East Slope Ridge Trail open, thanks to Pat and Ted Eliot and many others who worked on it for 20 years! Thanks to Paul martin, ©Vineyard Productions 2015 for photos…
View east to Mt. Diablo
“No summit within miles carries the cachet of the mountain I live on” writes Tracy Salcedo-Chourre, author of this post.
Seems I’ve always called a mountain home. I used to live on a mountaintop—at least by California standards. This was in Colorado; our home on Circle Drive was perched on a nameless summit at 8,500 feet. That qualifies, even if neighboring Bergen Peak, at nearly 10,000 feet, got all the glory.
Now I live at the foot of Sonoma Mountain, which by Colorado standards is a hummock. Never mind that, though: It’s as steep and imposing, in its context, as any Rocky Mountain. And it’s the iconic one—no summit within miles carries the cachet of the mountain I live on.
It’s odd, though. I am a walker, by both nature and profession–Tracy of the Trails. But I have never been to the top of Sonoma Mountain. It’s been off-limits, private property. I’ve been as close as the trails permit, gazing upward in mild frustration at the grassy apex, contemplating trespass but turning around instead because I am not, by nature, a trespasser. Especially in parks and preserves. I know how much work goes into setting parkland apart, and I would never violate the trust that exists between parkland and neighboring private property.
So I am elated at news that Sonoma Mountain’s summit will soon be accessible to walkers like me, by dint of private/public negotiations that have yielded new deposits into the Sonoma County Open Space land bank and a new stretch of the Bay Area Ridge Trail. Hikers will now be able to explore the top as well as the bottom of the mountain.
But were the top never to open—or were I never to reach it—wouldn’t matter to me in the long run. It doesn’t make me love the mountain more. Just to be clear: The paths on the lower reaches of Sonoma Mountain have imprinted themselves forever on the soles of my wandering shoes. I know pockets of the eastern flanks intimately; Jack London State Historic Park and the open spaces above the Sonoma Developmental Center are my backyard. I return again and again to the old familiar, where the vistas never fail, the woodlands are always fragrant, the flowers and grasses demonstrate the seasons in a parade of blooms that mature to seeds and begin again.
Yes, I’ll be able to get to the top soon, but I’ll be found on the paths I’ve walked for years, around my home at the base.
By Tracy Salcedo-Chourre
On Saturday, November 2, 2013 the Sonoma Trails Council with a volunteer work party of 40 sponsored by REI spent time readying the East Slope trail for final work in March 2014 when the trail will be constructed. After a morning clearing brush the volunteers were rewarded for their hard work with burritos provided by Chipolte. Thank you to everyone who came out and to the wonderful businesses that supported the effort.
Recreation on the mountain can include wine tasting, visiting Morton’s Warm Springs, attending a retreat at the Westerbeke Ranch, or, as most visitors and residents do, heading to a park, principally Jack London State Historic Park.
To reach Jack London State Historic Park, take London Ranch Road south out of Glen Ellen and follow it to the end. Parking costs $7/day. No dogs are allowed out of the historic section of the park, which is near the entrance. Bikes are restricted to designated fire roads and several trails. Cyclists need to watch for sign at trailheads and observe season restrictions.
First time visitors often start by touring the historic buildings, including the burned-out Wolf House, the summer cottage and museum, and the barn and must-see Pig Palace.
Then on to the hikes.
Major trails inside Jack London State Historic Park include the Mountain Trail, a six-mile round trip, which starts at the parking lot and climbs past London Lake to the top of Sonoma Mountain, via either the Summit Trail or the Hayfields Loop.
Signage along the way makes sense and can easily be followed. The Sonoma Ridge Trail, a 10-mile loop, begins about two miles from the parking lot, leaves the Mountain Trail to the left and rises along a ridge to afford great views of Sonoma Valley, Mt. Diablo, Mt. Tamalpais, Mt. St. Helena and much of the Bay Area.
Shorter trails take off from the Mountain Trail around London Lake, including Fallen Bridge trail (yes, there is a fallen bridge) which follows Asbury Creek canyon into the old London Ranch orchards and some old growth redwoods. For the adventurous, several steep trails lead down to the Sonoma Development Center’s peaceful Fern Lake.
Trails also wander through the old Jack London Beauty Ranch orchard (pear trail, apple trail, etc.) and circle the historical buildings, including the Wolf House ruins.
