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Jug Handle State Natural Reserve
On the rugged Mendocino Coast, Jug Handle State Natural Reserve beckons visitors with spectacular ocean views, peaceful forests, and a hike through half a million years of ecological history. The reserve’s 2.5-mile Ecological Staircase Trail explores three wave-cut terraces formed by the continental glaciers, rising seas, and tectonic plates that built the Coast Range. Few places on earth display a more complete record of how geology, soils, and plants change over time.
Bisected by Highway One, the reserve lies halfway between the towns of Fort Bragg and Mendocino. It stretches from the Pacific Ocean into Jackson Demonstration State Forest, three miles inland, where the highest steps of the ecological staircase lie.
The park enjoys a mild Mediterranean climate with winter rainfall and spring and summer fog that usually burns off by mid-morning. Summer temperatures range from the 50s to the 60s and winters from the 40s to the mid-50s. The weather can change throughout the day.
• Stay back from unstable cliff edges that can crumble underfoot.
• Never turn your back on the ocean. Large unexpected waves can sweep you out to sea during ALL seasons and ocean conditions. Lifeguards are not available.
• Stay on the designated trails to avoid ticks and poison oak.
• All features of the park are protected by state law and may not be disturbed.
• Dogs on leash are allowed only west of Highway One. Except for service animals, no dogs are allowed east of Highway One.
• No horses or bicycles.
• No camping. The park is for day use only (sunrise to sunset).
THINGS TO DO
Jug Handle’s 2.5-mile Ecological Staircase Trail traverses one of the most interesting geologic areas in the Northern Hemisphere. The reserve’s other notable features include a dramatic beach, coastal bluffs, and a bridge built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Plant lovers will delight in a long list of unusual species including Bolander pine, dwarf manzanita, and pygmy cypress. Just south and adjacent to the reserve, on the east side of Highway One, lodging and camping is available at Jug Handle Creek Farm and Nature Center.
If you have an hour, walk out to the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the beginning of the Ecological Staircase Trail. If you have time on the way back, check out Jug Handle’s sandy beach. Descend on steps just north of the picnic area.
If you have half a day, hike the entire Ecological Staircase Trail, out to the bluffs, past the beach, under the bridge, through the redwoods, and up to the pygmy forest. It’s 2.5 miles one way. Be sure to pick up a map at the trailhead because the trail is only vaguely marked at certain junctions.
If you have a full day, hike the Ecological Staircase Trail in the morning, picnic near the parking area, and explore on the beach in the afternoon.
0.5 miles, flat
The first seven stops of the Ecological Staircase—all west of Highway One—can be walked as a short headlands loop. At first, lanky Bishop pines loom overhead. Later, you’re gazing across a sweep of prairie. Then, there’s the rugged Pacific Coast. Finally, as you loop back, interpretive signs help you identify windswept grand fir, Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, wax myrtle, and other plants of the first terrace. A self-guided tour of the entire trail is posted online.
Just north of the picnic area, you can also walk down steps to the beach. The scenery is grand, but the water is rough and cold (here and elsewhere along the North Coast). Swimming is not recommended, and no lifeguards are present.
5 miles roundtrip, 300 foot elevation gain
The 2.5-mile Ecological Staircase Trail explores the distinctly different habitats on three wave-cut terraces rising from the Pacific Ocean. Starting at the Jug Handle parking lot, you’ll circle around the headlands, pass under the highway, and down some wooden stairs to a bridge crossing Jug Handle Creek. From there it’s mostly an uphill stroll through Bishop pine, grand fir, and redwood forests. Near the end of the trail, you’ll cross the state park boundary to visit Jackson Demonstration State Forest and the rare pygmy forest. This plant community occurs only where sea-cut terraces and their soil surfaces have remained flat during hundreds of thousands of years of geological uplift. As a result, soils are a thousand times more acidic than in a redwood forest. As a result, tree growth is stunted. A brochure describing what you can see at 40 stops along the way is available online.
The restrooms and picnic area are wheelchair accessible. The Ecological Staircase Trail and steps to the beach are not. For updates, follow the Accessible Features link at the top of this page.
While the pygmy forest here is not accessible by wheelchair or auto, you can drive to a similar forest with a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk three miles south of Mendocino at Van Damme State Park.
- Pacific Environmental Education Center (Enviornmental Education Program)
About the park
Ecological Staircase Trail
This trail takes the visitor on a tour of the geological updrift from the coast to the Pygmy Forest two and a half mile inland. This marine terrace sequence illustrates a successional story unparalleled elsewhere in California. The composition and processes responsible for this unique ecological setting offer a diverse selection of interpretive opportunities.
Jug Handle State Natural Reserve is a special place. Few places on earth display a more complete record of ecological succession. Each of the five terraces represents one stage in a progression of successional environments. Jug Handle, then, is one of the few opportunities to interpret this aspect of the coastal spectrum of ecological succession and landscape evolution.
The material base from which the terraces were fashioned is composed of a uniform body of graywacke sandstone (Bailey and Erwin 1959). Although each terrace has evolved from the same parent material, each has been weathered for different lengths of time. The soils, plants, and hydrologic associations on each terrace are affected by the degree of change the weathering has produced in the sandstone (Fox 1976 p. 5).
The structure of the terraces at Jug Handle is a result of the movement of the earth's crust (plate tectonics) and the fluctuation of sea level during the Pleistocene. In the last several million years, the continent of North America has moved northwest, and the coastline along the Mendocino coast has risen slowly in relationship to the increase of the sea level brought on by the melting of the continental glaciers. These two factors are massive agents in the shaping of land forms and are rarely seen so clearly outside the desert regions of the world.
The principal sculpturing agent at Jug Handle has been the sea. During periods of the Pleistocene when the glaciers were retreating northward, sea level rose more rapidly than the land was rising. As the pounding waves were uplifted onto the land, they fashioned a smooth underwater terrace. With renewal of glaciation, the waves slowly receded as the sea level fell.
Deposits of gravel and sand (beach material) were spread across the emerging terrace by the retreating waves (Jenny 1973 p. 8). Continued uplifting raised the terrace clear of subsequent rises in sea level. In this fashion, new terraces were created where older ones had existed. Terrace No. 5 (the oldest) was once at the elevation now occupied by No. 4 and so on.
This repetitive sequence proceeded at intervals of approximately 100,000 years and involved about 100 feet of uplift to form each of the terraces. The higher the terrace the older it is, and the longer its beach materials have been subjected to weathering.
Another active agent forming the land at Jug Handle has been the wind. Coastal breezes have been depositing beach material on the first terrace where the bluffs are low. Similarly, in the past the seaward edge of each terrace was covered with dune-building material that is now ancient.