Step back in time with a light footprint at Jug Handle Creek Farm |

Step back in time with a light footprint at Jug Handle Creek Farm

A trail from Jug Handle Creek Farm and Nature Center to Jug Handle State Reserve points the way to the Ecological Staircase and Pygmy Forest.
Submitted by Laura Brown |

On the rugged Mendocino coastline, centrally located just a five-minute drive between the towns of Mendocino and Fort Bragg, sits a quiet, unassuming farmhouse that attracts thousands of people and busloads of school kids from Nevada City and all over the north state each year.

Surrounded by forests, open meadows, established gardens and the sea, a visit to Jug Handle Creek Farm and Nature Center provides a place to unwind from every day life and go adventuring on nearby trails to explore the area’s rich natural history.

“We hope to provide an example of living on the land with a light footprint and how to be good stewards of coastal land and water resources,” said Helene Chalfin, director of grants and education at Jug Handle Creek Farm and Nature Center.

Early founders of the center included the late naturalist John Olmsted of local Independence Trail fame. In the 1970s, Olmsted and others stopped bulldozers and development and helped to create the adjacent state reserve. This action helped to protect a rare living museum of where 1 million years of ecological time can be viewed in five terraces along the Ecological Staircase Trail — from the Pacific Coast to the Pygmy Forest two-and-a-half miles inland.

In 2011, California put Jug Handle State Reserve on a closure list along with 70 other state parks, a move that threatened the farm’s mission to preserve, protect and educate folks about this outdoor wonder.

“We still could be a visitor center and gateway to the natural resources of the North Coast but then there would have been no Jug Handle Reserve open for people to visit. The reserve is a treasure which should remain open to the public for years to come,” said Chalfin.

In recent years, Olmsted’s son, filmmaker Alden Olmsted, has worked to protect Jug Handle and other state parks threatened by closure by raising money one dollar at a time. After a year and a half, he has completed his documentary retelling the story of how Jug Handle was saved, “The Story of Jug Handle,” with funding support from Jug Handle Creek Farm.

Two cameramen from “The First 70,” a film about the threatened closure of 70 state parks, worked with Olmsted on the film.

Olmsted says even though Jug Handle is one of the smallest and least expensive state parks to run, it is an important place to California, Nevada County and the legacy of his dad who had a vision for creating a nature trail that bisected the state from the coast to Tahoe.

“The park offers an outside learning classroom in the space of just a few miles, as well as a beautiful beach, coast redwoods, and a farmhouse you can actually sleep in and vacation as you’re passing through. It’s obviously important to Nevada County, as it was the first experience that let my father see what was possible through an inspired group effort.

“He always had accessibility near the front of his mind, and that would come to fruition later in the form of the Independence Trail, but Jug Handle is where the story starts. It’s hugely important to his legacy — a cross-California ecological trail, as the establishment of Jug Handle, and it’s proximity to the Jackson State Forest is where ideally a cross-state trail could begin,” Olmsted said.

The film’s first screening takes place this weekend in Mendocino with more to follow in Berkeley, Los Angeles and Nevada City.

Today, a thriving native plant nursery at Jug Handle supplies much of the Mendocino coastline with plants needed for restoration work. Chalfin works with a small staff, a host of volunteers and an impressive list of state, federal and local agencies to remove exotic and invasive species that threaten habitat for native plants and animals.

On the North Coast, invasive plants are taking over beaches and inland areas, plants like gorse, French and Scotch broom, cotoneaster, bull thistle, Himalayan blackberry, eucalyptus and acacia.

Chalfin began working at Jug Handle in 1991 as a naturalist and educator. Soon, she was developing education programs, securing grants and forging a long list of impressive partnerships.

She established the native plant restoration nursery in 1996 and brought in funding to restore the original greenhouse and add more propagation space and irrigation system.

“The nursery is blossoming into the main source of native plants for restoration and mitigation projects on the coast,” she said.

Visitors who stay at the farm can lend a hand in the garden and nursery and shave some dollars from the cost of lodging already reasonably priced at $40 an adult and $15 per child.

The nature center began in 1974 as a branch of the California Institute of Man In Nature with John Olmsted as the director. Three of those founders remain on the Jug Handle board.

Since the early years, the farmhouse, cabins and campground have been used for lodging. Up to 2,700 people stay at the farm each year, helping to keep Jug Handle self-sustaining.

An additional 500 to 800 students come to the nature center each year during spring and fall field trips. Some repeat visitors have been returning to Jug Handle for more than 20 years.

“People come to Jug Handle because it is a homey, welcoming place, away from the beaten path. It is serene. You feel that you have stepped back in time to a simpler lifestyle. The gardens are lovely and there are many trails on the land to explore,” Chalfin said.

Each evening the groundskeeper builds a crackling fire in the Victorian-era farmhouse woodstove. The kitchen is well stocked with everything but food to make a meal.

There’s a sitting room with a vintage piano, sparkling bathrooms with hot showers and towels, and a sun-filled nature library to satisfy book lovers.

A walking trail from the farm leads to the Staircase Trail and Jug Handle beach.

Within a short drive are tide pools, several state parks, Point Cabrillo Light Station and the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens.

Some like to kayak or canoe up Big River, take a hike on area trails or ride the Skunk Train through the Redwoods.

Mendocino and Fort Bragg offer restaurants, arts galleries and boutiques.

On Nov. 10, Jug Handle Creek Farm will host the finale event for the Mushroom, Wine and Beer Festival.

Alden Olmsted’s first screening of “The Story of Jug Handle” will be at 3 p.m. Sunday, at the Kelley House Museum, 45007 Albion St. in Mendocino. The cost is $5.

View a trailer of the film at or

Contact freelance writer Laura Brown at or 530-913-3067.

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