Although Jug Handle State Reserve is famous for its ecological staircase, the mouth of Jug Handle Creek that opens into an incredible beach cove is the real star of the park. The park includes about one mile of spectacular coast that is worth stopping for and it harbors one of North California’s finest beaches. Drivers on Highway 1 only get a very brief glimpse of this beach, but many completely miss the park. Take the short hike along the coast or follow the trail and steps right down to the beach to discover this amazing hidden jewel.
You can also hike the trail leading through the ecological staircase, which illustrates five sequences in geological time. The trail starts at the coast and ascends steeply as you hike inland. Take a brochure at the picnic area next to the parking lot. The staircase leads to a Pygmy Forest that is common to this area of California.
How to get there
You can find the entrance to the park about 1 mile north of Caspar Creek or just under 5 miles north of Mendocino and just south of the Jug Handle Creek Bridge along Highway 1. The entrance is on the seaside of the highway. It leads to a small parking lot.
How to photograph Jug Handle Creek State Reserve
The staircase hike is not worth the trouble for photography alone. If you need the workout or if you are a hobby botanist, you may find it interesting, otherwise you can skip it entirely.
Stick to the coast area instead. Many photographers miss this unassuming small park. It is easy to get overwhelmed with the countless pullout options along the Pacific Coast Highway 1, but this one is worth looking for.
Add some interesting foreground elements like the three flower bushes or the kelp (picture at the top of this article) into your composition. I included three bushes, since the number creates tension and thus arouses interest. Asymmetry in numbers and in the division of the frame often results in better images. Three is also a Fibonacci number and a prime number, which our mind perceives as aesthetic.
I found the kelp curled up in its location. I took the end and threw it roughly toward the beach, using the kelp to visually lead the viewers into the picture and toward the nicely curving beach. The curve of the kelp also mirrors the curve of the beach, which makes it look less out of place. The rocks in the foreground invite you to step on them to get closer into the picture and the kelp leads the way. Make use of the visual elements in your picture to enhance your composition.
Stepping on the stones in the kelp picture, I made it close to the area where the waves break on the stones. I had to crouch down and got my lens and camera splashed, but it was worth the trouble. I like how the splashing water adds drama to the picture and makes the cost look violent.
As the wind creates ripples on the water, the sunrays create interesting shapes in the sand below the water. Take off your CP filter or turn it to enhance the reflections. You need to take off your shoes and step into the ice-cold water of the Pacific Ocean, but as photographers we are all used to doing worse things. Use a very short focal length to get a wide field of view to include the ripples and the sky.
Take a hike along the beach trail for excellent coastal photography and a good overview of the cove. From here, you can see the arching bridge carrying Highway 1 and the blue waters of the beach. Always use a polarizing filter when you photograph water during the day and watch your step as the cliff drops off steeply. You can dramatize the drop by including a portion of the foreground.
Best Time of the Day and Best Season
Arrive early if you can, before the beach tourists with enormous water coolers, beach umbrellas and obnoxious behaviors litter the sands of this tranquil cove (not kidding). During the week and in the off-season it should be sufficient to arrive before noon, otherwise arrive no later than 10am.
You will not need a lot of time to shoot the beach. One hour should be sufficient.
- All your camera gear (the hike is short)
- CP filter to enhance the color of the water and the plants
- Towel for your feet
- Towel to wipe the camera and lens clean
- Lens cleaning cloth and solution
The park was still free during my last visit in July 2009.
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