Pros: fantastic redwoods, solitude
Cons: tough drive, no services
Montgomery Woods State Reserve may be the single best redwood forest I have ever been to. If you love redwoods, this could be the most perfect place on earth. But if youre not a redwoods aficionado, you might be disappointed. Before you make the drive, make sure you know what to expect.
What to Expect
Notice the name. This is a reserve, not a park. The difference is more than semantic. As a reserve, the focus is on protecting redwoods, not entertaining visitors. You are permitted to commingle with the trees, but dont expect to be coddled. Youll find a pit toilet and a few picnic tables (a short steep hike from the parking area). Thats it for visitor services. No visitor center, ranger station, snack shop or campground. Not even a drinking fountain.
Your arrival at the reserve will be similarly inauspicious. The reserves entrance is a small dirt parking area on the south side of the road with minimal signage. My buddy and I looked at each otheris this the right place?
If you love redwoods, a few steps on the trail will answer that question emphatically. This is redwood paradise. The reserve encompasses a perfect redwood ecosystema large flat drainage area with a year-round creek, huge redwoods both standing tall and slowly decomposing on their sides, and steep fern-covered canyon walls periodically cut by redwood-choked side ravines. Everywhere youll find massive redwoods, ferns, moss, rhododendrons and other flora and fauna typical of a healthy, mature, old-growth redwood forest. Its hard to describe just how breathtakingly beautiful it is.
You can explore the reserve on a short (2+ mile) loop trail. The trail circles the bowl and has short spurs up various redwood-dominated ravines. After a very steep but relatively short hike up to the bowl, the trail is level and easy to navigate. If you walk contemplatively, the loop might take an hour to complete. Of course, you may want to linger as you walk among the ancient giants and soak in the beauty and solitude. On the other hand, if you think that if youve seen one redwood tree, youve seen them all (my wifes sentiments), then you can burn through the entire reserve in less than 40 minutes. You can find a trail map at http://www.mcn.org/1/mendoparks/mwtrail.htm.
Ive read reports that in 1999 the reserve was home to the worlds tallest tree, the Mendocino Tree at nearly 370 feet. Personally, I dont find these rankings all that compelling, because all of the trees are so staggeringly tall and impressive that its impossible to make relative comparisons. (Also, the rankings change routinely based on storm damage, new measurements, etc.). However, it does confirm that this is an ideal location for redwoods.
Montgomery Woods peacefulness and solitude comes at a costyou have to work hard to get there. Although only 13 miles from Ukiah, it is a slow, twisty, bumpy, painful 45 minute drive over a remote and poorly-maintained road. Coming from Comptche on the west side is even more difficult, with a long stretch on a mountainous gravel road. The roads can be hazardousplease drive slowly and carefully! Whatever road you take, expect tedious and exacting driving and nauseated passengers.
The only nearby tourist destination is the Orrs Mineral Hot Springs, 2 miles to the east. Otherwise, there are no restaurants, gas stations or other tourist conveniencesjust a long drive back to where you came from. Further, you cant stay nearby even if you wanted tothere are no hotels or campgrounds anywhere (the closest lodging may be back in Ukiah). Bring water and food and fill up the gas tank before hitting the road.
I find it odd that many Mendocino B&Bs tout Montgomery Woods as a tourist attraction. The drive from Mendocino is long and stressful for what ends up being a short destination for many people. I strongly recommend that Mendocino tourists consider great redwood alternatives like Hendy Woods that are a little closer/easier to get to and have other fun destinations to combine into a day trip. Ive written more on Hendy Woods (http://www.epinions.com/content_69920067204) and Mendocino tourism generally (http://www.epinions.com/trvl-review-2FE1-FF14238-38AE26D4-bd1).
All standard caveats applicable to visiting a redwood forest applyexpect fog and damp conditions, and be prepared for bugs.
If you love redwoods like I do, Montgomery Woods is your Mecca. Make the pilgrimage at least once in your life. However, if you are a tourist that just wants to see a pretty old-growth redwood forest, consider more accessible destinations like Hendy Woods.