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Hiking through history on the Calabazas Creek Trail

Hiking through history on the Calabazas Creek Trail
As the Calabazas Creek Trail steepens, the tree canopy opens to reveal views of pale rock buttresses, the rugged underpinnings of the Mayacamas Range.Photo by Tracy Salcedo

By Tracy Salcedo

Calabazas Creek and its tributaries are the architects of Nunns Canyon (sometimes spelled Nuns Canyon), the steep-walled, wooded ravine perhaps best known today as the origin of 2017’s destructive Nuns Fire. But the canyon, and the creek that runs through it, have a storied human history within the Valley of the Moon, and form a watershed that supports fragile habitats and rare species. They also are the centerpieces of what will, someday relatively soon, be a regional park.

A conservation easement protecting the 1,290-acre property, which stretches from the Sonoma Valley floor to the ridgeline of the Mayacamas range east of Glen Ellen, was purchased by the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District (Ag + Open Space) in 2004. In June 2021, Ag + Open Space transferred the land to Sonoma County Regional Parks, which is overseeing its conversion to a public park and will be the land steward going forward. The park building process will take four to five years, however, and while there’s no public access in the meantime, periodic “preview days” present an opportunity to enjoy self-guided hikes in the preserve.

On the latest preview day in July, I took a walk on the Calabazas Creek Trail, the only “formal” trail in the future park at this time, which essentially follows an old wagon road that once connected Sonoma Valley with Napa Valley. The route begins in the Quarry parking area and, sure enough, the remnants of quarry workings — a wall of bare rock with an orange-yellow hue like the bricks of the Chauvet Hotel — form one boundary of the unpaved lot. Quarry products from Nunns Canyon were shipped locally and around the San Francisco Bay Area, according to Andrew Traverso, the park program assistant who coordinated the preview day and was on-hand to answer questions, along with representatives from Ag + Open Space and the Sonoma County Parks Foundation.

To reach the trailhead, proper hikers walked about a half-mile up Nuns Canyon Road, which is as close as you can get to a trail with pavement in the mix. Beyond the gate at the property boundary, the path meanders over flat ground through the streamside riparian zone to a rock-hop creek crossing. Signs of fire are everywhere in the canyon, but enough of the tree canopy — oak, redwood, fir, bay laurel — remains healthy enough to keep things cool and green. The preserve, after the burn and because of the burn, supports 20 “distinct” plant communities, ranging from grassland to redwood forest, and harbors several “special status” species. If the threat of a bad case of poison oak isn’t enough to keep you on the trail, consider the bad karma you’d earn by trampling a rare bloom of Napa false indigo or damaging habitat that supports the foothill yellow-legged frog.

The creek is a constant companion along the first mile or so, filling clear pools and watering vigorous thickets of fern, bay, and yes, poison oak. When the path starts to climb at about the 1.25-mile mark, on a long traverse up the south side of the canyon, the stream falls away and the forest becomes dominant, the firs green and towering, with soot blackening the bases of their trunks. Reddish water from an iron spring washes over the steepening track, and across the canyon to the north, where a tributary streams into Calabazas Creek, a wall of pale rock catches the light.

At about the 2-mile mark, the trail mellows as it reaches the site of one of the historic homesteads established in the rugged Mayacamas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Several families labored on farms and ranches in the high meadows tucked below the ridgeline, including namesakes Hugh and Sarah Nunn in the 1850s, and Alexander Nunn, Hugh’s brother. Local historian Arthur Dawson documents the hardscrabble lives of the Nunns and their neighbors in a history of the canyon and preserve produced for Ag + Open Space in 2013.

“Nunns’ Canyon Homesteaders were ordinary folk for the time — farmers, laborers, woodchoppers, and at least one carpenter,” Dawson writes. “They worked under circumstances we would consider difficult today, with only horsepower and human power to make a living off their land.” The homesteaders built their homes using what they found around them, raising chickens and cattle (which produced eggs and butter), grapes, and hay. They were secluded, independent, and resourceful.

The canyon was hard on people in other ways as well. It was the site of an infamous, liquor-fueled murder: In his defense, the killer argued he only meant to cut the friend he was quarreling with in the face, but missed and slit the man’s throat, then used a shotgun to put the unfortunate soul “out of his misery.” At least two travelers lost their lives on the road itself, including a little boy who perished on a school picnic outing, crushed when the horse pulling the wagon he was riding in spooked and tipped the load of schoolchildren and supplies down the steep slope.

The Nunns ranch, along with other ranches in the canyon, eventually became part of the Beltane Ranch, which was owned at the time by famed African American abolitionist and entrepreneur Mary Ellen Pleasant. Dawson’s timeline also notes wildfire scorched the canyon, destroying ranch houses and other signs of human enterprise, in 1902, 1923, and 1964.

These days, there’s no sign of human habitation on the trail, which is wide and easy to follow. The old road continues to climb beyond the old homesite, winding through stands of oaks and sloping meadows that bloom with poppy, aster, lupine, yarrow, Indian paintbrush, and more in season. Views open down into Sonoma Valley and across onto Sonoma Mountain as you climb toward the Mayacamas crest. Trail’s end is in the Bowl at about the 3.5-mile mark and more than 1,500 feet in elevation; enjoy your picnic and the vistas, then head back the same way you came. It’s all downhill from here.