Just north of the Village of Mendocino, next door to the Little River Inn, is one of Mendocino’s best State Parks: Van Damme. With a wonderful rocky beach, a protected inlet perfect for kayaking, year-round camping, miles of well-groomed hiking trails, and an educational hike through the rare Pygmy Forest, this is an outdoor-lover’s dream come true.
The highlight of Van Damme is its incredible scenic network of trails through the Fern Canyon. These will take you through primordial redwood forest, with hillsides covered in different species of ferns, and into the Pygmy biome. The main loop trail is five and a half miles, and although the ascent is relatively steep, the trail is well-maintained and suitable for most levels of hiker – including children. You’ll cross the Little River dozens of times through your hike, and there are many excellent spots to stop and soak in the natural beauty, or enjoy a picnic lunch. Be warned – during the winter river crossings are much more difficult, so either start at the top of the trail and explore the upper section, or be prepared to forge the river multiple times.
At the top of Van Damme is the Pygmy Forest, one of nature’s oddities and one of the Mendocino Coast’s popular hiking attractions. Here, underlying hardpan and a terraced landscape structure have created nutrient-deprived, highly-acidic soil. As a result, the trees that grow in the pygmy are dwarfed – trees that are hundreds of years old may stand less than the height of a person. A boardwalk can be found a few miles up Little River Airport Road, giving easier access to the upper portion of the park and an easy way to see the pygmy. There’s a boardwalk loop that allows visitors to get up close and personal to the miniaturized trees, with informational placards along the way.
Van Damme Beach is popular with abalone divers, kayakers, and day-use visitors. It is a smaller beach, but is easily accessible – just off of Highway One, at the bottom of the hill below the Little River Inn. This is an excellent place to soak up the sun, play in the sand, watch the whales as they pass, and otherwise enjoy the Pacific Ocean. Those who want to get a different view of the Mendocino Coastline can go out on a kayak with Kayak Mendocino, a local business that offers tours for all levels of expertise.