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Take a Hike: The Umbrella Tree

Take a Hike: The Umbrella Tree
The Umbrella Tree is the goal of a short hike on the north slope of Sonoma Mountain.Photo by Tracy Salcedo

By Tracy Salcedo

Alone under the Umbrella Tree’s canopy I feel like I’ve entered a quiet room with green curtains drawn. She hushes me as only an old tree can: breathe deeply, linger. A limb rests on the ground, bent at the end like a wrist, and branches rise from the point of contact, an open hand with leafy fingertips. I curl my arms around her outstretched bough, rest my cheek against her bark, and take in the smell of bay. I’m a local girl; bay smells like home.

Outside the tree’s canopy panoramic views open of the Santa Rosa Plain, Taylor Mountain, Bennett Mountain, Mount St. Helena, Hood Mountain, and a glorious stretch of the Mayacamas Range. We enjoy lunch at the picnic table at trail’s end, with all of northern Sonoma County on sun-splashed display. A dad and his two daughters explore the heart of the tree while we eat, emerging to share treasures they discovered in the Umbrella Tree’s cradle, where her many trunks rise in the bay laurel version of a redwood’s fairy circle. This isn’t one tree, but a cluster. It’s fall, so bay nuts litter the rocky ground.

The Umbrella Tree is at the high point (about 1,500 feet) and endpoint of a mile-long outand- back trail in the 820-acre North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park and Open Space Preserve. The way to the tree is straightforward. The route begins in the Jacobs Ranch parking lot, about 6.5 miles from downtown Glen Ellen via Warm Springs and Sonoma Mountain Road. From the upper parking lot, the trail passes around a gate and follows a service road/trail up and to the right (west). The road ascends steadily and relatively steeply through a mixed oak woodland studded with madrones, ferns, and poison oak; the track is wide enough for hikers and other users to pass comfortably.

About three-quarters of a mile up, the pitch moderates and the route breaks out into meadowlands on the shoulder of Sonoma Mountain. Looking up and south, rolling ridges rise toward the summit. The Umbrella Tree, a massive scoop of dark green, comes into view, and the trail bends northwest to reach it, the picnic spot, and the skeleton of an interpretive sign that identified the high points on the sweeping panorama before the panels were removed. Even unidentified, the peaks and ranges are wonderful to behold, their rugged ridgelines folding back to the horizon. The Umbrella Tree rises just east of the picnic site. After you’ve given a limb a hug, return to the trailhead as you came.

To tack a nice short addition onto this 2-mile round trip trek, drop down the trail to the right after you descend past the gate near the parking lot. This leads into a stand of redwoods, one of the only groves on the north slope of the mountain. Continue down the trail to its junction with the Ridge Trail, then go left/uphill to the trailhead, adding about 0.3 mile to your walk. Shorter paths at the trailhead also lead to an overlook near the entrance station and to the Redwood Grove Picnic Area on the banks of South Fork Matanzas Creek.

Heading out for a longer trek on the Ridge Trail is another option. A segment of the Bay Area Ridge Trail, this path runs about 4 miles one way to the boundary of Jack London State Historic Park. Many hikers opt to make a point-to-point journey of about 8 miles, linking North Sonoma Mountain to Jack London, and use a car shuttle to return to the starting point.

Plenty of parking is available at the trailhead. A parking fee is charged, or you can purchase an annual Sonoma County Regional Parks pass. No dogs are permitted. The trails are multiuse, but cyclists can only ride the first 2 miles of the Ridge Trail. For more information about the Umbrella Tree hike and North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park and Open Space Preserve, visit https://parks.sonomacounty.

Tracy Salcedo is an award-winning author based in Glen Ellen. A version of this story first appeared in the 2021 Sonoma Mountain Preservation Journal.