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Jug Handle State Reserve

Jug Handle Ecological Staircase Trail

5 miles round trip with 300-foot elevation gain

The watershed of Jug Handle Creek holds a rare natural phenomenon— an “ecological staircase”—that attracts scientists and nature lovers from all over the world. The staircase is composed of five terraces, each about 100,000 years older and about 100 feet higher than the one below it.

The terraces were sculpted into the sandstone cliffs by wave action. As a result of tectonic action—our North American plate crunching against the offshore Pacific plate—the terraces were uplifted. In fact, today the terraces continue their inexorable uplift at the rate of an inch per century.

Terraces, and the forces forming them, are by no means unique to Jug Handle Creek; however, in most California coastal locales, the terraces are eroded and indistinct. Only at the state reserve are the evolutionary sequences so distinguishable, and so well preserved.

Directions to trailhead: Five miles south of Fort Bragg, turn west off Highway 1 into the Jug Handle Reserve parking area.

The hike: Head west on the signed trail out onto the grassy blufftops. The trail loops toward the edge of the bluffs, offers a view of Jug Handle Cove, then returns east to dip under the highway bridge.

The first terrace supports native grassland. and wind-sculpted Sitka spruce. Second-growth redwoods are the most noticeable feature of the second terrace.The upper terraces are the site of the Mendocino Pygmy Forest. Cypress and pine are but five to ten feet tall, and shrubs such as rhododendron, manzanita and huckleberry, are also dwarf-sized.

Adding to the somewhat bizarre natural world of upper Jug Handle Creek, are a couple of sphagnum bogs—layers of peat standing in water— which support mosses and an insectivorous plant called sundew that uses its sticky leaves to capture its victims.

When you reach the end of the trail, you can rejoin Gibney Fire Road for a quick return to the main trail leading back to the parking area.

© 2012 The Trailmaster, Inc.
From John McKinney’s
Day Hiker’s Guide to California’s State Parks
Trail descriptions and maps have been reproduced with the permission of the author.  To learn more about The Trailmaster and other related publications please visit their website at