Two lengthy new trails are in the works. The first, called the North Slope Sonoma Mountain Ridge Trail, currently under construction, will run 4.25 miles, connecting on the east with the Hayfields Loop in JLSHP and the west with a new public parking/trail staging area at Jacobs Ranch, about three miles up Sonoma Mt. Road, going east from the fire station on Bennett Valley Rd. The trail will end at one of the highest points in JLSHP. Rising along the north slope of the mountain, it will afford view of the Mayacamas Range and Sonoma Valley to the east and Santa Rosa to the west. It will also, eventually, comprise a section of the Bay Area Ridge Trail.
Jacobs Ranch, an Open Space District preserve, may be open for short hikes, depending on conditions of access roads. Check with Sonoma County Open Space District before trying to enter.
Another ambitious undertaking, the South Slope Trail, with a planned ground breaking in April 2011, will add about four miles to the Sonoma Ridge Trail (see above). It will provide a 140miles round trip from the JLSHP parking lot. Watch our website for news on this major feature.
To get started exploring the mountain, you can enjoy organized hikes with trained and knowledgeable leaders. Contact the non-profit LandPaths and/or state parks volunteers Bill Meyers or Dave Chalk at (707) 539-8847 or to the website for State or Regional Parks.
Dave and Bill offer monthly hikes at 10 a.m. on Saturdays. Most hikes average about 40 participants and are as much social event as hiking exercise. Hikes are called moderately strenuous, but the do end with a tailgate party in the parking log.
You can bring you own horses to Jack London State Historic Park, parking your trailer in the upper parking lot at the far west end. Horses must stay on designated fire roads and trails. Guided trail rides can arranged by calling Triple Creek Horse Outfit in Glen Ellen (707) 887-8700 or go the their website.
Retreat to the Mountain
For a romantic, low-key, somewhat rustic getaway, redolent with history and steeped in the culture of the mountain, few places compare with Westerbeke Ranch, off Grove Street, west of Arnold Drive in Sonoma. The property that is now Westerbeke Ranch was purchased by long time residents Richard and Muriel Van Hoosear as a vacation retreat for themselves and their three daughters. The buildings and grounds developed as their family grew. Richard and Muriel loved to travel and on each trip to Mexico or Spain they returned with new architectural ideas and decorations.
In the late 1960’s the ranch was transformed into the conference center it is today. The Westerbeke family invites visitors to enjoy their home and workplace. To make an appointment for a tour, for more information about weddings or other events at the ranch, or for additional information, go to their web site www.westranch.com.
Stop and View the Flowers
Another Van Hoosear family contribution to the region consists of the 163-acre preserve at the foot of Sonoma Mountain off Carriger Road known and treasured for its abundance and variety of wildflowers. Over 250 species of common and rare wildflowers and native grasses thrive throughout the property. Carriger Creek, a tributary of Sonoma Creek, runs through the preserve. The property is managed by the Sonoma Ecology Center, with dual goals of protecting the preserve’s botanical, aquatic and wildlife values and providing public access for educational purposes. Now protected by an Open Space District conservation easement, the preserve welcomes visitors by guided tour each year during the spring when the flowers are at their peak. Reservations are required and space is limited; for reservations, contact Elly Seelye at (707) 996-0712 ext. 124, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. A donation of $20 per adult and $10 per child is requested, though no one will be turned away.
Go Organic Wine-tasting and Take a Vineyard Tour
On your way to or from Jack London State Park, pull of London Ranch Road into the Benziger Family Winery. The entire portfolio of Benziger wine is certified sustainable, organic or biodynamic.
The Benziger family has been growing grapes on Sonoma Mountain for almost 30 years. According to the co-owner Chris Benziger, his brother Mike and sister in-law Mary discovered the vineyard in the late 70’s and purchased it with help form their parents. Three other brothers and a sister joined the business.
“In the beginning we farmed the same way as everyone else around here. You spray to keep the weeds in check, to keep the bugs away, and to increase yields,” observed Chris. But, he added, after a few years Mike pushed the family to consider something different.
To discover the results of their transition to a more sustainable yet still commercially viable model, go to their website www.benziger.com for information on tours and tastings.
Meditate at a Zen Center
The Sonoma Mountain Zen Center (or, Genjoji) is an 80-acre Soto Zen practice center located on Sonoma Mountain Rd.
Founded by Jakusho Kwong and his wife Laura Kwong in 1973, Kwong-roshi is the current guiding teacher of the Zen center. The center offers residential training and a practice regimen for local members and visitors from all over.
