With miles of former ranch roads providing a nice gravel base for trails, Tolowa Dunes State Park is a great place for a moderately difficult mountain bike ride.
A perfect place to start is the 3.5 mile Ridge Trail, which connects Kellogg Road and Pala Road, visiting the historic Tolowa village site and cemetery of Yontocket en route.
The Ridge Trail is far from flat, but since the ascents and descents are short and gradual, it won't leave you wishing you stayed home.
The Ridge Trail can be mountain biked as a 6- to 7-mile out-and-back or combined with a ride down Lower Lake Road for an 8.5 mile loop.
There are two potential starting points: a trailhead on Kellogg Road a half-mile west of Lower Lake Road that I recently used during a ride with friends. There is limited parking at this location, so if there is no space, use the horse parking lot two-tenths of a mile west on of the trailhead off Kellogg.
You could also park at the large lot on the west end of Pala Road, which starts at the north end of Lower Lake Drive.
Starting from Kellogg Road, riders are welcomed by a shotgun-blasted sign that will soon be replaced thanks to the Redwood Parks Association and the California State Parks Foundation. The sign lists mileage to the marsh (1.3 miles), ponds (1.4 miles) and Yontocket (2.8 miles).
Although most of the trail is gravel, it is important for riders to watch out for sandy spots that can quickly stall a bike in its tracks.
The first half-mile is mostly flat with some mild hills, and then you reach the forks for the marsh side trail, which is when we could first hear sounds of the ocean calling from the other side of the forested ridge to our left.
We skipped this side trail as one rider said the trail quickly becomes sandy.
The inclines and declines gain a little elevation from this point forward, making for fun coasts on hilly curves and a few climbs to get your heart pumping.
The next side trail option marked "ponds" by a sign at 2.3 miles comes highly recommended and is reportedly suitable for bikes, according to Sue Calla, a member of Tolowa Dunes Stewards, a citizen group that does projects to educate the public and restore the Tolowa Coast.
"One of the things that's exceptional about (the Ridge Trail) is that it's accessible to the dune ponds there," Calla said. The freshwater ponds in Tolowa Dunes are the only year-round ponds in coastal dunes in all of California, Calla said. "Dunes south of here don't have that; those ponds are very special."
The ponds attract all sorts of wildlife, such as ducks, otters, frogs, butterflies and dragonflies, Calla said.
One rider in my group had a dragonfly tag along, resting on her shoulder for more than 2 miles of the ride.
Wildlife in Tolowa Dunes goes far beyond pond dwellers, as Calla pointed out that bobcats, cougars, deer, and coyotes have often been seen. A pack of Roosevelt elk has also recently been seen in the park, suspected of wading through the Smith River to get there.
"You just might see them," Calla said.
Other large beasts you might see include horses, as this is a popular trail for horseback riding. Be mindful of other trail users.
Alas, my group also skipped the "ponds" side trail, forging on along the ridge trail to Yontocket. If you're craving a glance at the ocean, there are also short trails on the left leading to the Pacific.
Shortly after the "ponds" trail connects back with the Ridge Trail, the route opens up into a sprawling, low-lying field, with the Yontocket cemetery perched atop a hill in the distance to the left.
After climbing a hill, riders reach Yontocket, which was a large village site for the Tolowa American Indians who inhabited this area.
Great respect should be shown at this area, which has two cemeteries that are still used for funeral services and memorials. If there is anything blocking your travel to Yontocket, there might be a funeral or memorial in progress and you should turn around to come back another day.
In 1853, there was a massacre at Yontocket of more than 450 Tolowa Indians. Every year around the winter solstice, Tolowa people from the entire territory spanning from Wilson Creek to the Sixes River would gather at Yontocket for a world renewal ceremony.
"It's very sensitive for the Tolowa people so respect is very important," Calla said.
The descent from Yontocket is long and winding before reaching a flat intersection with the River Trail. You can only bike on the River Trail for about 100 yards before it becomes too sandy, but the half-mile walk is worth it if you haven't seen the Smith River estuary from this vantage point.
The last section of trail that leads to the Pala Road parking lot is flat, straight and surrounded by cow pasture for Alexandre Family EcoDairy Farms. Continue down Pala Road until you reach Lower Lake Road and take a right.
Continue down Lower Lake for about 3 miles before you must take a right on Kellogg Road, which will bring you back to your car.