Damp, Cool and Green Old-Growth Forest Walk

Ancient old-growth forests are more often associated with Washington's Olympic Peninsula than with anything in California, but the Angelo Coast Range Preserve in Northern California protects a beauty. Along the headwaters of the Eel River's South Fork grows a virgin forest of Douglas fir and redwood accompanied by the many ferns and flowering plants that thrive in the dark world below these tall trees.

Dwelling in this primeval forest are such seldom-seen creatures as the mink, bear, spotted owl and the red tree vole, a small, tree-dwelling rodent that lives its whole life high above the ground. More than 90 kinds of moss and about six dozen species of lichen have been identified in this forest.

A veritable rain forest it is, with as much as 150 inches of rain falling in some years. In shocking contrast to these wettest of Coast Range slopes, some of the preserve's slopes are cloaked in chaparral, a floral community more at home with 15, not 150, inches of rain per year.

At the turn of the century, Wilderness Lodge, a retreat for San Franciscans, was built in this old-growth forest. The rustic resort closed during the Depression of the 1930s, and later many of its buildings burned. A few surviving structures are now used by students and scientists from the University of California.

During the Depression, Heath and Marjorie Angelo purchased an old homestead on the banks of the Eel River, intent on preserving it as wilderness. Alarmed by increased logging nearby, they purchased more land and added it to their family preserve. In 1959 the couple sold their land to the Nature Conservancy; it was the environmental group's first West Coast purchase. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management contributed additional virgin forest to the preserve.

The preserve's best walks follow the South Fork of the Eel River, patrolled by a variety of ducks and waterfowl. River otters are a particular delight to watch. As you hike the Eel's banks, you'll travel in the company of redwoods, Douglas fir and madrono, as well as oaks festooned with moss.

Enjoy the loop through Walker Meadow described below when seasonal bridges are in place (April to October); otherwise make this hike a seven-mile round trip out and back to Wilderness Lodge or the preserve's north boundary.

Directions to trail head: From U.S. 101 in Laytonville, turn west on Branscomb Road and drive 17 miles (three miles past the logging hamlet of Branscomb) to Wilderness Lodge Road. (From California Highway 1, just north of the village of Westport, it's a 10-mile drive east through the mountains on Branscomb Road to the Wilderness Lodge Road turnoff. Part of this stretch of Branscomb Road is dirt and used by huge logging trucks.) Turn north on Wilderness Lodge Road and proceed another 3.5 miles to the small dirt parking lot on the right just beyond the headquarters of the Angelo Coast Range Preserve.

The hike: Head northeast on Wilderness Lodge Road (closed to vehicle traffic), traveling alongside the Eel River. It's a mellow ascent through mixed forest--big Douglas firs and redwoods, accompanied by big-leaf maple, madrono and tan oak.

A mile out, you'll pass the right-forking Conger Trail, which travels to an old homestead. Our road/trail soon crosses a bridge over Elder Creek, leaving the Eel behind and following the creek. The lower leg of Walker Meadow Loop (your return route) comes in from the left, but you continue another quarter-mile to the caretaker's residence.

Climb some more through oak woodland, passing the right-forking Black Oak Mountain Trail, then descend back down to the Eel River and a junction with the north end of Walker Meadow Loop.

If you continue with the road and Eel River for half a mile you'll reach Wilderness Lodge. Walker Meadow Trail visits both the upper meadow, where remains of homesteads intrigue the hiker (how did anyone live out here?), and the lower meadow, a grassy expanse interrupted with clumps of manzanita.

Rejoin Wilderness Lodge Road and retrace your steps back to the trail head.

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Walker Meadow Loop Trail

WHERE: Angelo Coast Range Preserve.

DISTANCE: 5.75 miles with 500-foot elevation gain.

TERRAIN: Virgin forest, Eel River headwaters.

HIGHLIGHTS: Magnificent, unspoiled California.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Moderate.

PRECAUTIONS: In order to walk the full loop trail, seasonal bridges (April through October) must be in place.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Angelo Coast Range Preserve, 42101 Wilderness Lodge Road, Branscomb, CA 95417; tel. (707) 984-6653.

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