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Hood Mountain’s Lawson Trail reopens to hikers

Hood Mountain’s Lawson Trail reopens to hikers

No pygmy forest in sight, but views make the climb worthwhile

By Tracy Salcedo

Things got complicated at the red-earth switchbacks. Wellconstructed and easy to navigate, it wasn’t the steepness of the pitch that made me hesitate. It was my ability to commit.

The Mayacamas, despite their beauty, are not friendly mountains. They harbor heat and rattlesnakes and relentless climbs. They feel remote, despite their proximity to the urbanized amenities of California’s wine country. They are shrouded in the mystery and starkness of wildfire recovery. The Mayacamas are fierce, and a solo hiker — any hiker — should not venture into them lightly.

Recognizing my fragility in the face of this fierceness, I paused on the Lawson Trail’s switchbacks and took stock. Two months after breaking my ankle on a (supposedly) kinder, gentler Sonoma Mountain trail, I now stood on an exposed slope in Hood Mountain Regional Park and Open Space Preserve, more than a mile from the trailhead and nearly 1,000 feet up. The ankle felt okay; my brain did not. Going up the path was not the problem. The problem was having to come back down.

But this was a horse I had to climb back on. I was in my happy place, on a trail in the mountains. Forget the fall: What is behind me does not concern me. I looked ahead. Somewhere on this route, with serpentine underfoot and rosettes of new growth sprouting from torched chaparral plants, I might spy one: a Sargent cypress, a remnant of Hood Mountain’s rare, celebrated pygmy forest. The only way that could happen was if I kept walking.

The Lawson Trail is relatively new to Hood Mountain’s extensive trail system, a four-mile out-and-back single track that climbs to an airy viewpoint and picnic area more than 1,500 feet above the Pythian Road trailhead. The route opened briefly in 2020 before it was shut down by the Glass Fire, which burned 80% of Hood Mountain’s 2,000 acres, including parkland torched previously in 2017’s Nuns Fire. The hike begins with a mile-long slog up the shady Lower Johnson Ridge Trail, following a paved service road and switchbacking dirt paths overlooking Hood Creek’s steep ravine. The track climbs past scorched water tanks before intersecting the Lawson Trail at mile 1.2.

For me, the adventure began at the bridge spanning Hood Creek less than a tenth of a mile from the junction. The trail was dotted with serpentine, recognizable by its telltale green hue. Serpentine soils harbor distinctive flora like the Sargent cypress, so as I continued, I scanned the steepening hillsides for a pygmy survivor.

That first traverse deposited me at the junction with the Rim View Trail, where a sign advised the Lawson picnic area was 1.6 miles ahead. Views opened onto a steep red-earth slope dotted with dead-standing trees, and down the mountainside to Sonoma Valley’s floor, patchworked with neat rows of vineyards and Oakmont’s orderly streets. A switchback up, and the next traverse led to the red-earth curves. Above those, yet another traverse led to more valley views, as well as vistas north over Santa Rosa.

And yep: more switchbacks.

Swinging south on the high ground, now more than 2.5 miles up and climbing through grasses bleached blonde by a hard, hot sun, my ankle began to feel twingy. Pausing again, I met a pair of hikers coming downslope and did something I never do — I asked how much farther. The hikers advised that the picnic area was a half-mile ahead, a distance that ordinarily wouldn’t phase me. But I resumed with a limp, and at the next switchback, I turned around. Reaching trail’s end is usually the goal, and as Sonoma County Regional Park marketing specialist Sarah Phelps says on the Lawson Trail website: “On a clear day, from the trail’s highest point of about 2,000 feet, views can stretch not just to San Pablo and San Francisco Bays but all the way to the Pacific Ocean.” For me, those views will wait for another day.

My only regret: Turns out the Sargent cypress pygmy forest is at the apex of the trail, near the sites of the historic Lawson cabin and barn. Those structures were lost to the Glass Fire, but time will tell for the forest. Fire is integral to regeneration of Sargent cypress. According to One Tam, a nonprofit supporting wildlands in Marin County, including a pygmy forest, “Sargent cypress stands typically recruit new trees following stand-replacing wildland fires, making this a key disturbance process for their long-term persistence.” Fire not only promotes growth from seed, but also creates the bare soil the trees need to establish themselves. Phelps notes signs of regeneration were evident following the Nuns Fire, but the forest’s fate following the Glass Fire is not yet known.

But I didn’t know what I’d missed when I started down the mountain. I navigated the red-earth switchbacks deliberately, watching every footfall, and with the crux behind me, I paused again to take a breather … and there it was: A spindly evergreen, somehow untouched by fire, its needles short and vibrantly green. It was no taller than me, and while I don’t qualify as a pygmy among humans, I certainly do in the tree world.

Could this be it? Could this be a Sargent cypress? A survivor, or perhaps a brand-new tree spawned by fire?

In that moment, I had no idea. There were pictures on the One Tam site, but I hadn’t paid attention, mostly concerning myself with text. I snapped a photo of the little tree and compared it to images of real Sargent cypress when I got home. No go: Turns out the spindly tree was not a denizen of the pygmy forest, but rather a survivor of another (unknown) species.

Which means I must go back, and I must make it to the top. The Lawson Trail beckons. The views are amazing, the treadway is beautifully designed (love me a good switchback), and there’s the promise of a pygmy forest. Rehabbing over time, I hope to watch it thrive. Details: At press time, open trails within Hood Mountain Regional Park include the Nattkemper Trail to Gunsight Rock, accessed via the Goodspeed Trail in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, and the Lower Johnson Ridge and Lawson Trails, accessed via the upper Pythian Road trailhead. No other Hood Mountain trails are open. The Los Alamos Road entrance is closed. Park hours are from 7 a.m. to sunset daily. Leashed dogs are permitted. For more information, call a ranger at (707) 539-8092 or visit Visit/Hood-Mountain-Regional-Park-and-Preserve.

Tracy Salcedo is an award-winning writer and editor who lives and works in Glen Ellen.

The Lawson Trail traverses both the 2020 Glass Fire Fire. traverses terrain burned in Fire and the 2017 NunsPhoto by Tracy Salcedo

A bridge spans Hood Creek at the basebase of the Lawson Trail.Photo by Tracy Salcedo