MacKerricher State Park was always a ‘Park’

  • Post published:April 29, 2024

Story by Frank Hartzell

UNPRECEDENTED STORMS
MADE BIG MESSES FOR STATE PARKS
In his first month on the job as Sonoma-Mendocino District Superintendent for California State Parks, Bill Maslach had to oversee some extraordinarily difficult restoration work after one of the most destructive ocean storms ever to hit the coast crushed massive culverts at MacKerricher State Park and devoured huge hunks of the old Haul Road that runs along the park’s length.
It wasn’t just MacKerricher: after the prodigious early 2024 “atmospheric rivers,” battered northern California, parking lots and campgrounds of about half the coastal state parks were rendered unusable and had to be closed. The ocean fronts of Navarro, Big River, Van Damme, and other parks were buried under sand and littered with giant driftwood tree trunks. The storms, exacerbated by perigean spring tides, also known as “king tides,” caused unprecedented damage to public facilities; the worst, according to Maslach, was at Salt Point Park on the Sonoma Coast. But it’s a point of pride for the new superintendent and his staff that almost all the messes had been cleaned up and repaired by April, months before the arrival of summer tourists.

 


A LONG HISTORY OF GENEROSITY
This year, MacKerricher is celebrating its seventy-fifth year as a State Parks unit, but archeological evidence shows that its function as a “park” goes back millenia. Studies at the site, dating back to 1926, of Native American middens, or dumping grounds, suggest that MacKerricher was a shared foraging ground. The local population of Coastal Pomo and Coastal Yuki who lived in what is now MacKerricher—based on the discovery of atypical types of rocks and artifacts scattered among the expected Yuki and Pomo leftovers—apparently allowed visiting tribes to come and share the bounty of the coast and its tidepools. Some of these outsiders had different eating and food habits and their discards were the clues that led to this conclusion.
The nine miles of spectacular beaches and the campground at MacKerricher State Park west of the little town of Cleone, just north of Fort Bragg, have long been the economic engine at the heart of a chain of coastal parks that sprawl the length of the Mendocino Coast. Oceanographers say it is among the richest nearshore upwelling zones on the planet, and its history and appearance are unlike any other stretch of oceanfront land.
The park is popular with hikers, joggers, equestrians, and bicyclists, and with its array of habitats—beaches, dunes, headlands, coves, wetlands, tide pools, and forests—is a wonderland for nature enthusiasts. Harbor seals and sea lion families can be spotted lounging on the rocks off the park’s coastline, and it is a bird-watching paradise: over ninety species of birds visit or live near Cleone Lake, which is a former tidal lagoon. Its wide wooden walkway to the shore allows wheelchair access to a large viewing platform, and during winter and spring, it and the nearby headlands provide good lookouts for whale watching.


UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT
After the gale-force tempests tore out mammoth timbers and road culverts under the part of Mill Creek Road that spanned the stream between Cleone Lake and the ocean, which closed MacKerricher Beach to visitors, State Parks and its contractor got right to work fixing the damage from the first January storm through a surprisingly steady string of subsequent rain and storms. New culverts were placed under the road, and junk that had been buried in the old bank as rip-rap [human-placed rock or other material used to protect shoreline structures against scour and water, or wave erosion], was replaced by neatly interlaced boulders that weighed up to one ton each. While the new road is not intended to be a permanent solution, it’s much better than the mid-twentieth-century roadbed that supported it before, which looked more like a junk pile than a well-planned sea wall. “They did a great job on the new wall. When I saw what was in the old wall, I had to wonder how it lasted so long,” Maslach said.
Maslach’s busy schedule has continued as he and other park officials look at work that still needs doing in the parks. For instance, the Virgin Creek Bridge over the Haul Road at MacKerricher, which is older than the park itself, will need repair or replacement, though no timetable or budget is currently available for that project, Maslach said.
State Parks has gone through recent changes that included merging Mendocino and Sonoma Counties and breaking off law enforcement from administration. Today, the agency utilizes locally grown talent for its leadership, like Maslach, who worked in the district for more than twenty years before taking the superintendent position. Loren Rex, one of the best-known rangers on the Coast, grew up just blocks from MacKerricher and started out by cleaning park restrooms. He worked his way up through almost every job, all the way to his current position of State Park Superintendent of California Department of Parks and Recreation.
Rex envisions an interpretive center in the middle of Lake Cleone to which families could canoe for learning (and maybe s’mores from a floating campfire). State Parks now has hired Mark Ernst as Roads and Trails Coordinator for the region to oversee the tremendous job of keeping the park’s aging roads open. The agency has added new walkways in many places, which are being constructed using more environmentally friendly materials than in the past, improving access for visitors, and is in the process of hiring a heavy equipment operator, a position that they have been unable to find a worker to fill for nearly a year.
The local leaders of State Parks are excited about MacKerricher’s future. They say a lot of what happens next at MacKerricher will be determined by a sea level rise study that is now underway. Maslach said that Moffatt & Nichol, a company that specializes in port, water, and transportation infrastructure, has been hired to see what the best course of action will be for MacKerricher’s beautiful little Lake Cleone-–effectively at sea level and vulnerable to a range of climate-caused afflictions. Rex and the rest of the leaders have tried for years to get funding, but the problem of aging bridges and a precarious road have only gotten worse.


