Trail rides for the timid to the adventurous

In front of us were two wide-open lanes split only by an aisle of short green grass. Apple trees, sometimes blooming but often not, lined the perimeter of the dirt road and when the hilltop beckoned, I’d gently double-tap my heels against the horse’s warm belly and bend forward to whisper, “Let’s go.” Starting out with a bouncy trot, it didn’t take long before the wind was blowing through my hair, taking any troubles on my mind along with it.  The full gallop unleashed a deep sense of freedom rivaled only by the thrill of multiple spins across the dance floor later in life.

Horses were a big part of my childhood and I didn’t have to be running them through the local orchards to enjoy their company, although that was certainly a highlight. I think I was about 12 when I took a four-day trail ride/camping trip with my uncle in the Sierras. Looking back, it wasn’t exactly safe on the narrow trails at high elevations (frankly I’m lucky to be alive) but I’m grateful for the unique experience that certainly colored the woman I am today and the trust I have in horses.

Surrounded by horses in a pasture one day, my uncle summed it up the best, I think: “Horses are good for the soul,” he declared in his simple matter-of-fact way with a gentle knowing smile. After years lacking horse time, I once again have regular connection with my equine friends. Like the majority of the population, I don’t have a horse to call my own—perhaps someday soon a truck, trailer, hay and land will fit into the budget and the schedule, but for now I rely on others for the equine adventure I crave.

“Horses should be available to everyone. It is a timeless adventure and takes us back to the early days,” said Nikki Baxes of The Ranch at Lake Sonoma, LLC. She’s well aware of the hard work and expense of keeping a horse or two—even 20. “It’s a lifestyle and if you love animals, it’s easy to do.”

Coming from a long line of horse lovers, Baxes has been riding horses since she was a young girl. Her background includes showing horses (dressage, western, jumping), training horses and riders, building a 30-horse boarding facility in Petaluma, and now along with her husband, David Baxes, opening The Ranch at Lake Sonoma (in September 2016). Their outfit features a collection of trail rides, designed for a multitude of riders at various levels—even the timid. “I can’t think of anything more rewarding than working with horses,” she said.

A horse’s way of teleporting a human back into the world of nature rapidly is becoming more appreciated in today’s fast-paced world. That “get-away” feeling so many office folk yearn for after a week surrounded by phones, computers, stress and other distractions is often achieved quickly in the presence of a horse, whether one rides or observes them grazing peacefully in a pasture. Although there are those who fear these large and powerful creatures, others find them to be the most gentle of giants and experience a biological bond that they didn’t know existed if they’ve never ridden before.

“Horses make it easy for people to enjoy the park and add an element of excitement,” said Baxes, whose outfit is conveniently located near the private marina and campground. The ranch features a panoramic view of the lake and bridge below, and a ride on an elevated trail offers additional exceptional views from various angles. “When we created the trail rides I knew that I wanted one to feature a view of Dry Creek Valley,” said Baxes, who took me on that trail.

Starting out with a glimpse of Lake Sonoma’s picturesque snaking roads hugging the hillside, it eventually opened up to a sprawling view of the Dry Creek Valley. As she pointed out various vineyards and wineries, I made a mental note to return after harvest for the show of fall color that I’m sure is stunning. Only in Sonoma County is it possible to walk just another 10 strides and become magically surrounded by an insulated grove of redwood trees and then a bright spacious meadow adorned with wildflowers, but that’s exactly what this trail delivered.

Each season in Sonoma County promises its own unique delights but layering up in long johns, a flannel, jeans and boots to enjoy the fresh crisp air of late fall and early winter is invigorating and a great way to embrace the great outdoors. After the first rains, the scents of trees and soil come alive. The trails at Lake Sonoma drain really well, making them well suited for year-round trekking.

The Ranch at Lake Sonoma also plans to offer educational rides with a ranger, nature rides highlighting various flora and fauna, and a history of the Warm Springs Dam Project ride, where people will have an opportunity to learn more about the park’s rich history and its plethora of geological and biological wonders, such as serpentine rock outcroppings.

“Horses can carry you deeper into the wilderness than you might go on your own two feet,” explained Baxes. Sometimes a hike might be cut short due to fatigue, a disability or a number of other reasons. While riding a horse still requires the use of muscles it doesn’t demand the body the same way as hiking. Those lucky enough to bond with a horse know that the relationship can be deep and generous. These powerful large creatures will lend you their legs (all four of them), ears and noses. Personally, I find it fun to watch them when I ride; the way they move their ears, the sounds they make blowing out their nose and stepping with their hooves are all interesting factors that add to the experience and pull me into the present moment.

