I became intrigued with Jug Handle when we first arrived at Caspar. A blurb on the map of the RV park bragged that the trail was particularly interesting because it went through a unique “ecological staircase”. So when today dawned clear and sunny, we packed a lunch and drove to the Reserve to investigate.
It was a wonderful hike. Starting at a small parking lot just off highway 1, signs at the entrance explained that numbered markers were located along the trail. The hiker could refer to the trail marker on a paper brochure to learn something interesting about the ecology. We grabbed one of the green guides and headed towards number 1.
The park is comprised of several terraces that step up from the ocean bottom at Jug Handle Cove like a staircase. Since each terrace took a hundred thousand years to form, they have differing ecosystems. The first terrace is the newest. It’s still being formed by the water, sand and wind as the land heaves up and the water wears it down. Our trail started at the second terrace of the headland.
I learned this part of the coast is referred to as the coastal prairie. We also walked through a grove of Bishop Pines.
The guide told us what the flowers and plants were called and why the headland environment was conducive to their growth. One interesting point that I learned was why the tips of all the trees and bushes were nearly dead. The salty wind dries them! Many of the plants have evolved with short hairs or pegs along their stems and branches to retain water in this environment. They also end up growing twisted and deformed by the wind. This is called “krummholz”, which is German for “bent wood”.
Eventually the trail took us under the highway bridge and down a staircase to the creek.
After a few more signs, we followed it back up another hillside and deeper into the reserve. The thick layer of pine needles cushioned our footsteps. The sounds of the highway eventually receded, but we could hear the waves for quite a while.
We hiked through a fir forest and learned about the Douglas Fir. I recognized it immediately as the traditional Christmas tree. Did you know it can grow over 300 feet tall? It can live 500 to 1200 years, and it’s the most important tree timber tree in the U.S. It’s wood is used for framing lumber because it is so strong.
A little farther down the trail we came to rhododendron and Monterey Pines. The Montereys are not native to this area but were planted by settlers. So these are to be removed by the park service. There was also a lot of non-native gorse and grasses.
The smell of the forest was wonderful! This was riparian habitat, where fresh water is available. The trees and plants along the creek provide good habitat for salmon and steelhead.
We crossed a short swath of cleared power line right of way and entered the redwood forest. The redwoods create their own environment. In the summer, their needles collect fog moisture and drip onto their roots. Tall groves of redwoods create permanent shade where few plants can live. Animals live in the canopy where there is more light and food such as lichen.
Finally, we reached a sandy fire road and entered the last terrace: the pygmy forest. This is actually part of the Jackson Demonstration Forest and not in Jug Handle, but the trail isn’t hindered by the boundary. We passed an old wooden road blockade that is no longer in use and continued to the start of a boardwalk. It took us in a circular route to the end of the trail.
The pygmy forest is very rare. It only occurs where the conditions have remained flat for half a million years or so. According to the guide, the soil is a thousand times more acidic than the redwood forest. Rain leeches iron and other nutrients from the soil. We saw this for ourselves; the puddles were all a dark orange-red from the loose iron.
Apparently this loose iron combines with the bedrock to form hardpan about 18 inches down. So there is no good soil available for the trees and plants. That, plus the acidity, stunts their growth.
A stone marker containing a bronze commemorative plaque was situated next to benches on the boardwalk. It was a good place to stop for a brief rest and eat our lunch before heading back.
The entire trail took us between 2 and 2 1/2 hours. It was a fantastic way to spend the afternoon!
Enjoy the pics :-D