The Zen Center supports itself through members’ donations, proceeds from its Zen Dust bookstore, and by offering rooms for rent.
Author Sarah Ban Breathnach described the center in her book A Man’s Journey to Simple Abundance:
“Near the top of the mountain, the road dips, bends, then snakes through a small grove of redwoods. The dense canopy blocks all ambient light, so that when you emerge on the other side of the grove, you feel as though you’ve passed through a portal into another world. It’s a fitting way to approach Sonoma Mountain Zen Center, because people there view reality just a little bit differently from the way most of us do.” For more information on programs and access, go to www.smzc.net.
Soak and Swim in a Warm Spring
Bordering Sonoma Creek just west of Glen Ellen and nestled among a canopy of large oaks, open meadows and rolling hills, Morton’s Warm Springs is perfect for picnics, reunions, family recreation, corporate retreats and meetings, weddings, and class field trips.
The Wappo Indians, early residents of the area, recognized the healing properties of the geothermal mineral springs and considered the waters sacred.
In 1939 Ethel and Harold Morton purchased the property and began operating it as Morton’s Warm Springs Resort. The site not includes natural mineral pool, picnic and BBQ sites, bocce ball and a variety of other courts and fields.
Morton’s is open during summer months; go to their website for directions, dates and times.
The addition of over 600 acres to the Jack London State Historic Park was the culmination of a seven-year effort led by Sonoma Mountain Preservation (SMP). The transfer of the two upper western parcels of the Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC), which increased the Park’s acreage by over 40 per cent, was celebrated on September 5, 2002.
The future of these parcels first came into question in 1995 when the California Department of General Services (DGS) declared them to be surplus to the needs of the Center. SMP organized a public meeting in February 1996 to discuss the disposition of these ecologically important lands, which, under proposed legislation, would be available for vineyard development. Over 200 citizens attended this meeting and voiced an almost unanimous opinion that the parcels should be maintained in their natural condition and added to the Park.
The legislation was amended to include an option to sell or exchange the two parcels in a transaction that would result in their becoming part of Jack London Park. The following year the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District (OSD) chaired a public meeting where once again public settlement remained the same: open space for the two parcels. In Sacramento DGS continued working toward an agricultural lease on the lower parcel which included the “old orchards” and the old growth redwood tree.
In January 1998 a break-through came when the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved OSD’s purchase of a forever-wild easement over the upper of the two parcels as a coast of $255,000. At a public meeting in January 1998, attended by over 250 people, there was again opposition to an agricultural lease over the lower “old orchards” parcel.
In the fall of 2000, an environmental consultant contracted by the DGS began work on a two-year land-use feasibility study for the “old orchards” parcel, which could have resulted in a multiplicity of suggested uses and opened the way for intensive agriculture, and possible sale of house sites below Fern Lake. By December, DGS had reversed its position to concentrate solely on the conversion of “old orchards” to vineyards.
In February 2001, with tremendous effort by legislative members Wiggins, Nation and Chesbro, transfer of the two parcels to Jack London State Park became the goal. By June 2001, the land-use feasibility study concluded that the State Park would be the optimum organization to have control and oversight over the lower parcel. The study cited the Park Department’s ability to protect both the watershed and historical and natural resources of the land. The transfer of the two parcels to Jack London State Historic Park took place.
In August 2002, the Sonoma Ridge Trail, a segment of the Bay Area Ridge Trail system, was dedicated on the upper of the two transferred parcels.
~Pat Eliot, Sonoma Mountain Preservation
There is no more controversial property on Sonoma Mountain than the Lafferty Ranch. For many years it has been the object of a struggle between those want to open it to public access as a park and those who want no public access. SMP has constantly supported its opening to the public. The battle ranges on.
Lafferty Ranch is a 270-acre parcel (APN 136-170-001 and SMP Map B31) owned by the City of Petaluma on the southwest slope of Sonoma Mountain Road (west). It is highly visible from Petaluma, sighting directly up E. Washington Street in the center of town Elevations on the parcel range from 1000’ to the ridgeline at 2200’. It comprises most of the headwaters of historic Adobe Creek, the most reliable water source on the west mountain, and thus a wildlife oasis in summer and fall, as well as the largest riparian oak woodland on the Petaluma side. It is bordered by large private parcels, one of which controls the only road access, Sonoma Mountain Road.
