From semi-arid inland beauty featuring scrub oak forests,
grasslands and even vineyards, to the stunning, seemingly endless vistas and Mediterranean climate of the Sonoma Coast, there is an outdoor hiking experience for every taste.  

And those opportunities are increasing, as Sonoma County continues efforts to create and preserve its rural character through legislative efforts and partnerships with local non-government organizations (NGOs) to protect agricultural land and open spaces and facilitate public access to the wilds of the county’s hinterlands.

Through the establishment of urban growth boundaries (UGBs)—community separators between and around the county’s nine incorporated cities—and the efforts of non-profits, such as LandPaths and the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, that vision can be seen in thousands of acres of parks, agricultural preserves and urban separators from Sonoma Mountain to Jenner by the Sea.

In just the past few years, those mutually beneficial relationships have borne fruit in the form of the opening of several tracts of land now available for public use. Some of those projects have been decades in the making.

LandPaths owns or manages several properties throughout the county: Willow Creek’s People Powered Park, a nearly 4,000-acre property south of Jenner on the Sonoma Coast; Riddell Preserve, a 400-acre park near Healdsburg; Rancho Mark West, five miles east of Santa Rosa; Grove of Old Trees, west of Occidental; Bayer Farm Neighborhood Park and Gardens, an urban park in Roseland; Bohemia Ecological Preserve, near Camp Meeker, and Fitch Mountain in Healdsburg.

Each of the properties has some type of public access, either directly or through LandPaths’ guided tours, but in order to get people “more connected to the land” LandPaths has created a program called TrekSonoma, which they hope will “increase connectivity” of the properties to each other—“in space—and connect people to the land.

“We have isolated islands of parks that all have one thing in common: they require people to drive to them,” Landpaths Executive Director Craig Anderson said. “In 2009, the assistant director came up with an idea to try to link together otherwise disparate properties and came up with walking, through a series of days.”

The idea is to hike from property to property and sleep under the stars. Landpaths carries all equipment from place to place so that participants are free to just enjoy the hikes.

“One of our popular trips is from Pomo Camp-Shell Beach to Willow Creek to the Bohemia Preserve,” Anderson said. “It’s 20 miles over three days.”

There are several public TrekSonoma trips planned, including the Teen Russian River Paddle Summer Camp and a trek for people of all ages through the Southern Mayacamas (see sidebar). LandPaths also has the ability to put together additional group trips. For prices or more information, contact LandPaths at 707-544-7284 or by email at outings@landpaths.org.

Fitch Mountain came into the LandPaths’ fold in 2014 after a 20-year effort by the City of Healdsburg and ultimately former Fourth District Supervisor and current Senator Mike McGuire. Sonoma County Agricultural Perseveration and Open Space District paid for the land, but the city could not hold title on the property. So the deal could only happen if LandPaths agreed to own and develop it for three years.
“We finalized the deal in November 2014 and will only own the title for three years and develop trails,” Anderson said. “It will help reduce extreme fire damage and daylight the ground. We had a forest of native trees managed unnaturally and the ecology is out of whack from 40 years of mismanagement.”
Fitch Mountain has open public access from the parking lot of Villa Chanticleer at 900 Chantecleer Way in Healdsburg.

In the West County, the management of Willow Creek’s “People Powered Park” was recently returned to the state of California after more than a decade of management by LandPaths, one of the lead agencies in the preservation of the county’s open spaces. General public access to the property is expected to be in place sometime this spring but LandPaths has included the property in its TrekSonoma program.

The state purchased the property in 2005 after local preservationists spent more than three decades fighting the timber industry over the nearly 4,000-acre property south of Jenner on the Sonoma Coast. The land was previously owned by the Mendocino Redwood Company, which sold it to the state for $20 million.

“The lands were originally owned by the Baxman family and sold to Louisiana Pacific,” Anderson said. “In the early 2000s, Mendocino Redwood Company (MRC) took over LP holdings.”
According to Anderson, Landpaths and the MRC formed a partnership to manage the Willow Creek property access for people to be the “eyes and ears for the property and to pick up the trash.” MRC eventually decided it was in its best interest to sell the property to the state, but there was no one to run it.

“The state couldn’t put money into it immediately—we felt that was a big deal—so the Coastal Conservancy stepped in and we created a new model,” Anderson said. “It took about a year to hammer out the details. It was permit only at first: the permits were free and (we were contracted) to help manage the land for three years. Then it turned into four and now it’s been 10 years… We decided it was time for us to move on.”

