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Northern California Region
Van Damme State Park
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Van Damme State Park consists of beach and upland on the Mendocino Coast. Of all park system units along the Mendocino coast, Van Damme is perhaps the richest in terms of historical resources connected with the redwood lumber industry. Its story is a prime example of the struggles and eventual failures of a small, independent lumber operation.

The park features the lush Fern Canyon scenic trail system; the Pygmy Forest where mature, cone-bearing cypress and pine trees stand six inches to eight feet tall; and the bog, or Cabbage Patch, where skunk cabbage grows in abundance. The park?s ten miles of trail go along the fern-carpeted canyon of Little River. A paved road is used by joggers and bicyclists. The beach is popular with abalone divers.
History of the Area
Van Damme State Park was named for Charles Van Damme who was born at Little River in 1881, son of John and Louise Van Damme, early settlers of the region. John Van Damme and his wife were a Flemish couple. The patriarch of the family was born in Ostend, Belgium on May 22, 1832. "Following the sea" for some years, Van Damme, upon his arrival in Mendocino County, later worked in the lumber mill at Little River. In this settlement all of his children were born, including Charles, whose love for the area prompted his acquiring, after some years as a successful operator of the Richmond-San Rafael ferry line, a plot of ground along the redwood coast. Upon his demise this area became a part of the State Park System in 1934.

In those early days lumbering was a major economic factor in the development of the northern coastline. Little River was built as a mill town in 1864 by Ruel Stickney, Silas Coombs and Tapping Reeves after the property, formally called Kents Cove, was purchased from W. H. Kent in 1862. Before long it had attained fame, not only as a lumber port, but as a shipyard; but a stand of timber, if logged, does not last forever and by the end of the century, even though logging was periodically moved back into the headwaters of Little River, the mill was forced to close (1893).

What there was left of Little River soon deteriorated; the shipyard, the wharf, the town, several chutes for loading lumber and the lumber mill itself. Activity at the port, which once hummed with activity, declined. Little River's school, once attended by close to 100 students, closed; its weekly steamship service ended, and a shipyard where, in 1874, Captain Thomas Peterson turned out full-size lumber schooners for the coast wide trade, phased out. Only the schooner Little River returned, to be wrecked on the very beach from which it originally departed.

Plagued by a lack of sufficient timber reserves, fires, loss of substantial business, deterioration of wharf's and chutes, the end of coast wide shipping and the attendant decline in population, Little River reverted to a natural state. Its acquisition by the State Park System in 1934, and the subsequent addition of peripheral lands has preserved some of California's most interesting natural resources.

Fern Canyon Trail

From Van Damme State Park Campground to Fern Canyon is 5 miles round tripwith 200-foot gain; to Pygmy Forest is 7 miles round trip with 400-foot gainFive-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 milelong 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.
Area Attractions
Kayak Tours

Visitors can get a unique perspective of the coast line by taking the kayak tours, available through a concession agreement, at the Van Damme beach parking lot.

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Area Campgrounds
Vagabond Village
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Caspar Beach RV Park Campground
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Dolphin Isle Marina
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Albion River Campground
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Ft Bragg Leisure Time RV Park
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Pomo RV Park & Campground
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Sportsman's RV Park
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Nearby Hotels

The park is located three miles south of the town of Mendocino on Highway 1. The highway runs through the park separating the campground and the Fern Canyon trail head to the east and the beach and parking lot to the west.

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California State Parks