Bay Nature magazineSpring 2021

Trails

Explore the Pygmy Forests of Van Damme State Park

March 30, 2021
pygmy forest
A platform trail through the pygmy forest. (Photo by Christine Connerly)

It’s easy to feel small these days, in a world that seems increasingly overrun with disease, environmental degradation, and discord. One possible antidote can be found nestled in the uplands of Mendocino: an hour spent feeling like a giant at Van Damme State Park’s Pygmy Forest Discovery Trail. 

The trail sits just inside the park’s southern entrance, and its boardwalk wends its way through stands of bishop and Bolander pine that stand only a few feet tall, the staccato of pileated woodpeckers drifting through their spindly branches. Mendocino cypresses that normally would tower more than a hundred feet in the air end instead at eye level. So-called pygmy forests (also sometimes known as “dwarf forests” or “elfin forests”) form when trees are stunted by extremely acidic, low-nutrient soil that sits on top of a layer of low-drainage iron hardpan. These conditions provide the bare minimum for a tree to grow, while preventing any successful saplings from deepening their root systems to hunt for more nutrients. The result is a kind of natural bonsai: impossibly small, improbably old. A tree trunk whose diameter is only a quarter of an inch might boast more than 80 growth rings.

The pygmy forests of California’s North Coast—Sonoma’s Salt Point State Park also features one—formed due to a phenomenon known as an ecological staircase. Here, a set of enormous step-like terraces runs parallel to California Route 1, caused by eons-long cycles of uplift from the ocean floor. Each level traps its own limited set of nutrients, its sheer flatness preventing both erosion and new soil formation. The soils at Van Damme are therefore exceptionally old: between 500,000 and 1 million years! Poor drainage also keeps soil oxygen content low, further stunting plant growth.

The Discovery Trail makes an easy side trip from an exploration of Salt Point, Mendocino Headlands, or the many other wonders on the North Coast. The weight of the world’s problems got you down? An hour feeling larger than life among the tiny junipers and elfin manzanita—with a dose of surprise and wonder—might be just what you need.

Explore: Small Trees

»Trail: Barely a hike; you’re here for the ecology, not the terrain. The trail is a quarter-mile stroll on a wooden boardwalk. If you squint, you can pretend you’re bounding hectares in a single step! Or head to the nearby lush Fern Canyon Trail for a longer jaunt.

»The Draw: Marvel at the infinite inventiveness of nature. Tower above tiny manzanitas and shrunken pines. Learn something new about the history and geology of Northern California. 

»Access and Facilities: The Discovery Trail is flat, even, and wheelchair accessible. A ramp at the far end of the loop from the parking lot leads to Old Logging Road Trail, which is also accessible for a short walk during dry weather. The paved parking lot near the trail entrance features one disabled space with room for a wheelchair van. Restrooms are located at the state park campground or down the road at Van Damme State Beach.

»Getting There: Van Damme State Park is an approximately three-hour drive from the inner Bay Area. Once you hit the coast, head north for a few miles on Route 1 past jagged cliffs dropping into aquamarine bays. Turn right, away from the coast just north of Albion. The road will narrow, winding briefly through the thickly forested redwood canyons of the Albion River and past the sleepy open expanse of the Little River Airport. 

About the Author

Alissa Greenberg lives in Berkeley, where she writes about strange science, international affairs, hidden histories, and community ties, with a generous dose of quirk.