Horses and humans have been partners in the most exciting of expeditions since the inception of our relationship that dates back in America to the 1500s or so. Sonoma County, in particular, has a long history of equine attraction and employment. Cattle ranching and farming no doubt played a role.

“Back in the day that is how the vineyard was worked, with horses and mules,” said Rafael Hernandez of Wine Country Trail Rides. During harvest, horses helped bring in the grapes and were also used to move barrels of wine. It’s no secret that plenty of local winemakers and vineyard owners still have a soft spot for horses. Taking an afternoon ride to gather a vineyard sample or assess the vines is still done today.

Hernandez was one of the first to offer the experience of riding through the vineyard to the public about 20 years ago. Working out of the stables and equestrian pavilion at Chalk Hill Estate Winery in Healdsburg, he offers rides year around. “People can see first hand what is going on in the vineyard. We can talk about what the workers are doing, and the different varietals,” explained Hernandez. Wine Country Trail Rides features views of the Russian River and Alexander valleys and often ends with a wine tasting.

In a Sonoma County deed book, a document recorded in 1862 lists the names of the mules and horses belonging to Alexander Skaggs (the founder of Skaggs Springs Resort, once located in the Lake Sonoma area). Clipper, Lucy, Fly, Yankee, Kit, Muggins, Dolly, Peggy and Snip were all part of the historic crew that played a key role in the lives and success of the settlers.

As a reliable mode of transportation for hundreds of years, it’s no wonder that the horse and human connection lives on today in so many forms throughout Sonoma County. But as lifestyles evolve, a trail ride might be a first-time experience for locals and those visiting from out of town or country.

Then there are those who’ve been riding for generations in the area and would like to see that tradition continued and shared with others. Working to keep Sonoma County’s wilderness accessible to riders is the Backcountry Horseman of California (BCHC) North Bay Unit. Whether one takes a trail ride or brings his or her own horse, Lake Sonoma is a popular place to ride and a favorite of this group. BCHC

Northbay President Thor Bodtker not only enjoys riding at Lake Sonoma, but he also horse camps there at the Falcon’s Nest site. Equipped with horse corrals, it’s a gem for those interested in a long ride and then camping overnight.

Offering priceless memories, horse camping is a one-of-a-kind experience. “Sonoma County has lots of great parks and places to ride but very few places to camp (with a horse),” said Bodtker, who values the activity that tightens his bond with his horse and allows him the opportunity to see more wildlife. “If you are quiet, the other animals see you as an animal and not as a person,” explained Bodtker.  He also pointed out that while backpackers are limited in the amount of weight they carry in their packs, horseback riders find themselves able to haul more with the help of a horse, so they can really set up camp with a few extras on the load.

Another really special place to ride in Sonoma County is along the Pacific coastal waters, preferably at sunset. Last year I had the honor of doing this on New Year’s Eve. Better than any black tie event (in my opinion), it was an uplifting way to ring in the New Year. The weather during the winter months is surprisingly agreeable in the area and the crashing waves and wide-open sea add another level of beauty and inspiration to the romanticism of this timeless treasured pastime. Hitching posts to tie the horses and plenty of room for parking a trailer make the trip easy at Doran Beach in Bodega Bay. Guided beach rides are also offered year round through Horse N Around Trail Rides at Chancelor Ranch in Bodega Bay, where seasoned trail horses lead the way and a portion of the proceeds benefit horse rescue efforts in Sonoma County.

Ragle Ranch Regional Park in Sebastopol is another favorite riding location for locals in Sonoma County. A gravel parking area is spacious for parking trucks and trailers and there is water on hand for the horses. Old twisted oak trees pose as artwork here, and there are plenty of trails to choose from including a hilltop trail overlooking the watershed toward Western Sonoma County and a nature trail that leads to Atascadero Creek.

I often hike through the park and occasionally pass riders on horseback who are enjoying the trails and it makes me smile. The neighboring apple orchards, powdery dirt trails, scents of the creek, sloping meadow hillsides and songs of the birds are all so familiar on the land that borders the places that I used to ride when I was a little girl—and even though I’m on foot, those memories on a horse still manage to ignite a deep sense of priceless freedom and well-being.   SD



Horse N Around Trail Rides
at Chancelor Ranch

The Ranch at Lake Sonoma, LLC
Nikki Baxes

North Bay Unit
Backcountry Horseman of California

Wine Country Trail Rides
Rafael Hernandez