Pros: diverse terrain, no entry fee
Cons: confusing trail, freeway and city noise, overwritten guide booklet
Jughandle State Reserve is one of several state parks along the Mendocino coastline between Albion and Ft. Bragg. Its raison d?etre is the ?Ecological Staircase,? a self-guided tour of steppes that illustrate the geological evolution of the Mendocino coastline.
The park is located on Highway 1 about 5 miles south of Ft. Bragg and about 5 miles north of Mendocino. Pull into the dirt parking lot and pick up the booklet (it contains a helpful map of the hike). Unlike most of the other state parks on this stretch of the coast, there is no entry fee.
The trail loops through coastal headlands before going under Highway 1. It then dips briefly into a creekbed for a riparian experience, then ascends to a new steppe dominated by spruce and fir. Within the same steppe, the spruce and fir give way to a second-growth redwood forest. The trail continues to ascend until it reaches its terminus, a boardwalk loop through a ?Pygmy Forest? in the third and final steppe. The Pygmy Forest contains stunted trees that grow in the thin and harsh topsoil. The trail in total is about 2.5 miles each way, making a nice 5+ mile loop. Total hiking time should be 2-3 hours.
All along the way, a free booklet narrates the almost 40 numbered spots. This booklet is a naturalist?s dream, describing the flora and geology in lengthy detail. For amateurs like me, the booklet is too dry and wordy to be accessible.
The park has a number of elements that should make it cool?a ?staircase,? headlands, redwoods, ?pygmy forest?, even the name ?Jughandle?. Unfortunately, the experience isn?t as cool as it sounds.
The staircase is imperceptible from a hiker?s standpoint; there are no cliffs or other physical demarcations to let you know you?ve gone from one steppe to the next. The redwoods are nice but were heavily logged and are not as nice as those in Russian Gulch or Van Damme State Parks. The pygmy forest looks like a newly planted forest, so although the trees are hundreds of years old, they look young. While hiking through the pygmy forest is slightly surreal, it doesn?t feel all that different from other parts of the trail. Plus, if you really want to experience a pygmy forest, you can drive right to a pygmy forest at the top of Van Damme State Park. The nicest part of the trail is the headlands, but even then the headlands in Russian Gulch or around the Mendocino town are nicer.
Throughout the entire trail, you can hear noise from the highway or from Fort Bragg, so it?s not a true escape. In one particularly unpleasant stretch, the trail goes right under Highway 1 and then along some barbed wire. Elsewhere, the trail intersects a few unsigned service roads, making route finding difficult in a few places.
I feel bad criticizing this park because, if you never hiked another one in California, you would think this is a great park. But it pales by comparison to its neighbors Russian Gulch State Park, Van Damme State Park and Mendocino Headlands. If you are covering the coast comprehensively, by all means stop here. But if you have limited time, skip this park and spend more time at one of the other parks in the region.
For a more comprehensive discussion about the Mendocino area, see my review at http://www.epinions.com/trvl-review-2FE1-FF14238-38AE26D4-bd1. For more information about this park, see http://www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=441.