On the trails at Sonoma Valley Regional Park
By Tracy Salcedo
I ’ve traveled the trails in Sonoma Valley Regional Park so many times I can see their twists and turns with my eyes shut. I know the thigh-buster pitches, the stretches with the best views, the places where, at certain times of day, sunshine lights up the lichens dripping from the oaks.
But until just a few weeks ago, there was one trail I didn’t know at all. It’s on the map and it’s got a trailhead sign, but it just wasn’t tempting. I’m not a big fan of hiking with road noise, and the route runs parallel to Highway 12.
That said, I know enough about trails to know they can be surprising, so I decided to check it out. In this case, it turns out the Sonoma Valley Trail offers up exactly what you’d expect — enough road noise along certain stretches that you have to shout at your hiking partner to be heard. It also offers up stunning views and definitely has potential.
A surprise along the Cougar Trail
To get to the Sonoma Valley Trailhead from Glen Ellen without using a vehicle, a hiking buddy and I traveled the Cougar Trail. The neighborhood access on Carmel Avenue links to the west end of this 0.8-mile route, which rides the ridgetop on the north side of the park much like the Woodland Star Trail rides the south-side ridge. In addition to several steep pitches, the Cougar Trail offers a lovely view of Sonoma Mountain framed in oaks from a bench on the crest and access to a secluded picnic site on the shoreline of Damselfly Pond.
From the pond I expected to do what I’d always done: Cruise up a broad path onto a low ridge running parallel to Highway 12, then drop down to the paved Valley of the Moon Trail via an unsigned singletrack running through an oak woodland decimated by fire.
But Sonoma Valley Regional Parks, with the help of the Redwood Trails Alliance, has rerouted the Cougar Trail in accordance with the park’s master plan. Instead of attaining the ridge, the new trail sweeps south along the west-facing slope below, then curls north to a switchback above the picnic area and the park’s main parking lot. The grade is mellow and the treadway wide enough for hikers, cyclists, and equestrians to pass with ease. This kind of multiuse trail is a specialty of the Alliance, which “supports a vast trail network throughout the region with sustainable and enjoyable trails through world-class landscapes,” according to its website. The old trails, along with informal trails carved by thoughtless users over the years, have been blocked by tangles of burned limbs from oaks that succumbed to the 2017 Nuns Fire. The Sonoma Valley Trail
From the east end of the Cougar Trail and the main parking lot, the Sonoma Valley Trailhead is just a short walk up the paved path. The sign points east into the meadow, but there’s no obvious path, so I picked up a narrow track headed directly toward the highway. My companion, desperately trying not to “mansplain” why I was going the wrong way, pointed out I was going the wrong way. The more obvious cut on the slope to the south, just below a line of trees, seemed a better choice, he observed. Still, I forged ahead.
He was right — and if I’d paid closer attention to the park map, I’d have seen it clearly. As it was, the narrow trail petered out in the savanna and we had to continue cross-country, dodging ticks and mud and hidden rocks, to the obvious fire break/access road running parallel to the highway. We didn’t see a sign, but the road corresponded to the Sonoma Valley Trail alignment on the map.
The walking got easier as we headed south on the undeveloped roadcut, a pleasant 0.8-mile ramble down-valley with views of the Imagery Estate vineyards and the Mayacamas rising on the east side. On the west, the grasslands rolled up to a ridge topped with winter oaks, their leafless branches etched on the cold sky. If all goes as planned, the route will one day be part of a paved multiuse path running 13 miles along the Highway 12 corridor, connecting Sonoma with Santa Rosa. The regional parks’ website notes the alignment has been determined, and the agency is currently seeking funding for the project.
Trail’s end was a gate near the bank of a blackberrybrambled creek. A highway underpass was just visible through the brush, offering safe passage for wildlife traversing the valley to hunting and mating territories on the other side. It was the end of the line for us, but for critters who rely on the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor, the way forward was clear.
To learn more about trails in Sonoma Valley Regional Park, visit https://parks.sonomacounty.ca.gov/Visit/Sonoma-Valley-Regional-Park.
How a trail is made: The Cougar Trail in Sonoma Valley Regional Park gets a new alignment.
Photo by Nick Brown