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Van Damme State Park

Fern Canyon Trail

From Van Damme State Park Campground to Fern Canyon is 5 miles round trip
with 200-foot gain; to Pygmy Forest is 7 miles round trip with 400-foot gain

Five-finger and bird’s-foot, lady and licorice, stamp, sword and deer— these are some of the colorful names of the ferns growing in well-named Fern Canyon. This lush canyon, the heart of Van Damme State Park, is also rich with young redwoods, red alder, big leaf maple and Douglas fir, as well as a tangled understory of wild cucumber and berry bushes.

Little River meanders through Fern Canyon, as does a lovely trail which crosses the river nine times. Fern Canyon Trail, paved along its lower stretch, follows the route of an old logging skid road. For three decades, beginning in 1864, ox teams hauled timber through the canyon.

A lumber mill once stood at the mouth of Little River. During the late nineteenth century, schooners, used for shipping logs and lumber, were constructed at a boatworks located at the river mouth. Lumberman and San Francisco businessman Charles F. Van Damme was born in the hamlet of Little River. He purchased land on the site of the former sawmill and bequeathed the river mouth and canyon to the state park system.

In Van Damme State Park, another very special environment awaits the walker: the Pygmy Forest. A nutrient-poor, highly acidic topsoil, combined with a dense hardpan located beneath the surface that resists root penetration, has severely restricted the growth of trees in certain areas of the coastal shelf between Salt Point and Fort Bragg.

The Pygmy Forest in Van Damme State Park is truly Lilliputian. Sixty-year-old cypress trees are but a few feet tall and measure a half-inch in diameter. The walker has a choice of two trails that lead to the Pygmy Forest. One route loops 3.5 miles through Fern Canyon; another, the one mile
long Logging Road Trail leads more directly to the forest. A self-guided nature trail, built upon an elevated wooden walkway, loops through the Pygmy Forest.

Directions to trailhead: Van Damme State Park is located off Highway 1, three miles south of Mendocino. Turn inland on the main park road, and follow it through the canyon to a parking area at the beginning of signed Fern Canyon Trail.

The hike:
The first and second crossings of Little River give you an inkling of what lies ahead. During summer, the river is easily forded; in winter, expect to get your feet wet.

The wide path brings you close to elderberry, salmonberry and a multitude of ferns. Two miles and eight river crossings later, you’ll pass the state park’s environmental campsites—reserved for walkers and bicyclists.

The road splits into a short loop and the two forks rejoin at the end of the paved road. Both trails lead to Pygmy Forest. To the left, the longer loop continues east through Fern Canyon before joining the old logging road and traveling to Pygmy Forest. For a shorter walk to Pygmy Forest, cross Little River and follow the Old Logging Road Trail a mile.

© 2012 The Trailmaster, Inc.
From John McKinney’s
Day Hiker’s Guide to California’s State Parks
Trail descriptions and maps have been reproduced with the permission of the author.  To learn more about The Trailmaster and other related publications please visit their website at