We started our hike on Fern Canyon Trail without really knowing what to expect. We had a map of the park, but we couldn't really decide if there was something on the trail that we wanted to see. The trail was following a little stream, and quickly changed from a small road into a narrow trail, which was almost covered by some plants. In the beginning of the trail we saw a warning sign about Poison Oak, which is quite common in California forests. So we had to be extra cautious with our little 4 year old who was running here and there.
Poison Oak, as well as Poison Ivy is coded in an oil called urushiol, which most people are allergic to. The whole plant all the way to roots, stem and leaves is poisonous. Even a small touch can trigger an allergic reaction, which later turns into some red bumps or even blisters. After getting this oil on to one's hands, many people accidentally rub it around their body, or it gets to their clothes from where it goes to the skin. Reacting to the oil is very individual. Some might get a rash within a few hours, some might get it even after several days. First aid for the rash and itchiness is to take a warm shower. Then you need to make sure all the clothes you wore are washed. Most of the time, the rash gets better by it's self, but if you get more serious symptoms you should seek medical help.
Finally, when we had plants even hanging above our heads, we decided to turn back. We had never seen so much poison oak at once, and we were having a hard time to identify the plants. Better safe than sorry, especially when we only had a few hours of daylight left and a child who most likely wouldn't want to walk very far anyway. We noticed from the map, that on the other side of the park was something called a Pygmy Forest. So we jumped into our car and drove over to see what it looks like.
The base of the Pygmy Forest, was once at the bottom of the ocean. When the land rose up, it formed steps where the highest step has the oldest soil. This soil does not renew itself or get any nutrients running down from other steps. The soil is also very acidic, and forms a hard rock just underneath called "hard pan" which the roots can't break through. Because the soil is so poor and the hard pan, the trees are not able to grow as high as they would do in other forests. For example, some of the pine trees we saw were over a hundred of years old, but only about one meter tall. The other known species in Pygmy Forest is the Mendocino Cypress, which are mostly also over a hundred years old.
The trail in the Pygmy Forest is a wooden walkway. It is not very long, only about 1/4 mile and suitable for children and people with wheelchairs. First, it was difficult to see which of the trees were pygmy trees because of all the other shrubs growing in the forest, but the signs told us what to look for. The forest is very thick but most trees are very short. It is bizarre, that these small branches are actually very old trees.
The Pygmy Forest is a special and historic place. I wouldn't necessarily drive all the way over here because of this, but if you happen to be close by, it is nice place to get into the middle of nature.