Bodega Bay Daytrip: Visit Kruse Rhododendron State Reserve

Once a year forest bloom happening now. 

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Vivid pink petals of wild rhododendrons color the forest in the Kruse State Reserve for a few short weeks around Mother’s Day, and the natural event is now in full swing on the Reserve’s 300 acres, 30 miles north of Bodega Bay on Hwy 1.

The delicate bloom is the parting gift of a fire that raced through the slopes of the Reserve decades ago. California wildfires are a destructive reminder of nature’s unpredictable power, but for all their devastation, wildfires also regenerate. By reducing dead wood to ash, they turn old growth into fertile nutrients to feed new growth. Fire also clears dense woodlands and undergrowth, creating openings for sunlight to reach the ground.

So in their wake, burns leave an opportunity for fast growing plants to establish a foothold, a chance they otherwise wouldn’t have in the deep forest shade. And one of those lucky opportunists is the native Pacific broadleaf rhododendron.

Now well established, the lanky rhododendrons open clusters of rosy pink blooms in late spring, adding a brief splash of unexpected color among the shaded greens and browns of the Reserve’s fern canyons, firs and redwoods. The display is all the more stunning because pink is a rare color in north coast forests.

The bloom varies from year to year depending on conditions, and the regrown forest – which now shows few signs of the fire – has taken back much of the open space, so the flowers are sprinkled here and there along the trail - but it’s still worth the visit.  The rhododendron can reach upwards for sunlight twenty feet, so bouquets of blossoms hang high overhead in some places, and you’ll only know they’re there by noticing petals that have dropped onto the trail. In other spots the color is at eye height and magnificent.

The rhodies aren’t the only visual feast. Second growth redwoods, douglas firs and tanoaks make a pleasant forest, varieties of lush green ferns abound, and other bloomers – redwood sorrel, the tiny yellow violet, orange lilies and other wildflowers – make it a refreshing walk, with bridges across several seasonal burbling streams.

The Kruse Rhododendron Reserve is a one hour drive north of Bodega Bay on winding but spectacular Hwy 1, a few miles north of Salt Point State Park. Entrance is free. Turn east up Kruse Ranch Road, a one lane gravel road, and stop at the obvious parking area. There are three miles of trail in the 300 acre reserve. A very short loop near the parking area gives a quick look, and two interconnecting main trails wind up and down through the two gulches that cross the reserve, with cutoffs allowing for shorter or longer hikes, up to a 2.2 mile loop. It’s a moderate walk, and easiest to start up China trail with its milder grade and descend on the steeper Phillips gulch leg. There are also some views of blooms along the gravel road, which is the easiest walk, just watch for the occasional traffic.

By: Stephen Nett