TAKE A TOUR!
MacKerricher State Park is shaped like the nation of Chile, but with a “bulge” in the map’s middle where MacKerricher’s headquarters at Laguna Point sits. There, campers can stay in one of its hundred fifty-three sites and enjoy whale watching tours, a restored gray whale skeleton, and trails aplenty for horseback riding, biking, and hiking. The park begins where Fort Bragg ends—at the old town dump (now the gussied-up Glass Beach), which is the northern extreme of the old Georgia-Pacific millsite. (You may remember that the mill used to entirely block the view of the ocean for all of downtown, but now the liberated ocean view overlooks the marvelous coastal walking and biking trail that runs south from Glass Beach to the Noyo River Bridge.) To the north from Glass Beach, MacKerricher extends a full nine miles over unimpeded beachfront to Ten Mile Bridge. There are no houses to the west of the old Haul Road on that entire route (although almost half the road is now a memory, either removed by State Parks or washed away by the Pacific Ocean), and that is by design. Even before the California Coastal Commission was created to ensure public access and to make strong demands for an undeveloped oceanfront, development to the west of the Haul Road was forever prohibited by the Park.
Perhaps surprisingly, this gorgeous, sprawling, uninterrupted vista is not ours due to the activism of environmentalists, but to the efforts of early Fort Bragg civic leaders, fishermen, and birdwatchers who worked with State Parks to twist the arm of the timber industry to create an undeveloped natural resource west of the Haul Road. Their vision included motels, campgrounds, and housing for working Fort Braggers on the east side of the Haul Road, with an untamed west side for the entire stretch. This idea of universal access to an unspoiled ocean was always said to be a California value, but was not codified into law until the 1970s. MacKerricher Park was created in the 1940s and grew into what it is, year by year, through 1995.
Contemporary residents of the Mendocino Coast, and the visitors and tourists who are attracted to this place, derive great pleasure from its serene beauty and unspoiled shores. But they are newcomers, for it is a well-documented fact that Indian peoples lived stable and peaceful lives here for thousands of years. A spear found below a midden between Caspar and Mendocino was dated to be at least eleven thousand years old.
Although little is known about the earliest indigenous tribes here, researchers say that the earliest people might have followed the “kelp forest highway” down from Alaska to the abundance of near-shore food at Mendocino. It’s believed that the people who lived full- or part-time in the area included two different tribal groups, the Northern and Coast Pomo and fewer numbers of Coast Yuki.
Various sources estimate the Native population on the northern California coast in the 1840s to have been between ten thousand and twenty-five thousand. Many migrated inland annually, so accurate counting was difficult, at best. Tribes who lived here often migrated inland and took food with them, perhaps wrapped in wet seaweed, in which shellfish might stay alive during a long trip over the ridges on foot.
But when white settlers started arriving, seeking land for cattle ranches, potato farms, and other development, the federal government established the Mendocino Indian Reservation in 1856. It comprised nearly forty square miles and stretched from the Noyo River ten miles north to Abalobadia Creek (just north of Ten Mile River), and extended inland as much as five miles in some places. All of the coastal strip that is now MacKerricher State Park, and nearly all of what is now the city of Fort Bragg, was within the reservation.
The following year, a U.S. Army company was sent from the Presidio in San Francisco up to the reservation to establish a military post one and one-half miles north of the Noyo River on the Mendocino Indian Reservation. The post was given the name Fort Bragg, and its stated purpose was to maintain order on the reservation, and subjugate the Indians and reservation lands.
Sadly, this was the darkest period for the park we know and love today. First the area’s tribes were driven into the reservation. But by 1866, just a decade later, settlers had decided they wanted the land back and the Mendocino Indian Reservation was closed. Its people were forced to vacate the coastal enclave and march inland, to what is today the Round Valley Indian Reservation. At the time, Natives from all over the area were being forced into Round Valley, which had been occupied by a single Yuki band.


