One of Sonoma County’s most overlooked gems is the largest of its outdoor treasures, Lake Sonoma Recreational Area, located in the northwestern part of the county near Healdsburg, Cloverdale and Geyserville.
Weighing in at a whopping 17,000-plus acres, this “recreational paradise” is the largest freshwater recreation area in the North Bay and a major source of water for more than 600,000 residents. The facility has also played a pivotal role in the preservation of several endangered species of trout and salmon.
From the bucolic grounds surrounding the Congressman Don Clausen Fish Hatchery and the Milt Brandt Visitors Center, to Yorty Creek Recreation Area near Cloverdale, and centrally located Liberty Glen Campground, the outdoor enthusiast will find day-use facilities, hiking, boating and camping.
And after several years of drought, a relatively normal season of rain has left the lake near capacity, a boon for families and individuals looking for a not-too-distant wilderness experience.
“The lake is full and there are tons of recreational opportunities,” retired park ranger and Friends of Lake Sonoma president Linda Clapp said. “There are 200 camping sites: 100 on the lake and 100 at Liberty Glen. We have families that have been coming here for years to stay for a week on the lake.”
Lake Sonoma sprung into existence 33 years ago, when the Army Corps of Engineers completed Warm Springs Dam. The dam was conceptualized in the 1930s, but it took decades of bureaucratic wrangling, punctuated by battles with local environmental groups, for the project to come to fruition. While its main function is water storage, the lake is also a prime recreation destination that brings $12 million annually to the local economy.
“People love Yosemite, but Lake Sonoma is right here,” Senior District Ranger Charlie Fenwick said. “You can get a great wilderness experience without driving six or seven hours.”
I visited Lake Sonoma on a mid-April day to get a glimpse of what the place was all about. Our tour began at the hatchery and took us through the hills overlooking the park. Along the way, we saw fingerling salmon, trail runners, archers, horsemen and boats dotting the lake.
“There is always something going on here,” Army Corps of Engineers Park Ranger Joe Lishka said. “The park is open 24/7 year-round.”
Lishka, who studied conservation at Sonoma State University, has worked at the park for 15 years. His job is to observe the goings-on at the park and to monitor wildlife, including two nesting pairs of Bald Eagles and a Peregrine falcon aerie in a 5,000-acre wildlife preserve within the confines of the park.
The lake was created in a series of very steep ravines, so it is fairly easy to get to a point high enough to get overarching views of the surrounding terrain. From No Name Flat on Rockpile Road, which cuts through the center of the park, we were treated to a panoramic view of the park.
To the north—the nine-mile Dry Creek Arm of the lake—lies the rugged Pritchett Peaks, a 1,696-foot mountain ridge that is the centerpiece of the wildlife preserve.
To the southeast, one can see the flattened hilltop where the material was taken to build the damn.
To the south and west, the hills drop down to the waterline of the four-mile Warm Springs Arm of the lake, where with a decent pair of binoculars, one can see details of the primitive campgrounds dotting the shore and boats heading west.
Most of the year the region is fairly temperate, and although summer days can see triple digit heat, Lake Sonoma is close enough to the coast that recreational users will enjoy the benefits of the Mediterranean climate seen throughout Sonoma County.
“There are hot days, but Liberty Glen is closer to the coast, so the cool air from the Pacific blows in at night,” Fenwick said. “It can be 100 degrees during the day, but it drops to the 60s at night.”
Day Use Facilities
For those whose idea of adventure is packing up the family vehicle and going out for a picnic in the park, there are accessible picnic tables scattered throughout the park, as well as two major picnic areas.
The Warm Springs Recreation Area is located below the dam near the visitor’s center and has a number of picnic sites, as well as six group picnic areas that can be rented for $50 each. There are sand volleyball courts, a playground and lawn area with shelters over the group area. The recreation area also contains a well-groomed 18-hole Frisbee disc golf course.
Liberty Glen Campground features 97 campsites and sits on a ridge above the Warm Springs Arm. It is the only drive-in campground available for tents and RVs. The facility has picnic tables, a children’s playground, fire rings and lantern holders.
Firewood is available for sale during summer months. There are no electrical or water hookups available, but flush toilets, drinking water and showers are provided.
While there is no direct access to the lake, adventurers can get there via a strenuous one-mile hike and all the park’s trails are easily accessible from the site. The cost is $20 per night, plus the parking per calendar day, and reservations are not required.
