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The Best Hikes in Fort Bragg

Fort Bragg is cradled by the great outdoors: Pacific Ocean on the west; Jackson State Forest on the east.

California Highway 1, which bisects newly renovated Downtown Fort Bragg, leads north and south to some of the most beautiful, serene hikes anywhere in America.

Best of all, from your inn, motel or bed and breakfast in Fort Bragg, you are no more than 30 minutes from any trail, hike or outdoor adventure. Many are just minutes away – literally.

Here are our favorites:

1. Ten Mile Beach, MacKerricher State Park

Why we like it:

Close to downtown, yet foot traffic is very light. Most days, you’ll have the beach to yourself.  Your senses will be filled by the ocean sounds, fresh air and views all the way to the Lost Coast.

Occasionally, you’ll see horses from Lari Shea’s Ricochet Ranch trotting in the surf.

On an ebb tide, rocks on the south end are perfect for tide pooling.

You might even spot a whale (humpback, blue or gray), find a sand dollar or catch a glimpse of a rare and endangered Snowy Plover nested among the dunes.

Trails.com lists the trails (from near Downtown Fort Bragg to Ten Mile River) as 10.4 miles.  We recommend the Ward Avenue departure point (see below), which makes the hike half that much.

Location:

Five minutes north of Downtown Fort Bragg.

Getting There:

Drive north about 3 miles to Ward Avenue, turn left and drive to the parking area at the ocean. Enter the trail, make a right (head north) and within a few hundred yards you’re at the entrance to the beach.

Trail Distance:

You decide.  The beach is about 2.5 miles long. Figure out how long you want to walk, cut the time in half to figure when to turnaround walk, then walk as far as you can comfortably in that time.

Who should go:

Romantics, boomers, kids, runners, horseback riders, photographers, birders. Take a book and prop yourself against a piece of driftwood or nestle in the warm dunes.

Difficulty:

Easy, flat (although walking in the sand adds some extra effort).

What to bring:

Camera, picnic, book or iPod (but then you block out the sound of crashing surf).

Weather:

Locals like to say is always 55 degrees. On sunny days with a breeze, you’ll be comfortable in a short sleeve t-shirt. A windbreaker is wise year-around. If it’s windy and overcast, layer up.

Best advice (from the Ocean Safety Coalition):

“Be swept away by the beauty, not by the waves.” Keep a respectable distance from. The waves are powerful and water cold.

Cost:

Free.

2. Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park

Why we like it:

Just five miles south of the Fort Bragg City Limits, this state park and nature preserve is one of the most complete (restored) light stations in America. Point Cabrillo Lightkeepers Association received state and national awards for restoring eight of the nine structures to their original 1909 condition. The 100-year-old lighthouse – with its British-built Fresnel Lens operates as a Federal Aid to Navigation.

Trails crisscross the preserve and lead you to a shipwreck site and Pomo Indian middens. As one of the most westerly points on the coast, it’s the best place to view migrating whales, spot harbor seals and sea lions and, of course, watch sea birds –- from black oyster catchers and cormorants to gulls and pelicans.

Built in 1909 to protect lumber schooners plying the coast, the lighthouse now houses a gift shop (bring your wallet when you walk the ½ mile from the parking lot to the lighthouse) and history exhibits.

You’ll get a glimpse of 20,000 years of Pomo Indian history and the Frolic Shipwreck (1850) in Frolic Cove, which led to the discovery of huge stands of virgin redwoods and settlements with saw mills along the Mendocino Coast. One of three lightkeeper houses is now a period museum where you’ll see how the original keepers and their families lived in the early 1900s.

Location:

Point Cabrillo Drive, 5 miles south of Fort Bragg.

Trail distance:

A few miles if you walk around the entire 300 acres; 1-mile roundtrip if you walk just to the lighthouse and back from the visitor center parking area.

Getting There:

From your Fort Bragg lodging, drive about five miles to Point Cabrillo Drive (make a right turn heading west) and follow it for two miles.

Difficulty:

Easy. However, the walk from the parking area to the lighthouse and ocean is 1/2 mile downhill (then uphill coming back).

Who should go:

Suitable for all ages, interests and abilities if you can walk at least a mile (to the lighthouse and back).

Extras:

Wheelchair accessible. Dogs – on leash – are welcome in the lighthouse and on the trails. State Park rules apply.  Handicapped parking is located down the hill near the lighthouse. The main road and walkway to the lighthouse is paved with wheelchair access ramp and doors on the ocean side of the lighthouse.

