Celebrating Mendocino’s state parks

by Rachel Norton, Executive Director

Of all California’s 58 counties, Mendocino is blessed with the second-largest number of state parks – 22 in all – ranging from spectacular beaches to cathedrals of towering redwoods. In my ongoing quest to visit all our spectacular California state parks, Mendocino County is fertile ground!

My daughter Audrey and I set off from San Francisco on a Friday morning, and after leaving Highway 101 in Sonoma County we found ourselves on the lovely Highway 128, winding our way through redwood forests and passing nearby Hendy Woods State Park and Navarro River Redwoods Park.  Then we turned north onto Highway 1, passing right through Van Damme State Park, with its fern canyons and strange pygmy forest.

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My daughter Audrey and me.

We arrived in the charming coastal town of Mendocino just in time for lunch, squeezing in a short visit to the historic Ford House, a Victorian-era visitor center and museum operated by our friends and partners at the Mendocino Area Parks Association (MAPA). The Ford House is part of Mendocino Headlands State Park, which offers coastal access and gorgeous views of the ocean and Mendocino coast.

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Mendocino Headlands State Park

After lunch, we headed northeast to visit Mendocino Woodlands State Park, a former logging camp nestled deep in the redwoods that was converted into a retreat in the 1930s. Among its three group camping areas, accommodations range from tent cabins to rustic wooden cabins complete with fireplaces and an outdoor deck, all with a dining hall, kitchen, showers and shared restrooms. Since 1949 the park has been operated by Mendocino Woodlands Camp Association, and offers a truly unique and fun nature experience for student groups (like their “Mendocino Outdoor Science School” we awarded a $20,000 grant earlier this year), churches as well as weddings and other events. The next time I have an opportunity to plan a party for 80 to 250 of my closest friends, I want to have it at Mendocino Woodlands SP!

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Me with District Superintendent Terry Bertels, Cyrus Kroninger and Elizabeth Cameron from the Mendocino Woodlands Camp Association

It was so gratifying to meet with the folks at both MAPA and the Mendocino Woodlands Camp Association, who were effusive in their praise of the California State Parks Foundation and all the work we have done supporting their organizations and similar groups. Through advocacy, grants and capacity-building assistance, we have helped make these partners stronger and more effective supporters of their local parks.

That impact became even clearer when we visited Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area the following afternoon. Located about an hour north of Mendocino near the town of Leggett, Standish-Hickey SRA was one of the parks threatened with closure during California’s 2012 budget crisis. Thanks to Team Standish, a group of local parks supporters, and the help of MAPA, the park re-opened after only a brief closure. Grants from us and Save the Redwoods League helped MAPA build the capacity needed to operate the park, which offers peaceful campsites amid the ferns and redwood trees and a truly spectacular swimming hole along the Eel River.

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Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area swimming hole

Our visit to Standish-Hickey SRA was both a celebration and an ending of sorts – after six years of outstanding work operating the park, MAPA has decided to return operations back to the state’s Department of Parks and Recreation. An intimate and passionate group of Standish-Hickey SRA supporters were on hand to enjoy a potluck lunch and honor the efforts of a determined group of park lovers to save this beautiful place, and I was honored to be invited to join them.

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Standish-Hickey SRA supporters enjoying lunch in the park

“We didn’t know anything about operating a park,” said Stan Anderson, a MAPA board member. But with financial and capacity-building support from the California State Parks Foundation and lots of hard work, they eventually figured it out, completing deferred maintenance projects and adding other improvements. Attendance has nearly doubled and revenues have improved since MAPA took on operations in 2012, and District Superintendent Victor Bjelajac expressed sincere gratitude to MAPA, Team Standish and the Foundation for all our tremendous efforts to keep the park open and help it thrive. Superintedent Bjelajac and Sector Superintendent Tom Garner pledged to keep the park moving forward.

Standish Celebration September 22, 2018

Me with Superintedent Bjelajac and Jenny Heckeroth

 

It was especially moving to me to meet John Sinclair and Cindy McCarthy, residents of Santa Rosa who drove up to attend the celebration because they love the park and want to make sure it thrives. The couple first visited the park over 30 years ago, when they were living in San Francisco and feeling in need of some green space and nature. “It was like the heavens opened,” Cindy told the group. “It saved us emotionally.” Every year thereafter, the couple brought their children for an annual camping trip. The children loved playing hide and seek among the redwoods and jumping into the swimming hole. Cindy and John return frequently even though their children are grown.

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Stan Anderson, Cindy McCarthy and John Sinclair

One of the things I love best about my job is visiting parks and seeing the impact first-hand of the Foundation’s work – and visiting Standish-Hickey SRA at this transitional moment was a special way to see that. Thank you to everyone at MAPA and the community for your hard work operating Standish-Hickey for these last six years, and your continued work for state parks along the Mendocino Coast.

P.S. My only regret from this latest trip is all the parks I drove by but didn’t have the chance to visit! I want to see the whale skeleton and Glass Beach at MacKerricher State Park, and hike the Ecological Staircase Trail at Jug Handle State Natural Reserve.  I’m already planning my next road trip – exploring the Lost Coast and the Redwood state parks!

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