Winter is a beautiful season in Mendocino County. The hills are green, the ocean is roaring, and everything feels primeval and alive. A lot of people love to travel here to curl up in front of a cozy fire in a B&B – but I personally like to get out in the rain. There are few things as magical as a redwood forest in a downpour. The canopy protects you from most of the water, but everything is glistening, the rivers and creeks are swollen, and there’s the constant patter of the rain as it hits the trees.
There are two coastal hikes that are especially lovely during the rainy season – from mid-December through March. Neither one is particularly strenuous, and both are well-maintained State Park trails that are usually passable even in the heaviest storms.
The first is the hike in Russian Gulch to one of the Mendocino Coast’s most iconic spots – the Russian Gulch waterfall. The most straight-forward hike begins down a hill just north of the village of Mendocino, where there is ample parking (although there is a day-use fee). This hike follows an old logging road alongside a creek that grows quite large during the rains. This entire canyon is lined in ferns and redwood trees, and is like stepping back in time. The first 1.6 miles of the hike are mostly level, and qualify as an easy hike. The final 0.8 miles get a big steeper, and can be somewhat strenuous. It’s worth it though – the destination is a 36’ waterfall with a large fallen tree that makes for an incredibly scenic winter destination.
You can either turn around after enjoying the waterfall, making it a 4.8 mile round-trip hike, or else take a loop to a slightly higher elevation through lighter forest, making it a 5.8 mile hike. An alternate way to see the waterfall involves driving up Road 409, and parking where the road turns to dirt, then taking the North Boundary Trail until a fork that leads down to the waterfall. This route is significantly shorter and less strenuous, but you do miss out on some of the beauty of the canyon.
The second hike may not involve a scenic waterfall, but it’s an equally stunning rainy-day hike – the trail through Van Damme State Park and the one-of-a-kind pygmy forest. Park past the campsites in Van Damme at the final parking lot before the trailhead. The beginning of this hike is very easy – the path may be somewhat beat up at times, but it’s relatively level and wide. Van Damme Creek is beautiful in the rain, with small bits of whitewater and natural dams creating photo opportunities around every bend.
The trail crosses the creek at many points throughout the hike, and does so over scenic bridges that have been rebuilt after some especially destructive storms years ago. Like Russian Gulch, this is a fern canyon, and the overall feel is such that you might expect to see a dinosaur when you come around a bend in the trail. The Van Damme hike can continue up through the pygmy forest level, coming to a loop up Little River Airport Road. This entire loop is roughly 7 miles.
There are dozens of great hikes to be had in the rain in Mendocino County – these are two of the most accessible, and most protected from the rain, and two we enjoy quite a bit – but please let us know below which of your favorites we missed!