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The Two Forests of Van Damme 

There are trees found only on the coast of Mendocino County. And if that weren’t cool enough, there’s a whole forest of them that can only be reached by a wooden walkway tucked into a corner of a lush, green state park.

Called Mendocino Cypress, or Pygmy Cypress, these special trees grow “only on coastal terraces between Fort Bragg and Anchor Bay,” according to a sign in the small section of Van Damme State Park aptly named the Pygmy Forest.

Humans can only get close to these Pygmy Cypress via a long walkway lined on both sides with trees whose growth was stunted: “When not in poor soil, the (cypress) can grow over a hundred feet tall,” the interpretative sign explains. However, in the park, the trees “stand only a foot or two high (and have) a trunk diameter of one quarter inch, with as many as 80 growth rings. Some of these trees are undoubtedly over a century old.”

You can actually drive quite close to the walkway instead of hiking through the park, but if you are able to walk through the lush forest full of redwood trees, ferns and 18 bridges over flowing water to reach the Pygmy Forest, I definitely recommend that, especially if it’s in late winter or early spring when you might see oodles of banana slugs and mushrooms on the trail.

If you live in Ukiah, Van Damme is most easily reached by taking Highways 253 and 128 to Highway 1, then the park is just a few miles up on the right.

Once you reach the park, you have the choice of parking for free in the beach cove near the pit toilets, or you can drive into the park and pay a day use fee. If you drive in, you can park right at the trailhead, which begins where the campground ends.

If you walk in, just keep following the pavement until you reach a gate and a large sign that says Fern Canyon Trail. If you park outside, it will take you about 10 minutes to walk to the trailhead, and be sure to not take any trails leading up the hills — just follow the campground roads straight ahead until they stop.

Once on the trail, you are immersed in forest: strolling on a flat, mostly paved trail that hugs the flowing water and is bordered by lush ferns with redwoods towering above your head, and lots of cool bridges at your feet.

The bridges are all numbered, and can be very slippery in wet weather, and after bridge 10 you begin heading up and away from the water and deeper into the forest. Once you leave the bridges behind, the trail starts to climb gradually.

At about 1.75 miles in, you start seeing campsites and outhouses, and if you continue on, at about the two-mile mark you’ll hit a fork with the Old Logging Road Trail going off to the right, though there is no sign.

From there you can follow the logging road about a mile more to the Pygmy Forest Self-Guided Trail, a short loop on elevated walkways. If you choose to stay to the left, you can keep following the Fern Canyon Trail for another two miles to the Pygmy Forest, which, fair warning, does take you up a fairly steep hill.

There is also a third option for reaching the Pygmy Forest: turn onto Little River Airport Road just south of the park and follow it for three miles (past the airport) until you see a sign for the Pygmy Forest parking lot. There you can park and hop out to where the wooden walkways start and the interpretive signs guide you through the forest.

I’ve done both approaches to the Pygmy Forest, and I have to say I much prefer hiking the Fern Canyon Trail first. Not only do you get the experience of the lush, green forest, but then the transition to the Pygmy Forest under blue skies and bright sun is that much more striking.

No matter how you reach the Pygmy Forest, however, once there you will feel transported into another world.

(Courtesy, the Ukiah Daily Journal)

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