dams. The mill then processed the lumber for building construction, railroad ties, and redwood shingles. The lumber was transported to the Mendocino Headlands where it was loaded onto ships, bound mostly for San Francisco.

     

    The Big River Mill was only the first of many mills built along the northern California coast, and it was in operation for 85 years. During this time, it burned down twice and was crushed by its own chimney once. By 1935 only a few old growth redwood trees remained, and the mill closed for good. You can learn more about the logging and timber history of this area here.

    With few jobs available once the mills closed, the Mendocino coast plunged into a recession. The area has since recovered somewhat, and efforts to restore and preserve the natural resources of Big River have been underway since its protection in 2002.

  • No cell phone receptionThis location has no cellular reception. Please plan accordingly. We recommend that you download the PDF trail data sheet below to your device prior to your trip to this location.

    This short trail offers a great view of the village of Mendocino from the bluffs south of the mouth of Big River.  Mendocino Bay Viewpoint, opened to the public by Mendocino Land Trust in 1996, was the first public access easement accepted and opened by a non-profit in California. Mendocino Land Trust pioneered the way for other non-profits to open and manage public access trails along the California coast.

     

    Mendocino Bay Viewpoint is a great place for picnics, “plein-air” painting, and whale watching.  It's also a popular wedding location. A bench overlooking Big River is dedicated to Grail Dawson and Betty Barber, founders and longtime supporters of Mendocino Land Trust. 

    Mendocino Bay Viewpoint trail map

    Click or tap to view the full-size map.

    To get here, head south from the  Mendocino Village on Highway One, go over the Big River bridge and take your first right onto Brewery Gulch Road. Parking is limited to dirt pull-outs on Brewery Gulch Road. Look for a brown and white "Mendocino Bay Viewpoint" sign at the trailhead. 

    Trail Latitude (X): 39.2993

    Trail Longitude (Y): -123.7947

    Mapping: View vicinity on Google Maps (see Trail Map above or Trail Data Sheet PDF under the Information tab for a more precise map)

    Highway One Mile Marker (north end): 50.17

    Highway One Mile Marker (south end): 49.84

    Trail Length: 0.25 miles

  • No cell phone receptionThis location has no cellular reception. Please plan accordingly. We recommend that you download the PDF trail data sheet below to your device prior to your trip to this location.

    Spring Ranch is at the northern end of Van Damme State Park. This is a lovely spot, offering spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean as well as trails that wind past historic barns and above a rocky intertidal shelf. There is good wildlife viewing here, especially at low tide, when the seals haul out onto offshore rocks. Watch for whale spouts and tails during the California grey whale spring and fall migration.

    There are many memorial benches here, where you can rest, talk and enjoy the view of this wild place. Please be safe, as bluff edges are unstable due to ongoing erosion, so you need to stay on the trail and away from the bluff edge. Coyotes and mountain lions have also been spotted here, so please keep your dogs on leash.

    Spring Ranch Trail trail map

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    There are two main entry points for the Spring Ranch trails at both the north and south- west of Gordon Lane on the north end, and near Peterson Street and the inns at the south end. 

    Trail Latitude (X): 39.285

    Trail Longitude (Y): -123.794

    Mapping: View vicinity on Google Maps (see Trail Map above or Trail Data Sheet PDF under the Information tab for a more precise map)

    Highway One Mile Marker (north end): 49.04

    Highway One Mile Marker (south end): 48.5

    Trail Length: 1.25 miles

    The historic structures at Spring Ranch were originally constructed in 1857 by William and Charlotte Kent. The Kents planted some of the first eucalyptus trees on the Mendocino Coast, which still grow east of Highway One near Spring Ranch.  They raised dairy and beef cattle, sheep, and pigs to feed the loggers and mill workers.  In 1941, the Kents sold their ranch to Hollywood movie stars Harry and Ilona Ueberroth (stage names Alan Curtis and Ilona Massey), and in 1944, the ranch was sold again to the Chiados, who eventually sold the property to the Spring family.  The Springs grew sugar beets and raised sheep, cattle, and pigs.  In 1996, Spring Ranch became part of Van Damme State Park.  

  • This 1,831-acre park offers a variety of attractions for hikers, divers, and campers. The free day-use beach offers a stunning spot for whale watching, picnics, kayaking, and diving.  Van Damme Beach is next to a protected cove, making it popular with kayakers, snorkelers and divers. Here you can find kelp forests, red abalone, sea stars, sea urchins, and nearshore fish. Or you can set up a beach chair and watch for harbor seals or gray whales. RV camping is allowed in the beach parking lot, but there is no overnight camping permitted on the beach.

     

    If you are looking for a hike through shaded redwoods and a green canyon, Van Damme’s Fern Canyon Trail is the perfect day hike. This 9-mile round trip trail follows Little River and climbs the hill to the unusual Van Damme pygmy forest boardwalk trail.  The pygmy forest features 6-foot tall trees that are hundreds of years old. The limited nutrients in the soil, paired with a hardpan layer only a foot under the surface, has stunted the growth of these ancient trees.
     

    Van Damme State Park has one of the largest campgrounds on the Northern California Coast. Camping in this park is popular in summer and reservations should be made in advance. Visit ReserveCalifornia.com to book a campsite.
     

