Seven miles north of the village of Mendocino at the Jug Handle State Nature Reserve is a self guided 2.3 mile nature trail called The Ecological Staircase which explores three of the five wave-cut terraces formed by glacier, sea and tectonic activity that built the coast range.
Terraces, and the forces forming them are not unique to Jug Handle State Park and Jug Handle Creek, but in most California coastal locations, the terraces are eroded and not distinctive. But at the Jug Handle State Reserve are the evolutionary sequences so distinguishable, and so very well preserved.
The ecological staircase at Jug Handle is about 1/2 mile wide extending from the shore inland along the Jug Handle Creek about 3 miles inland. There is a series of five marine terraces that shows like nowhere else on the North American continent, long-term coastal landscape evolution. The lowest is the first terrace and is estimated to be approximately 100,000 years old. The five terraces stretch out about twenty miles of the Mendocino coast, and at Jug Handle Creek the terraces are about the same width and well preserved.
On the first terrace, you will find mostly grassland with stands of Bishop Pine, Giant Fir, and Sitka Spruce trees. The trees are found on the forepart of the second terrace as are localized grasslands. In the level center portion there is a “proto-pygmy forest” with full sized Bolander Pines and Cypress trees and an acid tolerant undergrowth. On the dunes backing the terrace is mostly dominated by Redwood and Douglas Fir trees. The third terrace marks the transition to the pygmy forest which covers half of the terrace. On the third, forth and fifth terrace full size trees grow on the slopes and dunes adjacent to the pygmy forest.
On the upper terraces, weathering and leaching action of the percolating rainwater have impoverished the soil and made it highly acidic. In the level areas where iron-hardpan has developed at a depth of about twenty inches, restricts root growth and impedes the flow of nutrients and water which results in dwarfing the trees and shrubs. You will find dwarf trees such as the Mendocino Cypress, Bolander Pine and Bishop Pine trees. Other dwarfed species include California Rose-Bay, Salal, which is an evergreen shrub, Fort Bragg Manzanita and California Huckleberry.
So when coming up to the Mendocino coast, this is one of natures fun things to explore and is only 10 minutes from Stevenswood