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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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!

An “epic” road trip of California state parks

by Rachel Norton, Executive Director

California has 280 state parks, and my long-term goal is to visit all of them. In 2017, my first year as Executive Director of the California State Parks Foundation, I was able to visit such far-flung state parks as Mitchell Caverns and Providence Mountain State Recreation Area, Topanga State Park, Mount Diablo State Park and Los Angeles State Historic Park.

My visit to Mitchell Caverns last year was almost a religious experience, because I can’t get enough of the spare, majestic beauty of the Mojave Desert. The visit stirred my wanderlust and sense of adventure as I started thinking about my 2018 adventures.

So, late one night this spring I started looking at the map with the goal of visiting more of the system’s most remote and spectacular parks.  Soon I was mapping out an epic road trip, starting and ending in San Francisco, traveling almost 1,000 miles and visiting seven California state parks, one National Historic Site and one U.S. Forest Service site.

I am fortunate to be from a family with other adventurous spirits. As soon as I told my sister about my road trip plans, she wanted to go. And as soon as my sister was going, my mom wanted in too. So, we made our plans, rented an SUV and headed out one foggy morning in June. Four hours later, we were in warm, sunny South Lake Tahoe, enjoying Lake Tahoe’s clear water and sandy beaches.

South Lake Tahoe Rachel Blog

Rachel at Emerald Bay State Park

The next morning we set off for Vikingsholm and Emerald Bay State Park, about 30 minutes north on highway 89. Vikingsholm is the former summer home of Lora Knight, located at the end of the stunningly beautiful Emerald Bay. The narrow, rock-lined channel reminded Mrs. Knight of Norwegian fjords when she bought the property, so she hired a Swedish architect and built a lovely castle retreat there in 1929. She and her guests enjoyed every summer at the property before her death in 1945. The property passed to the state of California in the 1950s, and thank goodness it did, as Emerald Bay might look very different today if it had not been protected from development (I was told by one Tahoe denizen that at one point the state planned to build a bridge over the mouth of Emerald Bay, routing Highway 89 right across the scenic channel). Many thanks to Heidi Doyle, Executive Director of the Sierra State Parks Foundation, for taking us on a very informative insider’s tour of the property and its surroundings (including the lovely D.L Bliss State Park and Eagle’s Point campgrounds).

We left Tahoe and drove southeast across the Sierra Nevada to Bridgeport, stopping for a picnic in Washoe Meadows State Park. The next morning we drove to Bodie State Historic Park, the deserted boomtown that the Department of Parks and Recreation has preserved in a fascinating and eerie state of “arrested decay.” At one time Bodie had a population of 10,000 people, and a reputation as a rough and tough frontier town. Eventually, however, the mining industry that fed the local economy collapsed, and the town was deserted. You can peek into homes and shops, left much as they might have been when the last residents left almost 100 years ago.


Bodie State Historic Park

The next day, we headed to the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Preserve, established to preserve the striking and very delicate limestone towers, known as tufas, and important habitat for the estimated 2 million birds that use the site as a breeding ground and rest stop. My mom, a passionate birder, was in heaven – especially when we spotted an eagle’s nest.

Mono Lake 3 Rachel Blog

Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Preserve

We headed further south on Highway 395, enjoying the stunning views of the east side of the Sierra Nevada as we drove. We made a brief detour up to Mammoth Lakes to visit the Minaret Vista, a National Forest Service site that showcases a gorgeous view of these rugged peaks.

Then it was off to Manzanar, a National Historic Site. Manzanar was one of the camps where the Federal government imprisoned Japanese-Americans during World War II. It was sobering to visit, and remember the injustices, humiliation and deprivation that these American citizens endured in the hysteria that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor.

After Manzanar, it was time to head back west, and we followed State Route 178 over Walker Pass and through the lovely Kern River canyon before stopping for the night in Bakersfield. We had saved the most interesting and least-known park for last: Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park.

Colonel Allensworth Rachel Blog

Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park

The next morning, we drove north on Highway 99 for about an hour, eventually turning off on a little-traveled road to arrive at the park. Colonel Allen Allensworth was born a slave, eventually escaping and joining the Union Army during the Civil War. Self-educated, he eventually became a Navy chaplain before retiring with military honors. Dedicated to the idea of economic self-sufficiency for African-Americans, Col. Allensworth, his wife and four other African-American investors bought land to establish a town that would help former slaves and their descendants live in dignity and build wealth. Established in 1908, the town of Allensworth was for a time a beacon of hope and prosperity. Unfortunately, the project eventually failed due to dwindling water supplies and the loss of railroad business. Today, the site has been lovingly restored (with some maintenance help from our Park Champions volunteers), and represents an important chapter in the history of California’s African-American community. I highly recommend a visit!

Overall, this summer’s state park road trip was immensely rewarding – beautiful scenery, quality time with family and a great learning experience. It embodied everything that Californians and visitors want from our incredible state park system! My only question is: how am I going to top it next year?

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