1870s: A portion of the Vallejo rancho, with boundaries as they are today, is sold to pioneer homesteader Marshall Lafferty. For the next 80+ years the property passes through several hands as a working ranch and private watershed (at one time, additional water was brought via pipeline form Copeland Creek at what is now Fairfield-Osborne preserve).
1959: The City of Petaluma purchases the private water company, which includes Lafferty Ranch and the downslope Lawler Reservoir. The express intent is to continue to operate Lafferty as watershed, with eventual conversion to parkland. The park goal is reflected in city and county planning documents in the early 1960s.
1992: Lawler Reservoir is deemed seismically unsafe by the state of CA, making Lafferty Ranch obsolete as an “extractive” watershed. New neighbor Peter Pfendler offers to buy Lafferty from the City of $675,000. The City Council rejects the offer and takes steps to open Lafferty Ranch to the public. Pflendler threatens legal action, and the Council balks. The first Lafferty Ranch support group, Citizens for Access to Lafferty Ranch, is formed with organizational help from Sonoma County Conservation Action.
1993: Peter Pflender purchases Moon Ranch, a parcel on the lower mountain, and proposes to trade it to the county for a regional park (with funding from the new Open Space District) in exchange for Petaluma giving him Lafferty Ranch. The pros and cons of this offer are debated heatedly in the ensuing three years.
1996: Reflecting vigorous grassroots organizing by the renamed Citizens for Lafferty Ranch and a Regional Park (CLRRP), the Press Democrat publishes a poll showing Petaluma residents oppose the “Swap” 3-1, with most listing “Lafferty is irreplaceable” as their primary reason. It is an election year, and the City Council immediately starts to back away from privatizing Lafferty.
CLRRP launches a “Keep Lafferty” initiative to open Lafferty and collects 5,600 signatures in a few weeks, but this initiative is ultimately disqualified on a technicality (failure to properly notice start of a petition drive).
Pfendler officially withdraws the “swap” proposal. The City Council then enacts Ordinance 2022, which commits the city to keeping Lafferty Ranch in public ownership and to opening it for public enjoyment.
In the November City Council elections, the three open seats are won by proponents of opening Lafferty, achieving a majority for that policy on the Council.
1997: Petaluma forms a citizens’ committee to create an access and management plan for Lafferty Park, a prelude to an EIR.
Late 1990s: Petaluma works to complete a huge EIR for Lafferty Park in the face of constant legal opposition from Mr. Pfendler’s attorneys and consultants. Lafferty also figures in “proxy wars” involving parks and trails in western Sonoma Mountain in the county’s Outdoor Recreation Plan (which is still not finalized), and in Acquisition Plans for the Open Space District.
2001: The Petaluma City Council certifies the 2000 page EIR for an open space park at Lafferty Ranch. In the face of legal threats, it postpones the next step of approving the project, citing lack of funds (mostly for legal fights), and lack of County support.
2002: In the face of legal threats and the inability to solve the access problem from Sonoma Mountain Rd., the City of Petaluma has not allowed even limited public access to Lafferty Ranch since around 1995. The renamed Friend of Lafferty Park organizes a series of “Walks to the Park,” 7-miles road walks from downtown Petaluma up Sonoma Mountain Road to the gate of Lafferty Ranch.
Petaluma also formally requests that the Open Space District purchase the development rights to Lafferty Ranch to ensure its open space character in perpetuity and to give the city funds to proceed with park opening. The OSD rejects the request on the basis that Lafferty is already public land (despite the fact that it had done a similar deal at the Sonoma Developmental Center) and not in immediate danger of being surplussed.
2003: Landowner Mary Mitsui offers a public trail across her mountaintop property if a way can be found to connect it to Jack London State Historic Park and the Lafferty Ranch. See the separate chronology from Bill Kortum on this topic.
2007: The stalemate continues. The Petaluma City Council has not taken on the obstructing neighbors. It also continues to reject privatization, the threat of which is still there. And there is still no public access, which is blocked by the neighbors who both control the entry from Sonoma Mountain Rd. and have made it clear that they would fight public access in the courts. Petaluma looks up at 10,000 acres on its side of Sonoma Mountain, and there is still not a single public trail or acre of parkland in all that expanse. But there are some new developments. Three of the neighbors, including Peter Pflender, have recently died, and the future of their properties is unclear. Will new owners continue to oppose the desire of two generations of Petaluma’s to open Lafferty as a public park? SMP is monitoring these developments closely.
~-Larry Modell, Sonoma Mountain Preservation