★★★★★

Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve


California > Mendocino/Sonoma region

Montgomery Grove

Background

At the heart of this exceptional reserve is a remarkably lush little oasis of tall redwoods hidden in a remote, steep-sided valley like a redwood Shangri-La.

The serene little grove is in an unlikely place, unusually far from the ocean and at the very edge of the redwood belt, surrounded by dry-looking redwood uplands and hot, sunny grasslands. This is the only big-tree redwood grove that doesn’t get any coastal fog to sustain the trees during the long, dry California summers. But a spring within the grove produces a deep little pool of water even during the dryest years, when there’s no other flowing water anywhere in the area.

The grove is well off the beaten track, a half-hour from the nearest freeway or town on steep and winding roads. Unusually for a redwood park, the old growth grove is well away from roads and other development and is completely quiet except for the sound of the wind in the trees.

Although it wouldn’t seem like people would drive all this way for only two miles of trails, the reserve is a fairly popular destination that gets maybe 3–6 cars per hour on summer weekends. Some visitors may be drawn here because Montgomery Flat used to have the tallest measured tree in the world; while its location within the grove is a secret, and taller trees have since been found in other parks, that distinction still gives the grove a certain cachet and is especially surprising for such a small, remote park.

Like many redwood groves, the best time to visit Montgomery Woods is late in the afternoon. There are fewer visitors so it’s easier to appreciate the serenity of the park, and the valley is oriented such that late-afternoon summer sunshine reaches the valley floor, providing a softer, more scenic light than the harsh midday sun.

In 2008 a fire burned through the grove, and in 2017 floods scoured away the groundcover in some areas. Fortunately it’s now hard to tell that there was a fire at all, and the groundcover has mostly regrown.

The grove is lushest in spring; in late summer and fall the grove is somewhat dry-looking, making it not quite as special.

The reserve is sometimes marshy, so if it’s summer and you don’t have mosquito repellent, you might be surrounded by an impressive cloud of mosquitos the moment you stop to take a picture or admire a view. Poison oak is also common although it doesn’t usually encroach on the trail.

The reserve is not staffed and there’s no entrance fee.

The trail is wide and easy to follow, but a few footbridges are in poor repair, with missing planks.

Orr Springs Road

From the town of Ukiah, the trailhead is about a 30 minute drive from Highway 101 on Orr Springs Road. A steep and twisty climb is followed by an even steeper and twistier descent through scenic oak chaparral. Reaching the valley floor, the road levels out and passes Orr’s Hot Springs, then enters a redwood forest. Look for a large wooden sign on your left.

The reserve can also be reached by taking Comptche–Ukiah Road and Orr Springs Road from Mendocino. This route is easier to drive but less scenic, winding along a wooded ridge before dropping into the valley. After passing Comptche, just follow the only paved road — there are no turns to make.

If the reserve’s little 7-car lot is filled up, which can happen even on weekdays, park in the dirt pullout across the street.

The trail starts off as a dirt road that climbs through a rather mundane redwood and tanoak forest alongside a burbling creek. After a third of a mile, the trail crests and then descends slightly to Montgomery Flat. Here the forest changes dramatically, from nice but rather ordinary redwood uplands into a classic, cathedral-like alluvial flat forest. Thick mats of sound-absorbing redwood needles on the ground make the grove strikingly quiet. The grove is tucked into a little glen with sides that rise steeply and abruptly, cutting it off from the outside world and giving it a uniquely sheltered feel. The quiet isolation of the grove, combined with the strikingly lush vegetation, turns it into a little paradise.

A dense understory of redwood foliage gives the grove a look typical of southern redwood groves. Through breaks in the foliage, you can see some impressive trees rising high above.

Just as the trail enters the grove, it passes through a large area where the ground cover has been worn away by foot traffic. Although it’s hard to tell, this is actually a trail intersection and is both the beginning and end of the loop trail.

The start of the loop trail

The loop trail winds around the perimeter of the grove, sometimes elevated above the marshy alluvial flat at its center. The first one-third mile, up to the Kellieowen Grove, is a little plain compared to the rest; it also turned into a gravelly creekbed after the heavy rains of 2017.

Past the Kellieowen Grove, the scenery improves as the trail winds up and over a gentle rise and then runs alongside a small gravelly creekbed that’s dry in summer. A few yards away, Montgomery Creek burbles quietly. The ground cover is an especially plush carpet of sorrel dotted with large ferns, indicating that the valley is well-watered. In places the flat is filled with a remarkable sea of ferns.

Montgomery Creek

A long footbridge built on a fallen tree marks the halfway point and crosses the marshy center of the flat, ending at an especially immense redwood.

(Starting just across from that redwood, an unofficial spur trail runs a half-mile through a logged area to an unlogged grove of small redwoods at the intersection of two creeks. This bright, open grove isn’t nearly as spectacular as the main grove, but it’s still kind of interesting.)

The main loop trail works its way back, now on the north side of the flat, past some impressive redwoods; this is the most scenic part of the trail, especially in the late afternoon when the trees are backlit. The ground rises steeply to the right, making a fern-encrusted wall.

Montgomery Grove

After a short, deteriorating boardwalk comes one of the most interesting parts of the trail, where it crosses back over Montgomery Creek, winding for a stretch among some picturesque deep burbling pools and a huge fallen tree. Even in late summer, when the flat has otherwise completely dried up, there are still deep pools of water in this area. Emerging from this shady crossing, the loop trail ends at the Y intersection with the dirt road to the parking lot. A few short spur trails to the right cut through the plush redwood sorrel on their way to the creek, and are worth exploring.

Spur trail, Montgomery Grove

Other trails

A mile east of the main grove parking lot, on the north side of Orr Springs Road, is a property purchased by the Save-the-Redwoods League in 2006. An unmarked trail follows a little creek into a canyon lined with old-growth redwoods, some of them pretty good-sized. A quarter-mile in the trail crosses a creek, and shortly after the old-growth redwoods end. The trail isn’t as clear after this point, but it continues for a total of 0.8 miles before entering private property. The old growth here doesn’t compare to the main grove; it’s more like the access trail that leads up to the main grove.

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© 2006, 2011, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2022 David Baselt