About a year ago, my daughter Natalie went on her seventh grade marine biology trip, spending a week in the Mendocino area with classmates, where they went hiking and tidepooling and visited beaches and sand dunes. She loved the beach at Jug Handle State Natural Reserve and wanted to take us there on our spring break trip to Fort Bragg.
While we didn’t have time to hike the 5.0 mile round trip Ecological Staircase Trail, we did have time to hike down to the beach and Jug Handle Beach was easily one of the best Mendocino beaches we visited. Many beaches are pretty rocky, but this beach was a soft sand. Plus, it was a gorgeous, sunny, spring day and, the sand was warm under our toes, and we had the entire wide, flat beach all to ourselves.
We enjoyed exploring the mouth of Jug Handle Creek, relaxing in the warm spring sun, hunting for shells, playing in the sand, and dipping our toes in the surf.
About Jug Handle State Natural Reserve
Established in 1976, Jug Handle State Natural Reserve is a 776 acre park on the rugged Mendocino coast with spectacular ocean views, a wide sandy beach, picnic areas, lush forests, and a unique ecological staircase.
Located halfway between Mendocino and Fort Bragg, Jug Handle stretches from the Pacific Ocean three miles inland into Jackson Demonstration State Forest where the highest steps of the ecological staircase lie. The reserve is named after Jug Handle Creek that runs through the park. The name Jug Handle, also often spelled Jughandle, comes from the shape of a bend in an old road across the creek. Highway 1 crosses the Jug Handle Creek on a concrete open-spandrel deck arch bridge that was built in 1938.
Things To Do At Jug Handle
While visiting Jug Handle State Natural Reserve, you can simply relax at the picnic area and enjoy the gorgeous views of the Pacific Ocean, or you can hike down to the sandy Jug Handle Beach, hike the Headlands Loop Trail or hike the Reserve’s famous Ecological Staircase.
- Beach at Jug Handle:
West of the parking lot and north of the picnic area is a short, 0.25 mile, dirt trail that leads to Jug Handle Beach. The wide, flat, sandy beach surrounded by steep coastal cliffs and lush plants on three sides, and looks out on the sparkling blue Pacific Ocean. While the water is a little too rough and chilly to go swimming, the beach is a fantastic spot for a family picnic.
- Headlands Loop Trail:
The first seven stops of the Ecological Staircase — all west of Highway 1 — can be walked as a short, easy, flat 0.5 mile loop atop the headlands. On this short hike, you’ll pass Bishop pines, an open prairie, and enjoy breathtaking views of the Pacific Coast. Then on the return part of the loop, interpretive signs dot the trail, helping you identify other trees and plants on the first terrace.
- Ecological Staircase Trail
The Ecological Staircase Trail is a 2.5 mile, moderate, out and back trail, totaling 5.0 miles.
The trail explores the distinctly different habitats on three wave-cut terraces rising from the Pacific Ocean. From the Jug Handle parking lot, the trail traverses the headlands, passes under the Highway, and down wooden stairs to a bridge crossing Jug Handle Creek. It then travels uphill through Bishop Pine, Grand Fir, and Redwood forests before crossing the state park boundary into Jackson Demonstration State Forest and the rare Hans Jenny Pygmy Forest Reserve.
About The Ecological Staircase
The Ecological Staircase is referred to as one of the most interesting geologic areas in the Northern Hemisphere. In fact, few places on earth display a more complete record of ecological succession.
Each of the five marine terraces represents one stage in a progression of landscape evolution, each rising about 100 feet and lasting about 100,000 years. The higher the terrace is, the older it is and the longer the beach materials have been subject to weathering. This is why you can see such a wide variety of plant life, from giant California Coastal Redwoods to dwarfed rhododendron, manzanita, and huckleberry, and a pygmy forest of 5-10 foot tall cypresses and pines.
Some trees found in the pygmy forest grow nowhere else in the world, as the plant community occurs only where sea-cut terraces and their soil surfaces have remained flat during hundreds of thousands of years of geological uplift. Here soils are a thousand times more acidic than in a redwood forest, which stunts the growth of the trees.
Know Before You Go
- Jug Handle State Natural Reserve and the Ecological Staircase is located midway between Mendocino and Fort Bragg at 15700 North Highway 1, Caspar, California 95420 just 1.0 mile north of Caspar in Mendocino County.
- Bisected by State Highway 1, the reserve stretches inland from the coast to Jackson State Forest, approximately 3.0 miles.
- Download the Jug Handle State Natural Reserve brochure.
- The Ecological Staircase Trail is a 2.5 mile out and back hike, totaling 5.0 miles, that takes around three hours to complete. There is no drinking water along the trail.
- Download the Ecological Staircase self-guided tour brochure.
- The park is open for day use only from sunrise to sunset.
- Dogs on leash are allowed only west of Highway One. Except for service animals, no dogs are allowed east of Highway 1.
- The restrooms and picnic area are wheelchair accessible. The Ecological Staircase Trail and steps to the beach are not.
- Lodging and camping is available at Jug Handle Creek Farm and Nature Center.