Three miles south of Mendocino, 2,000-acre Van Damme State Park has a variety of habitats: marine, coastal bluff terraces, and pygmy, redwood, and riparian forests. Coast Highway One divides the park; west of the highway is a small, sheltered, sandy beach, one of the few with level access on the Mendocino Coast. East of the highway, nearly three square miles of park extend inland along Little River and north along the coast. Here you’ll find group and individual campgrounds, a small visitor center, a pygmy forest, and 10 miles of trails, at least two of which offer some access.
see access criteria for definitions
Trailhead: Parking lot off Airport Road
Length: Less than .5 mile
Typical Width: 4 ft. & above
Typical Grade: Level
Obstacles: A fresh layer of large rocks at the Trail Fire Service Road trailhead by the parking lot may be challenging for those in manual wheelchairs.
This short 300-yard loop boardwalk is at Van Damme’s eastern end, some two miles inland from Highway One. What at first glance may not seem impressive—skinny, dwarfed trees, washed-out and dull-looking against the ever-present fog—soon inspires awe. Interpretive panels throughout tell how the forces of nature (poor acidic topsoil and hardpan ) have stunted trees over the course of 300,000 years, in effect creating a bonsai forest. Bollander pine (unique to the pygmy forest), bishop pine, dwarf manzanita, and Mendocino cypress grow here. Hundred-year-old trees that might rise to more than 100 feet elsewhere are only a few feet tall here, with a quarter-inch diameter. The boardwalk runs a few inches above ground to protect the nutrient-rich lichen on the forest floor, but in some places the tiny ancient treetops are at your eye level. Low railings (33 inches) allow easy viewing from a wheelchair. Within a few hundred feet from the start is a loop trail, which I traveled counter-clockwise. Rhododendrons line the trail and likely put on a beautiful show in spring, when they are in full bloom. During my early September visit, nuthatches were abundant, and if you looked closely you could see a few remaining huckleberries, which the native Pomo gathered much more diligently than current visitors do.
About three-quarters of the way along the loop is a spur trail connecting to Trail Fire Service Road, which you can also enter at the western end of the Pygmy Forest parking lot. This old logging road, mostly firm-packed dirt and gravel, comes to a junction after .2 miles. Here you can connect to Fern Canyon Trail, which narrows to a single track and is impassable after a short distance. I continued on the logging road because a map indicated that I could again connect to Fern Canyon Trail farther west. Unfortunately, after a quarter-mile I had to turn back due to steep, rocky terrain.
see access criteria for definitions
Trailhead: Foot of park entry road
Length: Over 4 total miles
Typical Width: 4 ft. & above
Typical Grade: Mostly level or gentle
Several of the bridges have a two- to three-inch transition that may be problematic for some wheelchairs.
Although I visited in summer, there were several muddy stretches created by runoff from the canyon walls; I needed assistance at one stretch to avoid getting stuck. In wet weather it will likely be impassable. Some patches of broken asphalt made for a bumpy ride, and for the last mile or so a fine layer of redwood duff covered the trail but was easy to negotiate in my power chair.
Obstacles: At most bridge thresholds, erosion has left two- to three-inch transitions at both ends. The worst is at the ninth bridge where the path at the threshold has narrowed to less than 30 inches. After that bridge, a fallen tree narrows the trail and requires careful navigation. There are no restrooms at either trail.
Fern Canyon Trail is an abandoned logging skid once used to haul timber by ox team to a lumber mill at the mouth of Little River. The lush trail extends along Little River through Fern Canyon, named for the abundant ferns thriving here: five-ﬁnger, bird’s-foot, lady, licorice, stamp, sword, and deer. At times you can see the river, at other times only hear it. We mostly had the trail to ourselves, and luxuriated in the natural quiet. The occasional river gurgle or birdsong made the forest even more enchanting.
A sign at the beginning of the trail warning of mountain lions gave us pause, but we were comforted to learn as we read further that they are rarely seen. In less than .2 miles is a short, very steep hill. In my power chair I managed both the up and downhill (even steeper and with loose gravel), but I had my companion stay close by as a precaution. This is the biggest challenge on the otherwise easy trail (at least for the 2.5 miles I covered), and well worth the effort. Steep canyon walls and a somewhat dense forest of young redwoods, red alder, bishop pine, and douglas ﬁr filter the sunlight for the first mile and a half; the cool, damp air along this stretch feels like a nurturing blanket. A few interpretive panels describe the annual migration of wild coho salmon in Little River, and tell how this river is unique because no hatchery-raised salmon have ever been released here. Metal salmon sculptures along the riverbank serve as a reminder to pause and appreciate this river that is so important to the salmon’s survival.
You’ll cross at least 10 accessible bridges (some have high thresholds) built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1936. Scanning the canyon floor and walls, which are covered in a rich palette of greens, I was struck by the contrast between the lush growth and the numerous decaying fallen trees. After the fifth bridge the forest is less dense, and if you’re lucky, the sun pokes through. After bridge 10 (the 1.5-mile mark), the trail widens as it travels through a small redwood forest, and the river can’t be seen or heard. At 1.75 miles are hike-in campsites; #4 may be accessible for a very adventurous wheelchair rider who likes to rough it, since there is no accessible restroom. In about another .75 miles is a fork, but in a few hundred feet the two trails meet up again. Shortly after that is another fork: to the left, Fern Canyon Trail continues uphill, while Trail Fire Service Road is to the right. I followed Trail Fire Service Road downhill less than 100 feet before I was stopped by a washout. It was getting late in the day, so I didn’t try to continue on Fern Canyon but instead retraced my route back to the trailhead.
The facilities listed below meet all of our access criteria unless otherwise noted.
Accessible Visitor Center: Yes
The small visitor center at the campground has limited hours and was closed on my visit.
Beach Wheelchair: Yes
Request 48 hours in advance; call (707) 937-5804
Accessible Parking: Yes
At visitor center, by accessible restroom at campground, Pygmy Forest, and beach; may be covered in sand. There is no designated accessible space at Fern Canyon trailhead, but the small lot is paved.
Accessible Restroom: Yes
The only accessible restroom is in the campground, adjacent to campsite 11
Other Things of Interest
Kayak Mendocino rents kayaks at Van Damme’s beach, where they can be launched from a level spot.A few miles north of Van Damme is Big River Beach (part of Mendocino Headlands State Park), which extends along the north bank of Big River on both sides of Highway One. Here you’ll find level access to a broad sandy beach on the east side of the highway. The large parking lot has no designated accessible parking, but I had no problem parking. At the west end is an accessible portable restroom, although the sandy path to it may be problematic for some wheelchairs.
Hours: Beach: 5 am-10 pm. Visitor center: Generally open weekends, 10 am-2 pm.
Map: See here.
Dogs: Allowed on leash in campgrounds and on beach, but not on trails.