TIMBER, RESERVATIONS, CHANGES
But why did the reservation in Fort Bragg last only for a short time? The timber industry on the North Coast started along the streams and rivers between the Navarro River and Big River, and the village of Mendocino itself was founded at 1852 at the mouth of Big River as a logging community for what became the Mendocino Lumber Company.
When the Big River redwoods were wiped out the logging inexorably moved northward along the coast. At first, Fort Bragg had seemed the ideal place to put the Natives; the bustling industry to the south wanted them out of the way. But then mills opened in Caspar, and later in Fort Bragg. The Fort Bragg oceanfront, part of the Mendocino Indian Reservation, was needed for the burgeoning timber industry’s use, so it was brazenly taken away from the Natives. Soon, every river and stream of any size from the Navarro River to Wages Creek in Westport was taken over by lumber mills.
This place, MacKerricher, now a gem of the California state park system, is so rich in natural resources that the local Native nations, who lived in an inborn culture of sharing, welcomed other tribes essentially to “camp” on the land, much like a family from Gridley or Chico or Ukiah comes today to camp and spend their clamshells at local businesses.

A SHORT HISTORY OF DOG-HOLES
Logs were loaded from piers driven into the rocks at MacKerricher, where tide-poolers and seals now frolic, onto the famed “dog-hole” schooners, which were unafraid of picking up cargo from rocky shores using long steel cables. Dog-hole ports were the small, rural ports on the West Coast between Central California and Southern Oregon that operated between the mid-1800s until the 1930s. They were commonly called dog-holes because the schooners that served them would have to be able to “turn around in a harbor barely small enough for a dog.” The moorings for those cables, driven into solid rock, can still be seen around MacKerricher State Park’s Laguna tide pool area.
The scale of the timber operation on the headlands and beachheads of the Mendocino Coast is almost impossible to imagine in 2024. If one got an airplane and went back in time to the early days of the twentieth century, every river mouth and ocean delta on the Mendocino Coast would look more like Long Beach’s warehouse pier than the open ocean seen today. But the lumber industry cut down all the sellable logs and turned much of the forest into overgrown, brush-infested expanses. The erosion destroyed the Coho salmon resource; the species has never recovered, and catching the few that struggle to exist has been prohibited for decades.
Eventually, logging technology changed, and trucks, not rivers and boats, were employed to haul and deliver the logs. Logs had been floated down streams and rivers to mills at the mouth of the river or stream, delivered on piers literally built on ocean rocks, or slid on cables to waiting ships headed for San Francisco. The technology changed fast and hundreds of thousands of square feet of buildings and piers were demolished by the owners—or by the implacable Pacific Ocean and its sometimes angry rivers. The now unused sites on the timber-company-owned headlands from Navarro to Westport all eventually became state parks.
Old records show that while most of the early loggers cut like their goal was to cut down every tree of value, the Caspar Lumber Company had more sustainable practices. It was a family-owned concern long into the twentieth century, and in 1947 it conveyed 48,000 acres to the state, which became the Jackson Demonstration State Forest, a move that helped save the Mendocino Headlands.

