Every State Park in Mendocino County offers a specific focus that makes it Best-in-Class for visitors with that specific interest. While there is plenty of overlap – beautiful coastline, towering redwoods, or remote locations – each tends to be a gem in one area. Jug Handle is the Educational Park. While other State Parks in the area offer information on local species, or some educational opportunities, for Jug Handle this is really the driving focus.
The crowning achievement of this unique Mendocino park is the 2.5 mile Ecological Staircase. This trail moves upward through the three of the five distinct terraces that make up the Coast Range. Each terrace represents roughly 100,000 years of geologic time, with an entire ecosystem built around that time gap. The bottom terrace, for example, is prairie, home primarily to grasses and shrubs. The next terrace is dominated by pines and redwood. As you move upwards you pass into some of the oldest soil, retaining virtually no nutrients, and giving birth to the unique pygmy forest, where trees have been dwarfed into miniature versions of their larger selves. Given another 100,000 years each terrace will likely shift into the terrace above it – demonstrating vividly the way in which changing soil patterns shape the entire natural world.
This is a park that takes some time to truly appreciate. Visitors should schedule an hour and a half to two hours to complete the Ecological Staircase, but you will likely want to spend more time exploring the beautiful headlands at Jug Handle, or spending time on the beach. Visitors should keep an eye out for poison oak, as the lower part of the Ecological Staircase often has poison oak encroaching on the trail.
Jug Handle has one of the most beautiful beaches on the Mendocino Coast, as well, easily accessible via a staircase leading from the upper parking lot. The Ecological Staircase can be reached via the beach by crossing a creek – which may be small or large depending on the season – or by staircase from the upper parking lot. Jug Handle is located about halfway between Mendocino and Fort Bragg, with a parking lot directly off of Highway 1.