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Trail of the week: Salt Point Prairie Loop near Jenner

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SALT POINT STATE PARK The Prairie Central Trail –  South Trail Loop

Hiking distance: 4-mile loop
Hiking time: 2 hours
Configuration: loop
Elevation gain: 600 feet
Difficulty: moderate
Exposure: mix of shaded forest and grassland meadow
Dogs: not allowed
Maps: U.S.G.S. Plantation • Salt Point State Park map

The Central Trail and South Trail are located in the heart of Salt Point State Park, forming a large loop through a dense conifer forest to the crest of the coastal ridge. The trails are fire roads that climb up the slope from Woodside Campground on Highway 1. At the ridge is The Prairie, a vast grassland meadow frequented by deer and hawks. The wooded, atmospheric route meanders under towering second-growth redwoods, Douglas fir and bishop pines, with an understory of ferns, salal, huckleberry, rhododendrons and manzanita. Early morning fog often settles in along the coastal end of the loop.

To the trailhead
23469 Shoreline Hwy • Jenner

From Gualala, just north of the Sonoma County line, drive 19 miles south on Highway 1 to the posted Woodside Campground turnoff on the left at mile marker 39.78. The turnoff is located 0.1 mile south of the posted Salt Point-Gerstle Cove turnoff and 18.1 miles north of Jenner. Turn inland (northeast) and drive 0.1 mile to the day use parking lot. A parking fee is required.

The hike

Take the posted Central Trail past the gate, and head up the fire road through the lush forest with towering Douglas fir. At 0.1 mile is a junction with the Huckleberry Trail. Stay on the Central Trail and steadily climb towards the ridge. Pass a row of four wooden water tanks on the left by the Water Tank Trail, which leads to the pygmy forest. Stay on the Central Trail and curve right, climbing to a junction with the upper end of the North Trail. Stay straight and slowly descend to The Prairie, a long, open meadow that lies at about 1,000 feet above the coast. Skirt the southwest edge of the meadow to a trail split. The Prairie Trail bears left through the meadow to the sag ponds on Miller Creek along the San Andreas Fault.

For this hike, go straight on the South Trail and curve right, reentering the forest. Descend through the redwoods and moss-covered forest. Near the bottom of the hill, as the forest opens, watch for a trail sign on the right, located 70 yards shy of the highway. Bear right on the Powerline Trail, a footpath in a forested utility corridor. Cross Wildcat Creek and ascend the slope, walking parallel to Highway 1. Pass the campground access trail that leads to Gerstle Cove, then join the paved campground road. Either follow the road back to the trailhead or take the footpath through the campground.

Excerpted from “Day Hikes Around Sonoma County” by Robert Stone

___

Trailhead: Janet Balicki's hiking blog

Dramatic coastal views, crisp ocean air, mushroom dotted forest floors, windy sweep prairies and pygmy forests. Salt Point State Park has a lot to offer in its 6,000 acres, including 20 miles of hiking trails, 6 miles of coastline and an underwater park.

We spent the day exploring the woody inland portion of the park surrounding Woodside campground, where late season mushroom hunters are still digging up delicacies to take home for an earthy winter meal. This time of year, the lush bishop pine, Douglas fir, madrone, tanoak and second growth redwood forest is a delight to explore, especially on chilly days when the oceanside trails can be much colder and windy. We decided on the 4.5-mile Prairie loop surrounding Woodside campground.

Starting on paved road at the edge of the park, search for a small, low-to-the-ground arrow that points to the Powerline trail. The trail is narrow and muddy this time of year and crosses the camping area. You will know you are on it because... you guessed it, you will be beneath a power line.

This is a true hiker’s trail with flora and fauna brushing up against your pants. Trees are close enough to touch, but it is short. After 0.5 miles, you will make a left turn onto the South Trail, which is broad and manicured. Alongside decaying branches and fallen pine needles, you may find a few edible mushrooms. Candy caps and black chanterelles are still springing up, but most of the fungi you will find is either inedible or not worth eating. It is best to go out with an expert mycologist to avoid picking up anything poisonous. The Sonoma County Mycological Society leads several outings throughout the year at Salt Point.

The South Trail takes you up a mild hill past sandstone that was used in the construction of San Francisco’s streets and buildings during the mid 1800s. If you are a bit out of shape, you may have to stop for a few breaths along the way.

