Mannion Knoll Park and Open Space is one of those mostly-hidden Petaluma recreation spots that doesn’t make a big fuss about itself. It’s just there, tucked away between Cypress Hill Memorial Park and the Magnolia Place housing development. There is no sign naming the spot, and little identifying it as an official park beyond a notice at one end stating “Park open to public dawn to dusk,” and a bilingual list of rules (no glass containers, all dogs on leashes, no hitting of golf balls).
Even with a small four-space parking lot at the trail-head, on Elm Street near the traffic circle on Magnolia Avenue, passersby are far more likely to have their attention grabbed by the exuberantly landscaped flowers and plants posing prettily inside that circle than they are to even notice the inviting little pathway leading off into the woods.
That landscaping, by the way – as hinted at by a marker jutting up from the exuberant vegetation – is the work of “neighborhood volunteers,” which is to say, one neighborhood volunteer in particular.
Which is to say, Sue Bates-Pintar.
“I’ve lived here 10 years,” she says, standing near the trail-head with two clusters of reclaimed plastic newspaper bags, which she is about to distribute to the three wooden doggie-bag holders installed at various points along the trail. That’s something the Magnolia Avenue resident says she does every couple of weeks or so, just to assist local dog-walkers in keeping the area clean and pleasant. Self-described as having “a keen interest in making our natural world lovely to see and experience,” Bates-Pintar has taken it upon herself to look after the short trail that winds through Mannion Knoll, and that caretaker attitude extends to the traffic circle ringed by a short rock wall. “That circle used to be such an eyesore,” she allows, nodding in its direction. A certified master gardener, she adds that the city has made water available, and her husband helps with getting soil and heavier supplies out to the circle. “People give me plants and flowers sometimes, too,” she says. “It’s just so much nicer now.”
Leading the way up to first doggie bag box, Bates-Pintar nods “good morning” to a couple just now exiting the trail. Once finished with her job, she starts up the trail to the next box.
“This place is such a delight to me, it really is,” she admits. “I love nature, and it’s just a treat to have this so close to my house. I think a lot of us who live around here probably feel that way.”
Mannion Knoll – even if those who use it don’t know that it’s called that, or why – is clearly a treasured spot for nearby residents fortunate enough to have discovered it.
The 15.1-acre park was donated to the city in 2003 by the developer of the Magnolia Place project, Mission Valley Properties. It was ultimately named after Petaluma historian Ed Mannion, a beloved local legend known around town as one of the “two Eds,” the other being fellow historian Ed Fratini. According to a newspaper report from Sept. 3, 2003, the Petaluma Parks and Recreation Department sponsored a park-naming contest, inviting local schools to suggest a name and submit a student-written essay on why that name was a good idea. The winning school was St. Vincent High School, with an essay written by Katie Pritchard. According to the article, the school’s original suggestion was the alliterative “Mannion Meadow,” but after selecting the name, the Parks and Recreation Department decided there were plenty of “meadow” parks in Petaluma already, and it was changed to Mannion “Knoll.”
Without a sign stating that, though, the name of the place hardly matters to the walkers, joggers, cyclists and dog-owners who visit.
The first several yards of the trail run alongside a deeply recessed water basin that, according to Bates-Pintar, does become a pond during the wetter rainy seasons. Just past it, the trail takes a gentle upward climb into a small wooded grove. The place is home to deer, crows, red-tailed hawks, squirrels, skunks, possums and feral cats. Though relatively tiny – the trail is less than a mile from one end to the other, where it pops walkers out onto a lovely little plaza at the edge of community – Mannion Knoll gives a little of glimpse of many different environments. There’s a miniature woods, a miniature wetlands and a miniature forest of eucalyptus, through which one can glimpse some of the taller tombs and monuments in the adjoining graveyard.
Of the poison oak seen growing along the trail here and there, Bates-Pintar says, with a cheerful smile, “Maybe it helps encourage people to keep their dogs on their leashes. I’m just delighted no one’s tried to put in a lawn anywhere.” With a chuckle, she steps out into the sunshine after stopping to take in a cluster of twisted and knotty trees, some seemingly aching for someone to put a tree fort in. “It’s just all natural,” she says. “Even the trail is nothing too over-complicated. I like that.”
The one major allowance to structural trail-making is a narrow boardwalk-style “bridge,” as Bates-Pintar calls it, stretching its way across a low grassy declination that becomes a bit soggy during certain seasons of the year. From the bridge, one trail leads to a small playground, while another snakes its way up a steep-ish hill to the aforementioned plaza, where another of the doggie boxes stands waiting to be refilled.
After another 20 minutes or so, Bates-Pintar is done with her tasks, and has made it back to the trail-head and the traffic circle. Noting that there are other spaces in town that could use a bit of neighborhood love and attention, she says she hopes the little garden in the center of the street is an inspiration to those who drive around it on their way to or from their homes.
“I do hope it encourages people to take even a little bit space, any little something that’s near their house and has been neglected, and just add something, be kind to it,” she says. “It really doesn’t take much. People say, ‘Oh, that must be so much work!’ But it isn’t. And I enjoy it, and when I’m working there, people drive by and wave and roll down their window to shout ‘Thank you!’ It’s just a really nice thing for everyone.”