Sure, Montgomery Woods doesn't boast the tallest redwoods in California, but you might just get them all to yourself.
Located along a nature-soaked backwoods road, Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve receives few accidental tourists. The road itself acts as a sort of gatekeeper, snaking through rolling hills and bottlenecking at hairpin turns.
The winding road bothers me less than my car mates who are trying to keep their stomachs settled. Their eyes are squeezed shut but mine are glued to the window. I'm enamored - transfixed - by the deep woods, the dark canopy that stretches overhead, and the ex-communes we pass along the way. Somewhere in this emerald landscape is a pocket of redwoods that stretch sky-high.
We pull into a small parking lot, which immediately affirms the Reserve's 'hidden gem' status. We don't know it yet, but our small group will encounter just one person during our hour-long visit. Apart from our chatter, the parkland echoes with silence.
Montgomery Trail is an easy hike, measuring just two miles in length (3.2 km). Without technical demands, trail users are free to wander in total awe at the nature that envelopes the Reserve.
From the lot, Montgomery Trail crosses a short wooden bridge before it makes a steep ascent (61 m) over 480 metres.
By the time my pulse has slowed, the trail has deposited us into Montgomery Flat. It's here we meet the first of the Reserve's five redwood groves. At 350-feet tall, I'm dwarfed by these giants and it's a pleasantly humbling experience.
It takes a long time for redwoods to grow this tall. We're standing in mature growth, but it seem like a trite descriptor when you consider they've stood here for over one thousand years.
There have been setbacks.
Save for the efforts of conservationists, the Montgomery redwoods would have been logged in 1919. Now they negotiate drought, storms and fire.
Early into the hike, I notice trees that wear the scars of a 2008 lightning-strike fire. Scorched trucks and fallen redwoods serve as a stark reminder of the event, but also as reassurance. One-third of the Reserve was affected by the fire, yet few redwoods perished and the ground-laying vegetation has since recovered.
From the alluvial flats, hikers start the looped portion of Montgomery Trail. Head off in whichever direction your boots take you.
You don't have to be a tree hugger to root for the conservation of Montgomery Woods' gentle giants. The passage of time reverberates here, and falling into step with nature's rhythm is, plainly put, good for the soul.
How do I get to Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve?
Directions from Mendocino - Drive east along Comptche-Ukiah Road. This route is fraught with tight, winding turns and non-existent shoulders. While the distance is just 30.8 miles, it'll take some 45-55 minutes to close the distance.
Directions from Ukiah - Drive west along Orr Springs Road for about 13 miles. Just out of Ukiah, the road begins to ascend dramatically. It eventually threads you across the spine of a high ridge. The panoramic views extend all the way to the horizon. You'll want to keep your eyes on the road though; the beauty is distracting and there are few guard rails. The road then drops into a steep-sided valley. Once you pass Orr Hot Springs Resort, keep your eyes peeled for the small Montgomery Woods lot on the left.
When you go:
- Montgomery Woods is day-use only; camping is not permitted.
- The Reserve is free to visit and facilities are minimal (outhouse, picnic tables).
- The best light is in the late afternoon when the sun is high enough to shoot beams of light to the forest floor.
- Gas up before leaving Ukiah or Mendocino.
- Nearby Orr Hot Springs Resort offers bathers a creekside soak in a lovely forested setting. (Note: clothing-optional.)
- The road to and from Montgomery Woods is just two-lanes. Practice good rural driving etiquette by pulling off to let faster vehicles pass. If you're passing a slower vehicle, a short two-tap horn is the local thank-you.
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