Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve
The redwood Shangri-La
At the heart of this exceptional reserve is a small alluvial flat that's hidden away in a remote, steep-sided valley, where you'll find one of the most scenic redwood groves in existence.
This serene little grove is isolated in more than one sense. It's unusually far from the ocean, at the eastern edge of the redwood band and surrounded by relatively dry environments. It's also well off the beaten track, a half-hour from the nearest freeway or town on steep and winding roads, and, unusually for a redwood park, the old growth grove is well away from roads and other development.
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. Its popularity may be partly due to the fact that, at one time, Montgomery Flat contained the tallest measured tree in the world. While its location is secret, and taller trees have since been found in other parks, that distinction still gives the grove a certain cachet.
Like many redwood groves, the best time to visit Montgomery Woods is late in the afternoon. There are fewer visitors at this time 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.
The old growth grove at Montgomery Woods was one of many places burned after summer thunderstorms in June 2008 ignited forest fires throughout Northern California. As of 2011, the grove has mostly recovered, although some dead tanoaks and small dead redwoods remain throughout the grove, and the woods aren't quite as dense and overwhelmingly lush as they used to be. However, the overall impression of the grove is more or less the same as was before the fire, and it's actually hard to tell the difference without looking at old pictures. Click the picture above to see the difference for yourself.
The reserve can be reached by taking Orr Springs Road west from the town of Ukiah. It's about a 30 minute drive from Highway 101. Orr Springs Road starts just north of exit 549 and soon begins a steep and twisty climb, which is then followed by an even steeper and twistier descent through scenic oak chaparral. Redwoods line the creekbeds below. Once it reaches 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 the coast. This route is less scenic and winds its way along a wooded ridge before dropping into the valley. After passing Comptche, simply follow the only paved road — there are no turns to make.
The reserve is marshy, so if it's summer and you don't have mosquito repellent, you'll 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 starts off as a dirt road that climbs through a rather mundane redwood forest alongside a burbling creek. After a third of a mile, the trail crests and then descends slightly to Montgomery Flat. At this point, the forest changes dramatically, from nice but rather ordinary redwood uplands into a classic, cathedral-like alluvial flat forest. 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.
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 loop trail winds around the perimeter of the grove, sometimes elevated above the marshy alluvial flat at its center.
The first one-third mile of the loop trail, up to the Kellieowen Grove, is actually a little plain compared to the rest of the grove. This is partly because the 2008 fire most heavily affected this part of the grove, scouring away the lush groundcover and leaving fallen trees and blackened trunks. However, even before the fire this part of the trail was less scenic than the rest of the grove.
Past the Kellieowen Grove, the scenery improves again as the trail winds up and over a gentle rise and then runs alongside a small creekbed which is 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.
A long footbridge built on a fallen tree marks the halfway point and crosses the marshy center of the flat. A spur trail to the right leads to a logged area and is not worth exploring. The main loop trail works its way back, now on the north side of the flat, past some impressive groups of trees. The ground rises steeply to the right, making a fern-encrusted wall.
There's a short boardwalk and then comes the best part of the trail, where it crosses back over Montgomery Creek, winding for a stretch among some picturesque burbling pools and a huge fallen tree. 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.