Another West County property, the 1,000-acre Bohemia Ecological Preserve near Camp Meeker, is home to many rare and endangered plants and animals, including the Northern California spotted owl, the ringtail cat, mountain lions, black-shouldered kites, foothill yellow-legged frogs, red-legged frogs and the California salamander.

LandPaths currently hosts more than 25 guided hikes on the property each year and monthly drop-in stewardship days, an important part of property management.

For many years, the preserve was an informal park with a waterfall that drew locals who wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of civilization. The property is also an important feeder to Dutch Bill Creek, a tributary of the Russian River, which supports coho salmon.

In the late 1990s, area resident and Grateful Dead drummer Micky Hart and his wife Caryl Hart, now the director of Sonoma County Parks Department, attempted to raise money to purchase the property from its previous owners. That effort fell short, but in 2012, with the help of a coalition of local agencies and property donations—and a $1.45 million conservation easement from the Sonoma Land Trust—the 1,000-acre preserve was finally granted public access.

The Sonoma Land Trust in and of itself has been instrumental in funding and land acquisition for 40 years. The nonprofit NGO has protected more than 50,000 acres of property.

On Dec. 24, 2015, they closed a deal that permanently protects a parcel on the Sonoma Coast where the Estero Americano meets the Pacific Ocean that will enhance the established 127-acre Estero Americano Preserve.

The SLT also hosts its own outings. A calendar and more information can be found at sonomalandtrust.org.

The acquisition and preservation of large tracts of undeveloped land kicked into overdrive in 1990 with the establishment of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, created through the passage of measures A and C. The District is funded by a quarter-cent sales tax that generates about $21 million a year. That tax was extended through 2031, via the passage of Measure F in 2006.

“Our primary function is to implement the community’s vision on Urban Growth Boundaries,” District General Manager Bill Keene said. “We’re doing our part to save the land, create greenbelts and keep sprawl from happening. We protect watershed and land… It’s the land in Sonoma County that makes (it) so wonderful—the agricultural heritage.”

The District was one of the first organizations in the country established to protect agricultural and open space lands, and has been a key player in the preservation of 106,000 acres of land that benefit people and wildlife in Sonoma County.

And while the high-profile acquisitions such as Taylor Mountain to the east and the Joe Rodota Trail to the west are obvious reminders of the District’s work, there are many other properties the organization has had a hand in preserving, such as Safari West; the Prince Memorial Greenway Gateway Park; the Windsor Town Green; Riverkeeper Park, and they even had a hand in the creation of the Sebastopol Skate Park.

Additionally, the District is involved in helping to create innovative programs, such as Rohnert Park’s incubator farm on Snyder Lane and Bayer Farm Neighborhood Park and Gardens in Roseland.
“All you have to do is look at a map to see the district’s influence,” Keene said.

The attitude of the Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District aligns perfectly with the mission of Sonoma County Regional Parks and that is to get people out in nature to reconnect with the land and to understand the importance of preserving open spaces.

The park system includes more than 50 parks and trails from Petaluma to Gualala and Sonoma to Bodega Bay, 140 miles of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding as well as 268 campsites, among other resources.

A complete list of parks can be found at parks.sonomacounty.ca.gov and park memberships cost $69 annually, $49 for seniors. Annual member benefits include: 12 months of free parking at more than 50 parks and trails; one free night of camping; Tolay Fall Festival admission for two adults and two children; discounts on park events and merchandise; savings at Sonoma County retailers and recreation providers, as well as regular updates on special events and other benefits.

Caryl Hart became director of the Parks Department in 2010 and was instrumental in the creation of LandPaths. “LandPaths takes people out and the Open Space District partners to purchase land and conservation easements,” Hart said. “They contract with the district and we work together. Minders of the parks for the County is merely a part of what we do.”

Hart said that what the Parks Department, the Open Space District and various NGOs do is to carry out the work entrusted them by the people of Sonoma County and is a “reflection of great love” that is expressed by park members and the voters of the county.

“It’s the people’s priorities and what matters to the people of this county has evolved,” Hart said. “We started out protecting agriculture and grazing land. In 1990 we created the Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District when the county was becoming more suburban. Then, people started getting out and there was a push for parks.”   SD