River and redwoods, coast and abalone, and history
HIGHLIGHTS: Van Damme State Park is 3 miles south of the town of Mendocino, where the Little River crosses Highway 1. Some visitors come here for the river and the redwoods, some for the coast and the abalone, and some for the history.
ACTIVITIES: Hiking on 10 miles of trail, bicycling on a paved road, kayaking through sea caves, diving for abalone, watching salmon spawn.
Most of the park’s ranger- or docent-led programs (including campfire talks, forest walks, and Junior Ranger programs) start on Memorial Day weekend and end after Labor Day. Check the schedule for days and times. Aimed at kids age 7 through 12, these programs offer games, crafts, hiking, and exploring with other children.
VISITOR CENTER: There’s a year-round visitor center/museum just east of the highway. Its “Living with the Sea” theme offers a simulated surge channel where you can learn local tidal species. Hours vary; call (707) 937-4016.
CAMPGROUNDS: Van Damme has 74 campsites with showers and restrooms. For more information, visit the Reserve America website (external link) or call (800) 444-7275. There’s also a first-come, first-served “environmental” (primitive) campground for those willing to hike a mile to pitch their tent.
TRAIL: A 5-mile stroll through Fern Canyon will take you to the heart of the park’s redwoods. There’s good birding and botanizing, with a full complement of lady, licorice, stamp, sword, deer, five-finger, and bird’s foot ferns. Bridges provide a view of the river, where-if the season is right-you might see salmon swimming upstream to spawn. The paved, lower part of the trail is an old “skid road,” where oxen hauled lumber out of the forest.
MUST-SEE UNIQUE FEATURE OR SEASONAL HIGHLIGHT: Once you’re on the Fern Canyon trail, you might want to go an extra mile or two to check out Van Damme’s Pygmy Forest. Here 80- to 100-year-old cypress and pines range from 6 inches to 8 feet tall-strangely stunted, due to nutrient-poor acidic soil that lies on top of a layer of impenetrable “hard-pan” soil. Alternatively, you can drive up Little River Airport Road to a parking lot at the other end of the Pygmy Forest to start the hike. A self-guided nature trail will put you in the know.
HIDDEN GEM: The “bog trail” may not sound like much, but when the calla-lily-like skunk cabbage blooms in the spring, “it will take your breath away,” says Carolyne Cathey, Executive Director of the Mendocino Area Parks Association. She’s not referring to the plant’s smell, which is well-described by its name, but to the sight of hundreds of bright yellow flower heads poking up out of the bog.
EVENTS: In early October, the Mendocino Area Parks Association (MAPA) holds a “World’s Championship Abalone Cook-Off and Festival” to benefit state parks in the area, including Van Damme. The Van Damme Square Dance is held on the last Saturday in July and is fun for all ages and skill levels. For more information, go to the MAPA website (external link).
EAT: Jen Charney, Communications Manager, recommends eating in the town of Mendocino at the Mendocino Cafe (external link). In warm weather, you can sit on the deck and see the garden and sea.
STOP: For a place to rest your head, Jen likes to stay at the cozy and modern Cottage at Little River Cove (external link) overlooking the ocean.
FAVORITE HIKE: Bob Hansen, former President at The Yosemite Fund, suggests walking as far up Fern Canyon as the loop at the end and back. It’s an easy and rewarding walk among giants. If you have time, ascend to see the Pygmy Forest on the terraces above the redwoods.
FAVORITE PARK ATTRACTION: Bob loves how giant and pygmy trees live within a stone’s throw of each other.
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