For $75 a night, the intrepid camper who may prefer sturdier shelter than a tent can rent a quaint “little cabin in the woods” that sleeps one to six people. The cabin is located at Liberty Glen. It is near restrooms and showers and includes a twin bunk bed and a full bunk bed. The rental fees benefit Friends of Lake Sonoma, a non-profit that helps maintain the recreation area. Reservations are required and can be made up to six months in advance.
The Warm Springs Arm of the lake—a four-mile finger to the south—has several primitive campgrounds accessible only by trail or by boat. The Dry Creek Arm to the north—an awe-inspiring nine-mile stretch—features more campgrounds and the Yorty Creek Recreation Area, where there is swimming and a boat launch for canoes and kayaks.
“We call them ‘primitive’ but they’re not that primitive,” Fenwick said. “They feature a level tent pad, fire ring, picnic tables, port-o-potties and lantern holders.”
Yorty Creek is accessible by car from Cloverdale and includes chemical toilets, free sheltered picnic areas and a car-top boat launch. There are no lifeguards or drinking water. Boat-in campers must check in at the visitor center and obtain a parking permit and no glass or dogs are allowed on the beach. Potable water is not available, so campers must pack in their own water or have a good water-filtering device to use lake water. All campers, with or without reservations, must check in at the visitor center.
More than 40 miles of trails weave through redwoods and oak forests that surround the lake. Since the dam was built on very steep terrain for maximum capacity, most of the trails are very steep. The trails are open to hikers, mountain bike and horseback riders, but closed to bikes and horse travel during the wet season, generally from Nov. 1 through the end of April. There is even a 28-target archery range winding through the hills at the west end of the park.
“It’s a vertical park: Some trails are flat, but not many,” Fenwick said. “There’s a beginner trail at No Name Flat, and in Cloverdale there’s a one-mile fisherman’s trail. But it’s a great place to get started.”
The lake is full, so with more than 2,700 acres of surface water, Lake Sonoma is a boater’s paradise. Besides the Yorty Creek boat launch, the marina is a one-stop shop for the intrepid water lover or fishing fanatic.2001, but has enjoying the lake since its formation.
“A lot of families come here year after year [but] it’s really undiscovered,” Folk said. “People ask me where I work, and when I tell them they turn around and say ‘where is that?’ We’re just 15 miles west of Healdsburg and more people come from San Francisco and the Bay Area than the Santa Rosa area.”
The marina has boat rentals, sells gas-oline, has a full-time mechanic and more than 350 slips that are rented by slip holders, people that own boats and rent the spaces. There are 132 brand-new covered docks that were recently built by a retrofit started in 2015. Additionally, there is a store stocked with deli sandwiches, beer, wine, snacks, boat parts, recreational toys, such as tubes and balls, and a small clothing line.
As to facilities, there are three major patios with barbecue pits as well as a small swimming area with a beach. The marina provides life jackets for people who are boating and swimming. The entry to the marina is $10 per car for day use, hand-launch with canoes and kayaks on vehicles are $12 per day, and to use the boat launch is $15.
Several areas of the lake are designated for water skiing and some areas are no wake so that kayakers and canoeists can enjoy the water undisturbed. Public launching areas are located near the dam at a public boat ramp and at Yorty Creek.
Launching fees apply to all boaters and an annual pass good for any Corps of Engineer park can be purchased at the visitor center. Boat-in campers wishing to launch and park overnight at Yorty Creek must check in with the visitor center and obtain a parking permit to avoid receiving a citation.
From double decker patio boats with a 12-person capacity and ski boats to canoes to inner tubes, the Lake Sonoma Marina offers rentals and other services to get out and enjoy the water. For information, go to lakesonoma.com or call 707-433-2200.
The fishing is “phenomenal” at Lake Sonoma featuring several different types of fish: steelhead trout that were landlocked when the built the dam, large and smallmouth bass, sunfish, crappy and catfish.
Submerged trees left after the filling of the lake provide excellent underwater habitat for a wide variety of game fish. As a result, some of the best bass fishing in the state can be found at Lake Sonoma and there are several fishing tournaments held throughout the year.
Sonoma County’s rural heritage is tinged with a sense of rugged individualism that is embodied in the local equestrian groups that can be encountered on the trails at parks throughout the area. Lake Sonoma is a prime equestrian destination and partnerships with the North Bay Chapter of the Back Country Horsemen of California have helped to provide infrastructure at the park for all to use.