MACKERRICHER AND CLEONE
County land records show that the man whose name is on the park, Duncan MacKerricher, never gave any land to State Parks, contrary to popular stories. Duncan and Jessie MacKerricher, Canadian newlyweds when they moved to the Mendocino Coast in 1864, had a ranch that produced butter, potatoes, and draft horses. Mac-Kerricher’s numerous small sales of land resulted in the establishment of the village of Cleone, which had gone from being named the mundane “Laguna” to the federal government dubbing it “Canuck,” which offended MacKerricher, a Canadian-born Scotsman. He stoutly fought for the area of lands he had once owned to be called Cleone. Ultimately, MacKerricher heirs would sell the last of the family land to the state of California, which would officially become MacKerricher State Park in 1952.
For the previous hundred years, all the articles about MacKerricher State Park were about logging or the reservation. But in the 1950s, everything changed. A review of a hundred articles from Fort Bragg Advocate-News and other California newspapers of the time showed a constant stream of new acquisitions added to the original park, as well as new activities like mushroom hunting and whale watching getting started. Timber companies were naturally possessive of the areas around their lumber mills, and though they did donate land around Laguna Point, they were adamant about keeping for their own use lands closer to their facilities. The timber industry succeeded in lobbying the county board of supervisors to declare all the land between Laguna Point and the Pudding Creek trestle off-limits to development, and also required State Parks to get permission from the board of supervisors for any of its plans. Union Lumber Company was stridently against State Parks adding any more land south of Laguna Point, and that was made into part of the law. But local civic leaders fought vigorously for public ownership and private non-timber ownership and the board of supervisors relented, repealing the no parks/no private ownership law they had passed earlier.
The 1950s newspapers reported a big influx of visitors from the Sacramento Valley into the MacKerricher campground, not always happy stories. One article told of a Sacramento man dying while rock picking for abalone here, while another was about a Gridley man suing the park after a tree fell and killed his wife. At that time, beach surf fishing was a very popular sport and some organizations formed to support more land being added to the park so they could fish all the way to Ten Mile Beach.

BIG CHANGES
The Caspar forest was the only one not harvested into oblivion. State Parks did not have the money to buy the haul road or the nine miles of oceanfront in MacKerricher, so the Chamber of Commerce and local business leaders kept pressuring the timber company to pitch in on the effort. The company did not want to give up its haul road but was willing to part with the land, and in 1972, a solution was reached to acquire what is now most of MacKerricher State Park in a trade.
The state gave Boise Cascade, then the heir company to Union Lumber Company, nine hundred seventy-eight acres of Jackson State Forest, containing twenty million harvestable board feet of timber, in exchange for six hundred fifty-eight acres, which was mostly incorporated into MacKerricher, but also included the seventy acres that now comprise the Mendocino Headlands State Park. The rest was MacKerricher beachfront, north of Laguna Point. The logging company retained control of the Haul Road; its trucks rumbled along it all the way to Ten Mile. The logging companies opened the road to the public on weekends, and Sunday drivers followed that route until 1983, when a big storm ripped a chasm in the road north of Ward Avenue. The timber company planned to fix it and even filed plans to do so, but more storms in the 1980s ripped out more sections of the road to the north. The public continued to drive on the road until the mid-1990s. In 1995, State Parks finally acquired the Haul Road and the remainder of the land in Inglenook Fen, the only such dunes complex in California.
The Haul Road had been a railroad until that pivotal year of 1949 when the timber company celebrated the passing of the woodsmen’s camps and the old ways of logging, to be replaced by modern machines and trucks. Timbermen no longer lived out in the woods full-time, the trees were mostly gone from around the camps, and the workers had acquired cars to get them back and forth to logging sites. A last ride on the Ten Mile Railroad took a packed train from Ten Mile to the mill, over the old trestle. The next day, Union Lumber Company showed off a new technology which tore up all the old tracks in less than a week. The new Haul Road was constructed in just a few weeks, made strong enough to support trucks carrying up to three hundred tons, which were not permitted on Highway 1, which runs parallel to the park.
The dropping of big-truck traffic in 1983 was seen as a good omen by a lot of locals, especially birdwatchers, who had been a big part of the coalition to turn MacKerricher into public lands. That year, while crews were trying to figure out how to fix the road, a herd of nine big elk came down Ten Mile Beach, all the way to the Pudding Creek Trestle. No elk had been seen in this area since 1878, the newspaper reported. When the Department of Fish and Game decided they needed to be tranquilized and returned to the King Range, the animals fled, four of them were tranquilized and returned north, another drowned after being tranquilized. Four swam up Ten Mile River and escaped onto a private ranch with cattle. There they lived for the next fifteen years, reportedly dying of old age. They were a favorite feature locals would show off to visitors for many years, but nobody wrote about them, for fear of hunters.