Where the South trail becomes the Central Trail, the path opens up to a golden prairie. At this intersection, the trail is currently very muddy. Steer clear of it by traversing a small path along the edge, and enjoy the gorgeous rolling grassland. You will notice that it is significantly colder here on overcast days without the tall trees to break the coastal winds. If you pause here for a snack, a few animals may peek their heads above the tall grasses. Black-tailed deer, raccoons, coyotes, bobcats, gray foxes, badgers, striped skunks, porcupines and a variety of rodents can be found in the park. Bears and mountain lions have been known to visit, though infrequently. Just northwest of the prairie, you will notice a trail marker for the North Trail, which intersects a Pygmy Forest. If you have a few extra minutes, it is worth a visit. A combination of nutrient poor acidic soils and a hard pan layer just below the surface prevent the cypress, pine and redwood here from achieving normal heights. These unique stunted forests can be found scattered along the Pacific coast from Monterey County to Mendocino County. They are unique and will add an additional layer of interest to your hike. After hiking this 1.0 mile spur, I recommend that you rejoin the Central Trail by taking a turn down the Water Tank Trail. After this point, the central route becomes a great educational nature hike. Signs mark the various types of ferns and trees you have enjoyed throughout the hike.

When you are done, put on a few layers, hop in your car and head north for a quick stop at Gerstle Cove. You won’t want to miss the opportunity to take in the smell of the sea as you catch a quick glimpse of the pounding surf and possibly a few migrating gray whales heading north from their breeding grounds in Baja.

SALT POINT STATE PARK The Prairie Central Trail –  South Trail Loop

Hiking distance: 4-mile loop
Hiking time: 2 hours
Configuration: loop
Elevation gain: 600 feet
Difficulty: moderate
Exposure: mix of shaded forest and grassland meadow
Dogs: not allowed
Maps: U.S.G.S. Plantation • Salt Point State Park map

The Central Trail and South Trail are located in the heart of Salt Point State Park, forming a large loop through a dense conifer forest to the crest of the coastal ridge. The trails are fire roads that climb up the slope from Woodside Campground on Highway 1. At the ridge is The Prairie, a vast grassland meadow frequented by deer and hawks. The wooded, atmospheric route meanders under towering second-growth redwoods, Douglas fir and bishop pines, with an understory of ferns, salal, huckleberry, rhododendrons and manzanita. Early morning fog often settles in along the coastal end of the loop.

To the trailhead
23469 Shoreline Hwy • Jenner

From Gualala, just north of the Sonoma County line, drive 19 miles south on Highway 1 to the posted Woodside Campground turnoff on the left at mile marker 39.78. The turnoff is located 0.1 mile south of the posted Salt Point-Gerstle Cove turnoff and 18.1 miles north of Jenner. Turn inland (northeast) and drive 0.1 mile to the day use parking lot. A parking fee is required.

The hike

Take the posted Central Trail past the gate, and head up the fire road through the lush forest with towering Douglas fir. At 0.1 mile is a junction with the Huckleberry Trail. Stay on the Central Trail and steadily climb towards the ridge. Pass a row of four wooden water tanks on the left by the Water Tank Trail, which leads to the pygmy forest. Stay on the Central Trail and curve right, climbing to a junction with the upper end of the North Trail. Stay straight and slowly descend to The Prairie, a long, open meadow that lies at about 1,000 feet above the coast. Skirt the southwest edge of the meadow to a trail split. The Prairie Trail bears left through the meadow to the sag ponds on Miller Creek along the San Andreas Fault.

For this hike, go straight on the South Trail and curve right, reentering the forest. Descend through the redwoods and moss-covered forest. Near the bottom of the hill, as the forest opens, watch for a trail sign on the right, located 70 yards shy of the highway. Bear right on the Powerline Trail, a footpath in a forested utility corridor. Cross Wildcat Creek and ascend the slope, walking parallel to Highway 1. Pass the campground access trail that leads to Gerstle Cove, then join the paved campground road. Either follow the road back to the trailhead or take the footpath through the campground.

Excerpted from “Day Hikes Around Sonoma County” by Robert Stone

___

Trailhead: Janet Balicki's hiking blog

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