The Horsemen have built a campground and are in the process of building a stable area at No Name Flat in the middle of the park. Although they have priority use for the campground, it is open for use to the general public.
“We don’t make things exclusive, they’re all reservable,” Fenwick said. “There are picnic tables under cover and one of the finest pit toilets I’ve ever seen.”
But for people who don’t own a horse or a trailer or the other accoutrements associated with the equestrian lifestyle, a new equestrian center called The Ranch at Lake Sonoma is expected to open either late this summer or early fall. Owners Nikki and David Baxes will be offering guided trail rides for those age nine and older.
The program will be similar to trail rides offered at Jack London State Park and Bodega Bay. According to Nikki Baxes, there has been a plan for an equestrian center for the park since the 1980s, but the Corps of Engineers was not able to put it in place without a partnership.
“It’s a little bit closer to town, 10 minutes from Healdsburg, a wonderful opportunity for people who are local to go on a beautiful trail ride,” she said. “We moved up to the Rockpile area and I saw a lot of people trailering their horses in and out… I saw the 50 miles of beautiful trails. If you didn’t have a trailer, even if you had a horse you couldn’t enjoy this awesome park. I felt bad for people.”
Baxes said the rides will be pretty rugged, with plenty of views from places like Overlook Mountain, where there is “an incredible view overlooking Dry Creek Valley.”
For information, go to theranchat-lakesonoma.com or find them on Facebook. For reservations, call 707-494-4449.
Although it is not accessible to the public, a big draw to the area is the 5,000-acre wildlife preserve, which allows local flora and fauna to flourish.
Among the pine trees and oaks around the lake, there is a wide variety of wildlife, including the ubiquitous deer, skunks, coyotes, raccoons and feral pigs. But there are also landlocked otters and turtles and afore-mentioned birds of prey.
“Peregrines are a great success story for the Corps,” Fenwick said. “It’s taken hard work over many years. There are two pairs of Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles and Ospreys. It’s a full-fledged wildlife area. We’ve even seen a couple of bears.”
For the hunter, opportunities exist to help control the burgeoning population of feral pigs, while also helping the Friends of Lake Sonoma, which benefits from the $35 hunting fee.
FOLS offers archery and crossbow pig hunting to licensed hunters from late November through late March with “Ace Hunter” Jayson Collard, who takes intrepid hunters out in the early mornings of the off season for a rare hunting experience.
“Lake Sonoma is the only place in Sonoma County where you can pig hunt on public lands,” Collard said. season in the fall.
But remember, Lake Sonoma is a wild place and wild places carry with them inherent dangers. There are rattlesnakes, wild pigs and poison oak during the daylight hours, and there are even a few mountain lions around at night.
It is important to watch for rattlesnakes, check for ticks and be aware of poison oak.
“There are rattlesnakes in the summer: You can see them at the side of the road,” Collard said. “I’ve seen mountain lions, but they live where people aren’t.”
Collard said that while it’s uncommon to see pigs out in busy areas during the day, park users should be wary when they are around. Don’t get between a sow and her piglets and don’t let dogs chase the pigs. He also warned that pigs can be aggressive and dangerous when cornered or threatened
“It’s pretty rare to have an interaction,” he said. “They generally want to run away.”
Overall, the wildlife experience is a big draw to Lake Sonoma that can be enjoyed from the trails, from the water, from horseback or with family at the many facilities there.
“The most important thing is to come and enjoy it, it’s a beautiful place to come out and enjoy with your family,” Janet Folk said.”
Reserving Campsites or Warm Springs Group Picnic Areas
Campsites or group picnic sites can be reserved by calling the National Recreation Reservation Service (NRRS) at 877-444-6777, at ReserveUSA.com or reserveamerica.com. Specify California as the state and “Boat-In Sites” for the primitive boat-in/hike-in campsites. Campsites at Liberty Glen are available only on a first come, first served basis. For the two group campsites, call 707-431-4533.
Reservations for The Little Cabin in the Woods can be made through www.recreation.gov or by phone at 877-444-6777.
For more information, call the Milt Brandt Visitors Center at Lake Sonoma 707-431-4533. The Visitors Center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The Friends of Lake Sonoma (FOLS) is a non-profit support group that assists the Corps with its educational and visitor services programs. To help support FOLS, go to lakesonoma.org. SD