Russian Gulch State Park

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Russian Gulch State Park--Hiking in the Heart of the Mendocino Coastline

Aug 23, 2002 (Updated Aug 29, 2002)
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Pros:close to Mendocino, easy trails, waterfall, spectacular headlands, blowhole, redwoods

Cons:second growth forest, weekend crowds, buggy

The Bottom Line: This is an essential stop for every Mendocino visitor. It offers the complete Mendocino coast experience.

When people think about hiking on the Mendocino coast, chances are they are thinking about Russian Gulch State Park. The state park is just a couple miles north of the heart of Mendocino town, a short drive or a brief bike ride away. With Van Damme State Park closed due to flooding, this park is THE place to go hiking for most Mendocino visitors.

Fortunately, the park can handle such a responsibility. It offers visitors everything they expect from a Mendocino visitóredwoods, ferns, a waterfall, headlands with sea caves and blowholes, coastal grasslands with wildflowers.

A trip to Russian Gulch can offer visitors 2 distinct experiences: redwoods and headlands.


The primary hiking trail in Russian Gulch takes the hiker up Fern Canyon. A number of other parks have Fern Canyons, including Prairie Creek and Van Damme. My absolute favorite hike anywhere is Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek, which is a couple hundred miles north of Mendocino. In the local parks, I think the Van Damme Fern Canyon hike is a little nicer than Russian Gulch, but it has been closed for some time.

If youíve never experienced a hike in a Fern Canyon, youíre in for a treat. The hike follows a year round creek up a narrow canyon whose walls are covered with ferns from top to bottom. The ferns are thickest in the wet Spring months, but the hike is nice any time of year.

From the small parking lot at the end of the campground, youíll hike along a gentle dirt road through Fern Canyon about 1.6 miles to a 4 way junction. Along the way youíll hike through a classic second-growth redwood forest. Youíll see ferns, stumps that have saplings growing out of them, fine redwoods and, if youíre lucky, some banana slugs. Itís as nice as a second-growth forest gets.

At the 4 way junction, there are some bike racks and picnic tables here. I wouldnít recommend eating here unless you bring a lot of bug juice. The mosquitoes can be thick here, but Iím sure every year thousands of gourmets crack open their Sonoma wines and fine cheese at these tables despite the bugs.

To the right of this junction is a 3 mile loop trail (more on this in a moment). To the left is a connector trail that leads to the ridge trail. Straight ahead is the waterfall about ĺ miles.

Here, you have a choice. You can walk to the falls and back, which I suspect is the most popular choice by far. My personal preference is to turn right and follow the loop trail through a nice second growth forest. It has a little more up-and-down and gets you a little more exercise to work off the fine Mendocino eats. If you go the loop trail, youíll approach the falls from the top.

The waterfall is nothing spectacular, but itís a nice year round falls of about 60 feet or so. Itís a lovely sight. Obviously youíll get a much larger falls in Winter and Spring than in late summer. Look for the small fish in the pools at the base of the falls. Unfortunately, sometimes (especially on weekends) it seems like every single person in Mendocino County is at the falls with you. Go during the week if you want more quiet.

Back at the 4 way junction, if you turned left, you would connect to the North trail that runs along the ridgeline. If you want a little more exercise and feel a bit adventurous, definitely take this option on your way up or back. The trail is much emptier than the Fern Canyon trail, and it meanders through fine second-growth redwoods for a few miles.


Iím sure many people drive to the parking lot, hit the falls, turn around and leave the park. We had done that several times ourselves until our most recent trip. Only then did we realize what a huge mistake we had been making!

Simply put, I think the Russian Gulch headlands are the finest along this stretch of the coast. You get fine views of the Mendocino Headlands to the south, and youíll usually see boats trawling the waters immediately around the park. The rock formations are fantastic, the flowers are ubiquitous, birds are everywhere and there are tons of sea caves and blowholes to look at and explore. Please be careful on the unstable cliffs.

I love headlands, and these are truly spectacular. Make sure you give yourself enough time to enjoy these special resources.


There is a 30 site campground in the park. Like so many California campgrounds, the sites run along the creek and are nestled in the redwoods, giving them a nice natural setting. However, despite the sitesí apparent remoteness, noise will definitely travel, so it wonít be the most peaceful setting. Plus, given the limited number of campsites along the Mendocino coast and the parkís closeness to Mendocino, this campground is enormously popular and can be hard to get a spot in. Also, given the closeness to the ocean, be prepared for salty, humid conditions. Still, the campground is a convenient and pretty alternative to the pricey B&Bs in Mendocino, so you should consider staying there if you can.


My only knock on Russian Gulch is that the forests were clearly and heavily logged, diminishing the quality of the redwood experience. If you want true old growth redwoods, go to Montgomery Park or Hendy Woods Park. But Russian Gulch canít be beat for the combination of spectacular ocean scenery, pretty redwood hikes, and proximity to Mendocino. Itís one of the most romantic spots along a great coast of romance, so if you take your significant other, be prepared for lots of smooching and cuddling.

For more on the Mendocino area, see my overview review at

Recommend this product? Yes

Best time to go: June-August
Recommended for: Couples
Review Topic: Overview

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