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Historic, beautiful 1,200-acre Calabazas Creek Preserve will become a park

Historic, beautiful 1,200-acre Calabazas Creek Preserve will become a park

Decades in the making, the land offers abundant history, a refuge for wildlife, and a promise of recreation

By Jay Gamel

People have long been attracted to the lands surrounding the Calabazas Creek, which drains the western slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains and flows under Highway 12 at the junction with Nuns Canyon Road before joining its big sister, Sonoama Creek, in downtown Glen Ellen.

Often visited and sometimes inhabited by indigenous tribes in the area, it was one of the first places Europeans noticed when they moved into Northern California. While offering spectacular views and shelter for spotted owls, mountain lions, hawks, and hundreds of other animals, the land has always been difficult to farm. Now it will become a park and preserve for wildlife and recreation through the Sonoma County Ag + Open Space District and the Sonoma County Regional Parks system.

Ag + Open Space purchased the 1,290-acre property in 2004 for about $9.1 million with the aim of eventually transferring it to Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. When that plan failed due to state budget constraints, Calabazas, one of several properties acquired with the intent to transfer to the state parks system, languished for 17 years. An influx of money from 2020’s Measure M enabled the county park system to acquire most of these properties, including Calabazas.

Over the years, the Sonoma Ecology Center has conducted occasional hikes on the preserve and assisted with studies that will become part of the record needed to build a required master plan for future park use.

I was lucky enough to meet with Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, Open Space General Manager Misti Arias, Karen Davis-Brown from Regional Parks, and Ag+ Open Space Stewardship Leslie Lew, for a short tour of the preserve to commemorate its formal transfer from Open Space to Regional Parks in mid-July. After parking in a long-abandoned quarry near the Nuns Canyon entrance gate, we hiked a mile or so into the park along a narrow footpath that runs alongside the creek, rapidly ascending to the meadows and views above.

After a foggy and chilly start, the sun broke out to dapple the new growth emerging from the devastation wrought by the 2017 Nuns fire, which started in the canyon before spreading to Sugarloaf and joining with the Tubbs Fire from Calistoga.

Fire does have its place in the ecology. Manzanitas, for example, are dependent on fire to help their seeds germinate; thousands of new manzanita seedlings have developed across the south-facing slopes since the fire. In partnership with CalFire and local land conservation organizations and agencies, Ag + Open Space secured grants to help fund shaded fuel break and forest thinning work, which is currently underway and has already created safer ingress/ egress conditions along Nuns Canyon Road. While today’s narrow path seems unremarkable, it was the start of the main highway from Glen Ellen to Napa in the early settlement days, after Hugh and Sara Nunn acquired over 300 acres in the mid-range going up the mountain. Though the road was narrow and treacherous, it remained in use from the mid- 1800s through the fires in 1923, which destroyed many of the creek’s bridges, according to local historian Arthur Dawson’s 2013 study, “A Homestead Era History of Nunns’ Canyon.” At some point in history, the second “n” of the settlers’ last name was dropped. A string of settlers in the area had already left by the time Mary Ellen Pleasant, who was born a slave and became a wealthy entrepreneur and activist, acquired most of the land in 1889, though she died in poverty in San Francisco in 1904.

Today the land is pristine, showing only slight remnants of its brief history of European settlement in the form of broken foundations, building fragments, and still-flourishing orchards of olives, figs, apples, peaches, and more, which populate the meadows above the valley floor.

“As you explore Nuns Canyon, the sounds of Highway 12 and the outside world are replaced by the flowing waters of Calabazas Creek and spectacular diversity of habitats,” said Bert Whitaker, director of Sonoma County Regional Parks. “This wild and vibrant landscape, in such close proximity to other protected and publicly accessible lands, is significant because of the many benefits it provides to people and wildlife. Preservation of this property expands regional wildlife corridors, creates the opportunity for multiuse trails and connectivity with regional trail networks, and preserves critical natural buffer areas that reduce wildfire risks to neighboring communities.”

While it may take two or more years to develop a master plan (with public input starting next year) for the land, and then open the park to the public, Regional Parks expects to organize guided hikes beginning later this year. We’ll keep you posted as more information becomes available.

Leslie Lew, Karen Davis-Brown and Supervisor Susan Gorin pause while hiking Calabazas Creek Preserve trail as property is dedicated to become future Regional Park.Photo by Jay Gamel