What to bring:

Picnic, camera, binoculars, your wallet (for some great stuff in the lighthouse).

Weather:

Count on it being cool. Fog in summer. Wind in the afternoon is normal. Layer up. On a breezeless, sunny day, you’ll be okay in a short sleeve t-shirt.

Best advice (from the Ocean Safety Coalition):

“Be swept away by the beauty, not by the waves. “ Keep a respectable distance from the cliff’s edge and don’t climb down on the rocks. Sneaker waves are common. The waves are powerful and water cold (54 degrees).

Cost:

Free, although the lighthouse asks for a small voluntary donation at the entrance.

3. Jug Handle Nature Reserve and Hans Jenny Pygmy Forest Reserve

Why we like it:

This may be the only place on the planet, literally, where you can you walk a couple of miles, from the ocean through a forest of redwoods, Sitka Spruce, Grand Fir, Red Alder and Monterey and end up in a rare stand of dwarf trees with pencil thin trunks; some barely five feet tall.  The Hans Jenny Pygmy Forest Reserve is one of only four pygmy forests in the U.S. Two are near Fort Bragg; one is located on the Sonoma Coast and a third is privately owned in the Catskill mountain range of New York. A variant of the pygmy forest, called the elfin forest is found in Southern California, Mexico and Central America.

During your trip, you pass through five terraces – each 100,000 years older than the previous one – as you transverse Jug Handle’s “Ecological Staircase.” There are 40 stops along the way, detailed in the self-guided trail guide at the beginning the hike near the parking lot.

Trail Length:

5.0 miles roundtrip from the parking lot sign (if you skip the ocean loop).

Location:

3 miles south of Fort Bragg City Limits (only 4.6 miles from Redwood and Main Streets in Downtown).

Difficulty:

Mostly flat. There is a rather steep stair climb, for a short distance after crossing under Highway 1. To avoid the climb, park in a pullout on the northeast side of Highway 1, just a few yards north of Jug Handle Reserve bridge.

Who should go:

Picnickers, nature lovers who want to stop at trail markers to read about the flora, and anyone who loves to walk in the woods.

Extras:

No dogs. Not wheelchair accessible.

What to bring:

Water, lunch, camera.

Weather:

As you get away from the coast, the weather warms up a bit.  Remember, on foggy or overcast days, the forest can be cold. Check the weather and layer up.

Best advice:

You can walk this trail in 1.5 hours at a brisk pace.  But the trail guide – if you make all the stops – estimates this as a three-hour hike. Take your time and enjoy the fresh air.  Pack a lunch.

Cost:

Free

4. Forest History Trail, Jackson State Forest

Why we like it:

The perfect place to find solitude, discover local logging history and get some exercise.

A Forest History Trail Guide, found in the CDF Headquarters, north of Downtown Fort Bragg, describes what you’ll find at 45 trail markers along the hike.

The guide covers early logging days, the redwoods and how the Indians used the various trees and bushes found here.

The trail is well marked and there are a couple of benches where you can rest along the way. But take heart to this hiking wisdom: “what goes down, must go up.”

That applies to this 4-mile loop, which drops 800 feet over two miles. It’s all easy walking downhill, but then you have to walk uphill on the return trip.

It’s not particularly steep and, if you aren’t in a hurry, not especially tiring.  On a warm day, however, be advised to go easy and drink plenty of water.

Throughout the forest are huge stumps of the old growth trees harvested a century ago. When you will come to a fork with a sign marking Observation Hill to the left (about 3/4th of the way through our trip if you hike counterclockwise), you can either follow the signs to the top or go to the right and continue the loop. Trees have grown up since the observation area was established, so there isn’t much of a view.

But it is only a couple of hundred yards and the clearing at the top is a good place for a break or a picnic.

Location:

Jackson State Forest, southeast of Fort Bragg

Getting There:

Go 5.5 miles east on Little Lake Road to the “End of Pavement” sign. Turn left on County Road 408, where the sign says “Highway 20, 6 miles”. Follow the unpaved road for 1.2 miles (total mileage 6.7 miles from Highway One) to the parking area on the right side. This road is suitable for any modern car, but bumpy in several sections. Not advised in winter.

Trail Length:

A four-mile loop; about 3 hours (experienced hikers can do it in less).

Difficulty:

Moderate. Good trail, but with ups and downs.

