Van Damme State Park: Hiking & Camping Guide

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Northern California’s coast redwood parks are a real treasure in California’s expansive state park system, and Van Damme State Park is no exception. This coastal park on the near Mendocino is often overlooked by people heading into town for a weekend getaway. But it’s definitely worth a visit, especially if you like a quiet walk in the woods. The park has a lot going on. It features a fern canyon, pygmy forest, coast redwoods, camping, picnic facilities and a small beach.

This Van Damme camping, hiking and activity guide will help you figure out how to get there, where to hike and how to wrangle overnight camping.

Van Damme State Park Fern Canyon hike. woman hiking on bridge
The Fern Canyon hike in Van Damme.

Like other nearby state parks such as Hendy Woods and Salt Point, Van Damme was originally settled by the Native Pomo people. They lived in the area for thousands of years, building homes of redwood bark, hunting game, fishing, and trading with nearby communities. White settlement came to the area in the 1800’s, which included trapping, a logging operation at Fort Ross, and a quarry at Salt Point.

The park is named for Charles Van Damme. He was a successful businessman in San Francisco. Unlike many barons, who logged first and became conservation minded later (Armstrong Woods and Hendy Woods for instance), Van Damme actually purchased the property at Little River with the express purpose of creating public picnic and camping facilities. He left the land to the state, and in 1934 it was made into a State Park.

Van Damme state park fern canyon bridge. with female hiker
The ferns in the canyon.

Van Damme State Park FAQ

Where is Van Damme State Park?

Van Damme, SP is located on the Mendocino coast at the mouth of the Little River. The park is bisected by Highway 1, with the campgrounds and hiking to the east and the beach to the west.

How Long Does it Take to Get to Van Damme?

It’s located 152 miles and 3.5 hours north of San Francisco and just 2 miles south of Mendocino.

What are the Amenities at Van Damme?

Van Damme has series of campgrounds strung east/west through the park. It also features a picnic area, multiple bathrooms and potable water.

Is Van Damme Dog-Friendly?

Dogs are allowed in the park, including the campground, paved roads and on the beach. But alas, they are not allowed on the trails.

What are the Van Damme Day Use Fees?

You can part for free at the beach. But if you want to use the inland picnic areas or trailhead parking, then an $8 day use fee applies.

If you visit a lot of state parks, check out our guide for all California state park passes to see if getting an annual pass makes sense for you.

When is the Best Time to Visit Van Damme

The Mendocino coast is chilly and the temperatures don’t vary much. Expect low 50’s in the winter and high 50’s in the summer. The big variable is rain, which the coast gets a fair bit of between November and March. May and later Sept are a sweet spot for low crowds.

Van Damme Mendocino coast redwoods
Coast Redwoods on the Fern Canyon trail.

What to do in Van Damme State Park

For a small 40-acre state park, there is a surprising amount of stuff to do in Van Damme.

Hiking Fern Canyon Trail

The main event in Van Damme is hiking the Fern Canyon Trail. You can do it as a 5.5 mile out and back, or add on the Old Logging Loop trail, which makes it 8 miles total. Doing the longer trail gets you into the pygmy forest. But even the shorter out and back is a lovely, peaceful hike, as you transit through fern canyon, across the stream and through coast redwood groves. There is nothing essential about doing the whole thing– just do as much as you have the time for.

Pygmy Forest discovery trail in Van Damme
The Discovery Trail.

Pygmy Forest Discovery Trail

If you don’t want to do the logging trail, but want a taste of the pygmy forest, then take the .2 mile discovery trail interpretive loop. The signage does a good job of explaining the unique geology of this part of the park and why the poor soil here causes the stunted tree growth.

You access the Discovery Trail from the Airport road.

Sports on the Beach

Not gonna lie, this isn’t a beach with soft white sand. It’s more rocky and has a lot of drift wood. But that’s how the beaches in Mendocino tend to be. The beach’s small bay gives it quite a bit of protection from the heavy wave action that pounds other beaches in the area. You can simply chill on the beach with your dog, or you can do something more active.

  • Go Diving: The park allows diving in the bay at Little River. The bay’s easy, shallow entry make it friendly spot for less experienced divers.
  • Go Kayaking: Kayak Mendocino runs regularly scheduled kayak trips from Little River. They do 1.5 hours tours of the protected bay three times a day for $80. But be sure to reserve in advance.
Van Damme State Park campground. Sprinter van in the trees on the upper campground
A camp spot in the upper meadow campground.

Camping in Van Damme State Park

Van Damme State Park camping is certainly popular on summer weekends and holidays. Reservations are strongly advised from April through early October, particularly for weekends. But if you can swing weeknights, you can often find shoulder season spots available on the fly. The park then goes off reservations in mid October.

Book your Van Damme campground reservation at Reserve California.

The park has four discrete camping areas with 74 regular spots, a group camp and a handful of walk-in spots in the fern canyon. The three main camping areas each have regularly spaced bathrooms and pay showers. Little Loop has 13 spots near the entrance. Little River Spur has 16 spots and is strung along the lower road and provides the closest access to the fern canyon. And the Upper Loop is up the hill with 43 spots.

Van Damme has a 35 foot RV trailer limit, but a trailer that large won’t fit into many of the camp spots, especially on the Little Loop. If you have a large trailer, the park can also accommodate you at the beach, but you need to call and arrange it ahead of time. Their phone is: 707-937-5804.

The best camp sites in Van Damme are in the Upper Loop because the area has more sunshine and a place for the kids to run around. But only choose one of the spots on the perimeter of the meadow, There are are few oddball camp spots on the road going up to the meadow and they are very tight and not level.

Coast redwood tree tops Van Damme State Park

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