Van Damm State Park
Three miles south of Mendocino on Highway One, Van Damme State Park offers a scenic beach, a lush fern-filled forest, and year-round camping. The highway runs through the park, separating the campground and the Fern Canyon trail head to the east from the beach and parking lot to the west. Visitors can fish for abalone or launch a kayak in a protected cove. They can explore a pygmy forest. They can hike, jog, or bicycle the splendid Fern Canyon Scenic Trail beside Little River. Of all the park system's units along the Mendocino coast, Van Damme is perhaps the richest in terms of historical resources connected with the redwood lumber industry. Its story is a prime example of the struggles and eventual failures of a small, independent lumber operation.
Van Damme is a great place for hiking, biking, birding, jogging, kayaking, botanizing, abalone fishing, and watching salmon spawn. Its trails including a 0.25 mile-long wheelchair-accessible boardwalk to view stunted trees in a pygmy forest. Its camping facilities include nine hike-in sites in a beautiful redwood forest. The 1930s-era visitor center was once a recreation hall for the Civilian Conservation Corps.
If you have an hour, head out Airport Road to the pygmy forest. It’s weird, wonderful and well explained with interpretive signs. A good place for bird watching too, with pileated woodpeckers and more.
If you have half a day, start at Airport Road and hike from the pygmy forest down into Fern Canyon and back again—a four-mile loop that allows you the option of exploring both Fern Canyon Trail and Old Logging Road Trail. Starting in an open area with small trees, you descend into the tall trees and lush understory along the Little River. A good way to sample many of the park’s habitats in a short amount of time.
If you have a full day, hike the Fern Canyon Scenic Trail and the pygmy forest loop starting from the end of the drive-in campground—an 8- or 9-mile trek (depending on which route you choose). Then, as the sun sets, rest your weary bones at Van Damme Beach.
Van Damme is a day-hiker’s paradise, with dramatic vistas and discoveries every step of the way. Plan your own hike, or pick one from the suggestions below.
1.75 miles from the drive-in campground to the “environmental” primitive campsites
2.5 miles from the drive-in campground to where the trail splits for the pygmy forest, where you can proceed upward on either Fern Canyon Trail or Old Logging Road Trail. From there, it’s
2.5 miles to the pygmy forest on Fern Canyon Trail, or
1.4 miles to the pygmy forest on Old Logging Road Trail.
0.25 miles from site 11 in the drive-in campground to the bog Cabbage Patch
0.25 miles from Airport Drive parking area around the wheelchair-accessible pygmy forest boardwalk loop.
0.25 miles, flat
Located off Airport Road. Check out the bonsai trees in bog-like conditions on soils so old they are nearly bereft of nutrients. Wheelchair accessible.
Pygmy Forest and Fern Canyon Loop
4.15 miles, elevation change 300 feet
Sample the pygmy forest, the upland forest, and the redwoods of Fern Canyon, in one easy loop. Drive out Airport Road. After walking 0.25 miles around the pygmy forest boardwalk loop, head down the fire road for 0.2 miles to a fork in the trail. Take Old Logging Road Trail (the left fork) downhill for 1.2 miles to a junction with the Fern Canyon Trail. There’s a good picnic site there. Then turn right and uphill onto the single-track portion of Fern Canyon Trail. In 2.3 miles, after following the Little River through the heart of a lushly vegetated canyon, you’ll switchback up through a drier forest. In another 0.2 miles on the fire road you came in on, you’ll be back at your car.
Fern Canyon from the Campground
5 miles, elevation change 150 feet
Check out the environmental camps and some of the finest parts of Fern Canyon on an easy (stroller- and bike-friendly) trail along Little River. Leave your car at the end of the main road, just east of the campground. With shafts of golden light piercing through tall trees, walk for 2.5 miles on a gentle, packed-earth trail along the Little River. You’ll pass alders, thimbleberries, elderberries, tall coast redwoods, mighty Douglas-firs and whole hillsides covered with sword ferns. Wooden bridges arch gracefully over the river numerous times. In 1.75 miles you’ll reach a second-growth redwood forest with 9 "environmental” (primitive) campsites. After a total of 2.5 miles, find a picnic site at a trail junction. Turn around there, return the way you came, and give all that gorgeous scenery a second look.
Fern Canyon Lollapalooza
9.15 miles roundtrip, elevation gain 450 feet
A long, lovely journey through many of the park’s most interesting places. Leave your car at the end of the main road, just east of the campground, follow the directions for the hike above until you get to the trail junction at 2.5 miles. From there, head uphill for 2.5 miles to the pygmy forest. Observe the strange effects of nutrient-poor soil on the plants along the 0.25-mile-long loop through the pygmy forest. Then head back downhill, taking Old Logging Road Trail at the fork. When you reach the Little River again, it’s a glistening, green 2.5 miles back to your car.