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Trail blazing

Hikers make their way along the nearly completed 9 mile-long North Slope Sonoma Mountain Ridge Trail.

Scott Manchester / PD
Published: Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 12:55 p.m.

From the kitchen window of his Bennett Valley home, Vladmir Mott would gaze over at Sonoma Mountain with yearning.

Facts

TO VISIT THE NORTH SLOPE TRAIL

The trail and park are not officially opened to the public yet. But there will be upcoming opportunities to hike the Sonoma Mountain North Slope Trail on designated days with guides.
On April 13, LandPaths will lead another preview hike of the North Slope Trail, about nine miles round-trip starting from The Jacobs Ranch. 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Free. To register visit LandPaths.org or call 524-9318.
On April 20, Historical Ecologist Arthur Dawson will share stories of Sonoma Mountain's first people, as well as its 19th-century homesteaders and early farmers, including Jack London. Begins at the Jacobs Ranch in Bennett Valley at 10 a.m. The seven-mile hike ends with a car shuttle back to the trailhead. Coordinated by the Sonoma County Resource Conservation District and the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. To register contact Alison Malisa at 794-1242 Ext. 111 or by emailing alison.malisa@sscrcd.org.

UPCOMING LANDPATHS OUTINGS
Birds Along the Laguna Trail: A guided walk along the new Laguna Trail led by docents who are skilled birders. Bring binoculars and bird identification guides and be sure to wear waterproof shoes or boots. 9 a.m. to noon March 23. Free.
Homes and Habitats of Healdsburg Ridge Open Space Preserve: Learn about the wildlife habitats of the preserve, from trained docents. 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 23. Free.
Watershed Ecology of the Bohemia Ecological Preserve: An exploration of this rugged 862-acre land tract of rare plants and redwoods, with special emphasis on the watershed. Its shining feature is a 30-foot waterfall next to the famed Bohemian Grove in Monte Rio. $25 for workshop. 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. March 23.
For further information about upcoming outings email outings@LandPaths.org or call 524.9318.

The long flank of the peak, so close within view, was frustratingly off-limits, with the only access through Jack London State Park, a 20-minute drive away in Glen Ellen.

“I always wanted to hike it,” he said. “But with the exception of Jack London, there were no trails.”

But on a crisp February morning, Mott, a computer network specialist who works at home, was part of a band of more than 30 trailblazers eager to be among the first in the public to test out the newly completed 4.5-mile North Slope Trail.

Mott didn't have to go far to hit the trailhead on The Jacobs Ranch, located about three miles up Sonoma Mountain Road from Bennett Valley Road and one of several parcels acquired by the Sonoma County Open Space District for future use as a new regional park.

The trip is an invigorating 9-mile round-trip journey from the rural outskirts of Santa Rosa to the upper reaches of Jack London State Park in Glen Ellen and back.

It passes through cool oak forests and groves of fragrant bay laurel, crosses streams and cuts through meadows, wetlands and fields of California native bunchgrasses. On this day, the milkmaid wildflowers were starting to poke out their white-petaled heads.

Fresh perspective

The trail is a standout any way you look at it. Visually, it affords a fresh perspective of Bennett and Sonoma Valleys that takes in a string of peaks, including Mt. St. Helena, Taylor Mountain, Hood Mountain and Bald Mountain. Just as impressive in a different way is the trail itself, a stunning $1.8-million feat of engineering and design.

“So many of our trails that we have in our parks are old ranch roads or old logging roads converted to trails. They're steep and narrow and they don't handle water well,” said Dave Chalk, who, along with partner Bill Myers of Bill Dave Hikes, led a group of hikers primarily from Oakmont to preview what will be one of the county's four-star trails when it officially opens to the public as a park.

Myers and Chalk, in cooperation with LandPaths, an environmental organization that facilitates public stewardship and access to open-space lands owned by the county Open Space District but not officially opened as parks, have been leading hikes since 2007 on this 453-acre swatch on the north side of Sonoma Mountain.

But those earliest hikes were more like bushwhacking.

“There was no bridge,” recalled Lynn Pelletier, a 77-year-old seasoned hiker from Oakmont who took that very first publicly-guided hike over The Jacobs Ranch six years ago and made sure she was in line for the first trek along the newly-finished trail.

“There was no trail then. We were walking through bushes and brush and trees.”

The new trail is a dream no matter how you choose to negotiate it. It is wide enough in many places so hikers can walk side by side. Designed also for use by mountain bikers and equestrians, there is plenty of room for passing and for horses to turn.

Multiple switchbacks

It also is smartly designed with multiple switchbacks terraced into the mountain to ease the elevation rises. Although you're rising some 2,000 feet, you won't feel the strain as much.

The graduated terraces are designed to slow water so it doesn't wash out the trails and cause erosion, making maintenance easier.

The trail is raised with pebbles and lined with stone over wetlands in the early part of the journey to keep hiking shoes from bogging down and to facilitate drainage.

There are still some legal issues to be ironed out with neighboring property owners, so the eventual North Slope Sonoma Mountain Regional Park and Open Space Preserve is still perhaps a year away from officially transferring to the county parks department and opening to the public. LandPaths, nonetheless, is hoping to offer some additional guided hikes in the meantime.

The park-to-be, an assemblage of four properties acquired by the Open Space District between 2003 and 2005, starts at the 168-acre Jacobs Ranch, which features a parking lot and nearby picnic area within a cool, dark grove of redwoods.

It ends at the Hayfields Trail in Jack London Park, which connects in about 400 yards to the Sonoma Mountain Trail. The Open Space District is completing a 1.3-mile East Slope addition to that trail, which Chalk said could officially open within six months.

With the two new trails, hikers should soon have access to “roughly half the distance around Sonoma Mountain,” Chalk said.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@ pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.

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