On the Mendocino coast, the air smells of salt, and the crashing waves create a continuous resonance. The tall bluffs at this spot north of San Francisco resemble the rugged shores of the east coast, but with an unmistakable California flair. Two miles north of Mendocino, Russian Gulch State Park’s collapsed sea cave cuts 200 feet into the heavily forested Russian Gulch Creek Canyon, a headland that features the Devil's Punch Bowl (a large, collapsed sea cave with churning water), and a beach that offers swimming, tide pool exploring, skin diving and rock fishing. Inland, there is a 36-foot high waterfall. Hikers enjoy miles of hiking trails. The park also has a paved three-mile bicycle trail. Devil’s Punchbowl formed when pounding waves forged an inland tunnel and left a hole 100 feet across and 60 feet deep. At high tide, boiling waves crash around the cave’s interior, producing a reverberant echo. The photogenic Frederick W. Panhorst Bridge rises gracefully 100 feet from the bottom of the gulch. The park has nearly a mile and a half of ocean frontage; its craggy beauty rivals any point along California’s coast. In the spring, the park’s foggy headlands bloom with acres of wildflowers. The climate here is temperate year-round. Winter rains and cool summer fogs that usually burn off by mid-morning provide the moisture necessary for the thriving coastal redwoods. Prepare for changeable weather by dressing in light layers.
This is always my favorite hike to do when I'm on the coast. Yesterday, I drove all the way down into the chilly gulch during this season's cold snap, parked, got out, and then immediately got back into my car. They weren't kidding around when they called it a cold snap. As I was underprepared (no hat, no gloves, not enough warm layers), I followed the map that I picked up at the ranger station and drove back up to tackle the Road 409 entrance through the Horse Camp, onto the East Trail, and down to the waterfall. It's on higher ground, it's slightly more exposed, and it is a much shorter hike. While that was lovely and perfect for me on that particular day, nothing beats the splendor of the full Russian Gulch trail experience year-round, rain or shine; mushrooms in the fall/winter, wildflowers in the spring/summer, and always a gorgeous waterfall surrounded by redwoods and ferns and everything else that makes this landscape so breathtaking. The trail is beautifully maintained, too. It's worth driving from the Bay Area just for this hike.
I hiked the south trail in two parts because I am staying near the middle.
The east end is in deep redwoods and Sitka spruce and is quite steep near the campground at the end of the paved park access road.
The west end goes under Highway 1 and out to the headlands which is beautiful at sunset. Again, while the center portion of the trail follows the ridge above Russian Gulch but descends at both ends to sea level. Relative to the entire length of the trail only short portions near the ends are steep.
The lush forest is the most significant feature of the trail with the exception of the coastal views at the west end.
End to end the South Trail is about 1 1/2 miles.
Beautiful trail. We took the Fern Canyon trail (blue markers) to the waterfall and back (4.4 miles). The map shows it to be 5.4 miles but the gate was open and we were able to park in the lot near campsite #30 which took about a mile RT off the hike. We were limited on time otherwise we would have done the falls loop trail (1.6 miles) (red markers). We loved this area and will be coming back when we have more time and try the North Trail and the East trail. Parts of the trail are pretty muddy near the start so be prepared for that. Beautiful Russian Gulch Creek running near the trail most of the way which offered a nice sound along the way. Most of the hike is shaded which keeps it pretty cool. The last .7 miles up to the waterfall is mostly uphill but it's not bad and there's plenty to look at to keep your mind off it- and plus that means downhill all the way back:) Loved the fallen trees that we had to climb over/under and the waterfall is beautiful even though it's August and not at its fullest. There are a couple of benches and a bridge at the falls which is a great place for lunch. The stairs take you up to the top of the falls and connects to the East Trail and Falls Loop trail. The trails are easy to identify by color - match it up to the map that they have at the entry gate. There is an $8 parking fee for the State Park which can be used all day at any State Park and there are a few in the area so just pay once and go see as many as you can in one day:) Will definitely be coming back!
We did this on Xmas day and it was perfect. We took the North Trail because we wanted a little bit of exercise. It's longer and more elevation gain but still pretty gentle. The switchbacks at the beginning are a nice way to get the heart rate up a little bit. Make sure you stop and admire the sun rays poking thru the trees, illuminating all the green around you -- it's beautiful. We got to the waterfall in about 2.75 hours and had lunch there. The walk back was flat and easy -- total trip 8.2 miles and 3.5 hours.
November, 2015... about 7 miles and we did it in 3.5 hours stopping somewhat frequently for photo ops. We recommend to take north trail to falls loop and take north trail back if you want a more vigorous workout. The fern canyon trail is flat and straight and you are walking on asphalt, maybe better for kids etc. North trails entrance immediately goes to steep uphill grade with multiple switchbacks. It is a narrow trail that takes you threw redwoods as well as pygmy forest. There were routes from north trail called north boundary trail, but we didn't take those detours. We did pass a hiker that recommended them. Falls loop trail (narrow with some steeps) takes you to a spectacular waterfall which is a great spot for picnic and photos... you can get right up to the waterfall or enjoy from a bridge or various log benches. A few down redwoods over the last few years cross the path, but fairly easy to navigate over. The way back from waterfall has downgrades with natural staircase and man made stairs as well on pathway. Fern canyon trail follows a stream and canyon walls blanketed in ferns. Was fairly crowded with people at the waterfall, but didn't pass too many people on the hike there and it was a saturday/holiday weekend. No wildlife unfortunately.
This trail is pretty flat on the initial start. The first portion is mostly paved with asphalt that is deteriorating from a time gone by. The trail winds in through gulch along the creek with a few light hill areas until you come to the split where you can go straight to the falls or take the longer, less complicated Falls Loop trail. What's most amazing about the hike is all of the ferns, you feel like your going to see a velociraptor walk out of them at any moment, especially in the morning mist. If you only go up to the split, which you can also do by mountain bike, it's a pretty easy trail. If you decide to go on, no bikes allowed, I recommend the trail that takes you straight to falls. It's got some very narrow spots so if you have small ones with you make sure that you've got a hand on them so they don't inadvertently go over. It's also has some steep areas and timber stairs where necessary. We did it in about 3 hours out and back and would recommend it for the scenery alone.
We took the Fern canyon trail all the way to the waterfall and then the Falls loop trail back. Waterfall was the main attraction for our 5 year old son. It was beautiful and there is a way to get close to the falls that my son enjoyed immensely. Falls loop was moderate for initial 0.5 miles from the falls and later becomes easy. Overall a good trail. Just be cautious of the fern burns.