Who should go:

Not recommended for families with small children.  If you’re a hiker who can walk four miles comfortably, then you’ll be okay.  Of course, you can just get out of your car, stand among the tall trees and look around. A walk even a few hundreds yards down the trail is worth the drive here.

What to bring:

Water and map or trail guide.

Extras:

Trail guide is available from the California Department of Forest Office, 802 N. Main Street (same as Highway 1), Fort Bragg.  Call 964-5674 for hours and map availability. Keep a sharp look out for the Forest History Trail sign. It’s easy to miss.

Weather:

The forest can be cool, especially on overcast or foggy days, so dress in layers.

Best advice:

Wear good hiking shoes, bring a lunch and water.

Cost:

Free.

5. Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens

Why we like it:

Unlike some walks, this isn’t one of Fort Bragg’s best-kept secrets with 60,000 visitors a year. At the same time, except for holidays or special events, you’ll never feel crowded.

Paved trails crisscross the 47 acres from Highway 1 to the Pacific Ocean. This is a place to meander from garden to garden, rather than power walk. But feel free to go at a faster pace.

The Gardens is known for its tender species rhododendrons that produce some of the most fragrant blossoms of the year. Native to the cloud forests of Southeast Asia and the Himalayas, these gems are restricted to a narrow band along the northern California coast in the U.S., where they thrive in the foggy, coastal climate.

The Dahlia Garden is dazzling in bloom, a popular spot for weddings and photography.

The collection of heaths and heathers is said to be “national treasures” as are the camellias. Equally if not more important, the natural areas of the garden harbor six different rare and endangered plants.

A wonderfully weird forest of pines leads to the breezy bluff of the coastal prairies and views of the Pacific Ocean in all of its moods and glory.

The Gardens has become a haven for bird watchers with the list of bird now over 150 species long.

It’s rare to spot a red-throated loon or double-crested cormorant in spring, but in summer they are common, as are the black oystercatcher, which frequents the rocky coastline year-round.

Ospreys, hawks, sandpipers, plovers and Canada geese are also regulars. If you’re vigilant and look carefully, on very rare occasions, you might even spot an ash-throated flycatcher, a savannah sparrow or a red-breasted nuthatch.

Location:

3 miles south of Fort Bragg

Getting There:

From Highway 20, drive 3 miles to the Gardens, located on the west side of Highway 1.

Trail Length:

Maybe three miles if you walked the entire property; a two-mile roundtrip to the ocean cliff viewing room and back to the parking lot.

Difficulty:

Easy, flat, paved.

What to  bring:

Binoculars, a picnic lunch and a sense of wonderment.

Extras:

The Gardens’ main trails are wheelchair accessible to the ocean. The gardens provide electric carts for guests with special needs on a first-come, first-served basis. Well-mannered dogs on leashes are always welcome and enjoy free admission.

The Cowlick’s food concession provides lunch choices and fresh, handmade ice cream.

Weather:

Layer up. Be ready for t-shirt and jacket weather. But remember, temperatures on the coast –- rain, sun or fog –- are in the mid-fifties year-round.

Local Advice:

Before visiting, ask your lodging host to tell you what’s in bloom (http://www.gardenbythesea.org. If you come with kids, download the Quail Trail Map for children.

Cost:

$2 (children, ages 6 to 12) to $10 (adults); under age 5, free.

6. Waterfall Trail, Russian Gulch State Park

What we like:

Tall trees, including redwoods, lush ferns, and streams make this a must-see destination.

The 30-foot high waterfall, which runs year-round, is absolutely mesmerizing — the perfect spot for a picnics and photographs. Definitely a lover’s hangout. Worth the walk from the Campground (5 miles round trip – stream trail; – 7 miles round trip north trail). Other loops, detailed on park maps, add more mileage.

Location:

Russian Gulch State Park, 6 miles south of Fort Bragg

Getting There: there are two ways to get here.

1. Locals take Highway 409 about 3.3 miles, just after the “Pavement Ends” sign. Look on the left for a low horse hitching post and park. About 50 yards ahead, you see a small “Horse Camp” sign and dirt road. Follow it past the “North Boundary Trail” sign and gate and head down the hill.  Just as the trail goes up hill, look on your left for the East Falls Loop trail sign.

After about a half mile, you’ll come to a trail split with no sign. Take either trail because they join up a hundred yards farther down the trail. You won’t get lost. Time from Highway 1 to the waterfall and back is one hour; walking portion is about two miles.