PUDDING CREEK TRESTLE
Just after the turn of the last century, the city of Fort Bragg and State Senator Wes Chesbro led an effort to restore and strengthen the Pudding Creek Trestle, an effort that cost far more and took far longer than expected. The imposing bridge had to be narrowed, and no car nor lumber truck could cross it today, but walkers can enjoy an unencumbered view from its soaring height.
A tour of MacKerricher today, starting at Glass Beach, reveals a wide open oceanfront between there and the trestle, home to a spectacular array of birds and native plants. Along the old Haul Road to the east, the 1950s vision of local boosters for housing that local people could afford is the Glass Beach subdivision. Across the trestle is a line of hotels, the kind of development also envisioned from the beginning.
The stately stand of cypress trees west of the Beachcomber Motel tells another story of the past. The old Carlson farm that once provided milk, eggs, and produce to Fort Bragg was located just north of the trestle on the ocean side. The Carlsons raised twelve children there and would not sell to Union Lumber. When Mrs. Lena Carlson finally died in the 1930s, the farm was sold to a third party, then to Union Lumber Company. The timber company bulldozed and burned the buildings but left that row of cypress trees, now an iconic landmark, in tribute to Mrs. Carlson, who had planted them.
It is possible to follow either the Haul Road or blufftop trails along the headlands all the way to Virgin Creek. At Virgin Creek, a favorite spot on the Mendocino Coast for surfers, dogs are not allowed on the beach in order to protect endangered snowy plover populations. A nonprofit ocean loving organization, started and run by surfers, the Surfrider Foundation, was involved in creating parks and natural areas, as well. Along this route are many beaches few use. Sunbathers, fishermen, or family groups might be seen there enjoying their own private kingdom.
Another two miles gets a walker or biker to Lake Cleone and the well-kept boardwalk that leads out to Laguna Point, which features year-round seal and sea lion watching. The mammals have become uninterested in the sight of humans or even dogs at this place. Just west of Laguna Point lookout are the finest tide pools on the Mendocino Coast and one of the best tide pooling spots in California.
The Haul Road has been destroyed by the ocean for the next half-mile. State Parks made heroic efforts to keep the road into the 1990s, but had to give up and let the ocean make Lake Cleone brackish. There are efforts to find a new water source for the park, but in wet years, it is still not an issue. There is another stretch that runs a bit less than one more mile before ending abruptly three hundred yards beyond the end of Ward Avenue. No dogs are allowed north of Ward Avenue in MacKerricher, and with the road now entirely gone, it’s an effort to hike into the dune wilderness that extends all the way to Ten Mile Bridge.

LET’S GO!
MacKerricher and other State Parks are open again, thanks to the timely, meticulous work of the new superintendent and his crack crew of workers. Parking lots have been cleared and repaved, the Haul Road has gotten a little facelift, the bridge to MacKerricher Beach is open to adventurers again, exciting plans for more improvements are in the works, and our magnificent ocean is open for admirers and walkers and happy summer vigils to the sea again. From prehistoric times, when the original inhabitants saw fit to let others use this rich section of coast, MacKerricher has come full-circle, back to something so amazing that it has to be shared. REM

Visit the park at 24100 MacKerricher Park Road, Fort Bragg, CA 95437 707.937.5804 More information at www.parks.ca.gov