    SPECIAL ACTIVITIES:
    During the summer, this state park offers a variety of free public activities. Each Saturday night between Memorial Day and Labor Day there is a Campfire program in the campfire center- complete with marshmallows and campfire songs. There are also hikes, tours, a Junior Rangers program, and educational booths available without any charge.

    Download the State Park Map of Van Damme here

    Van Damme State Park trail map

    Click or tap to view the full-size map.

    Trail Length: 5 miles

    For millions of years, the shifting tectonic plates under the ocean have been pushing up layers of soil and sedimentary rock forming the iconic cliffs and mountains on the Mendocino Coast. There are five distinct layers, or terraces, on the coast. The farther the terrace from the ocean, the older it is. The oldest terrace, the fifth, is estimated to be 500,000 years old. Each terrace, as it is formed under the ocean, accrues a variety of different nutrients. After the terrace is pushed above the surface of the ocean, it retains these unique nutrients. Because different forms of ecological life require different nutrients, the plant life on each terrace is distinct from the life found on another terrace.
     

    The pygmy forest in Van Damme State Park is the product of the ancient movements of tectonic plates. The soil in the pygmy forest is nutrient deprived because the marine terrace is flat and poorly drained. The flatness of the area does not allow for much erosion to take place. Rain continuously floods the area, washing away nutrients without taking any of the soil with it. After thousands of years of nutrient leaching, the soil remaining in the area is highly acidic. This acidic soil stunts the growth of all plant life in the area, and the continuous rain and flooding removes oxygen from the roots of the trees. Beyond all these hindrances to life, vegetation continues to thrive. They grow slowly, but steadily for hundreds of years.
     

    In the Van Damme pygmy forest, there is a handicap accessible boardwalk. All visitors should use this boardwalk because of the highly sensitive nature of the forest. Each plant fights to survive on a daily basis, and walking on the soil can cause irreparable damage to the roots beneath.

     
  • No cell phone receptionThis location has no cellular reception. Please plan accordingly. We recommend that you download the PDF trail data sheet below to your device prior to your trip to this location.

    This trail is about 0.5 miles long and leads hikers to the awesome Little River Blowhole and beyond to the bluff edge. The Little River Blowhole is actually a punchbowl, or sinkhole, and is an actively eroding area; almost every winter, full-grown trees fall into the abyss. Hikers and leashed dogs are permitted, and there is an interpretive panel telling the story of the geology of this cool feature. The trail winds through a Bishop pine forest, around the north side of the punchbowl/sinkhole, and out to views of the coast, ocean, and offshore islands. The trail is managed by the Mendocino Land Trust.

    This punchbowl /sinkhole is very dangerous- watch your step on this trail, and don’t try to climb into the punchbowl, as a fall would likely be fatal. There is also a lot of poison oak just off the entire trail- which is another reason to stay on it, and out of the punchbowl.

     

    Little River Blowhole trail map

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    There is limited parking west of Highway One at Little River Cemetery (cemetery parking takes precedence), or east of Highway One on the south shoulder of Little River Airport Road.

    Trail Latitude (X): 39.2690

    Trail Longitude (Y): -123.7873

    Mapping: View vicinity on Google Maps (see Trail Map above or Trail Data Sheet PDF under the Information tab for a more precise map)

    Highway One Mile Marker (north end): 47.7

    Highway One Mile Marker (south end): 47.5

    Trail Length: 0.5 miles

  • No cell phone receptionThis location has no cellular reception. Please plan accordingly. We recommend that you download the PDF trail data sheet below to your device prior to your trip to this location.

    Just west of Highway One near mile marker 45.24 and south of the famous Heritage House Resort is a coastal access trail that leads down a steep wooden staircase to a small, rocky cove and beach. There is very limited parking on the side of the southbound lane of the highway, and visitors need to be mindful of private property on either side of the trail. During the winter, Dark Gulch Creek often floods the trail and the makeshift “boardwalk” near the beach, making it difficult to access the cove below. However, for adventurous spirits looking for a secret rocky beach off the beaten path, Dark Gulch is secluded, with sea anemones, oystercatchers, thick willows along the stream, and cliff wildflowers in springtime.  The Mendocino Land Trust manages this coastal access trail; for more information, contact them at (707) 962-0470.

    Dark Gulch Trail trail map

    Click or tap to view the full-size map.

    Highway One Mile Marker (south end): 45.24

    Trail Length: .5 miles

  • No cell phone receptionThis location has no cellular reception. Please plan accordingly. We recommend that you download the PDF trail data sheet below to your device prior to your trip to this location.

    Greenwood Creek State Beach offers a wide trail to a driftwood-strewn beach with great views of sea caves. There is a large parking area directly west of Highway One in “downtown” Elk as well as a picnic area and restrooms, all located at the beginning of the trail that leads down to the beach.

     

    The views of offshore rocks looking south from the town of Elk are some of the most beautiful coastal vistas on the Mendocino Coast.  These dark iconic sea stack rocks are just west of Greenwood Creek State Beach.

     

    Long ago, this was a logging port, and the many historic photographs at the Visitor Center in Elk (once known as Greenwood) offer a window into this area’s rich and interesting past.  

    Greenwood Creek State Beach trail map

    Click or tap to view the full-size map.

    Trail Latitude (X): 39.130

    Trail Longitude (Y): -123.718

    Mapping: View vicinity on Google Maps (see Trail Map above or Trail Data Sheet PDF under the Information tab for a more precise map)

    Highway One Mile Marker (north end): 34

    Trail Length: 0.5 miles