2. From the campground at Russian Gulch State Park, just follow the lower and shorter river paved trail or North Trail to a signed trail for the waterfall.

Trail Length:

Two to 7 miles roundtrip, depending on the trail you follow.

Difficulty:

Easy to moderate, depending on the trail you take. The locals’ trail is a gentle .8 miles downtown hike, which requires hiking uphill on the return.

Who should go:

Anyone in who likes a good walk in the woods.  Not recommended for small children or folks with strollers because of the rough, narrow trail the last three-quarters of a mile from the end of the paved trail. You frequently have to walk around or climb over fallen trees.

What to bring:

Water, map and or trail guide.

Extras:

Not wheelchair accessible.

Weather:

The forest can be cool, especially on overcast or foggy days, so dress in layers.

Best advice:

Wear good hiking shoes, bring a lunch and / or water. Stay on the main trail. Don’t be tempted to take signed side trails.

Cost:

Free.

Best of Everything in Fort Bragg List

Best sunset beach walk:

The paved Old Haul Road above Ten-Mile Beach, which slices through MacKerricher State Park, is the best spot in Fort Bragg for watching a sunset. Park at Cleone Lake and Walk north.

Alternatives: Laguna Point near Cleone Lake in MacKerricher or the Pudding Creek Trestle Bridge. Both offer spectacular sunsets along the beach.

Best tide pooling:

The rocks just south of Virgin Creek Beach, just a 1.7-mile drive from Downtown Fort Bragg (Redwood and Main) to the parking area, then a ¼ mile walk to the ocean.

Best Community Wide Outdoor Event:

The Annual Fort Bragg Whale Festival, held each year the third weekend of March, offers microbrew tasting, chowder sampling, art exhibits, guided nature walks, and whale watching cruises. A must-see event. Visit www.MendoWhale.com for details.

Best Seaside Picnic Spot:

Point Cabrillo Lighthouse. Benches near the lighthouse are one of the most romantic sunsets spots in America.

Best Bicycle Ride:

The Old Haul Road (once used as the truck route for hauling redwoods from the to the mill in Fort Bragg) offers miles of ocean views. Trail starts in Downtown Fort Bragg and ends at Cleone Lake in MacKerricher State Park.

Best trip for redwoods:

Chamberlain Creek Trail leads to a waterfall and small grove of old growth redwoods.  The trail is less than three miles in length. Maps and details at http://www.mendowalks.org.

Best horseback ride:

Lari Shea’s Ricochet Ranch, on Highway 1, three miles north of Fort Bragg, is the perfect starting point for a gallop on Ten Mile Beach.

Best Surf Spot:

Virgin Creek, just outside Fort Bragg’s northern city limits is where experienced surfers find some of the best surfing waves on the Northern California coast. At the south end of town, a second favorite is Hare Creek Beach. Beginners also like Caspar State Beach, another five miles south of town.

Best Kayaking Trip (we might also ask Cate and Jeff):

The rail to river adventure is one of a kind. Connect with Liquid Fusion for kayaks and guides, then board the Skunk Train and steam through the redwoods to the Noyo River drop off, then paddle to Noyo Harbor, viewing wildlife and forest flowers along the way.

Best Outdoor Photo Spot:

Jug Handle Nature Reserve is a spectacular viewpoint to watch 30-foot monster waves as they crash on the cliffs. The viewing platforms at Laguna Point in MacKerricher State Park are a close second for seeing spectacular surf and a few brave surfers.

Best place for bird watching:

Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens has recorded more than 150 species. Illustrated panels and the garden-forest setting make this a birder’s dream.  Point Cabrillo Light State Historic Park is a close second. A list of 276 species found in the area is available for $1 from the Mendocino Coast Audubon Society, http://www.mendocinocoastaudubon.org/

Best Mountain Bike Ride:

From Manly Gulch up Cookhouse Creek along the Forest History Trail is a local favorite described as “spectacularly beautiful.”  Details at the CFD office in Fort Bragg or Fort Bragg Cyclery.

Best place for abalone diving:

I wouldn’t touch this one because many locations require divers to cross private property and they create a nightmare for local residents and fish and game wardens. Poaching is a constant problem. Or tell them to contact Subsurface Progression for best locations, access information and equipment.

Best Boat Ride:

Climb aboard Captain Tim’s Sea Hawk in Noyo Harbor and go crabbing. This is great for kids and adults alike, helping with the crab traps, scurrying around scooping up the crabs that fall out of the net and then taking a handful home as a reward.

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