Petaluma’s ’Castle on the Hill’
It’s approximately a one-mile walk from downtown Petaluma – straight up B Street to El Rose Drive to Hayes Lane - to where a gate marks the start of the La Cresta Ridge and Ravine walking path. Technically private property, but widely used by neighbors and walkers who treasure the vistas and wildlife-viewing opportunities the path affords, the area’s most visible landmarks are the water towers that can be spied from as far away as Petaluma High School and parts of downtown shopping district.
“The largest benefit of La Cresta Ridge, to the city and the population, is that it creates a connectivity from the City of Petaluma all the way to Helen Putnam Park,” says Amy Hogan. A volunteer with the Save La Cresta Ridge and Ravine Coalition, which has been working for nearly two decades to purchase and permanently protect the 13.61-acre property, Hogan recognizes the space as being one of Petaluma’s only such open spaces that can be easily visited without having to drive to it. “You can hike from downtown Petaluma all the way to Windsor Drive and make it out to Helen Putnam, so it gets our community out in nature,” she says. “Currently, there aren’t a lot of open space areas accessible by foot in the city. So I think that’s one of the biggest benefits of it.”
La Cresta Ridge and Ravine, which rises above and between the Victoria and West Haven housing subdivisions, has been owned for over 90 years by Cal Water Services, a water company based in San Jose.
“It has the potential to be an amazing official park,” says Hogan. “That’s what we’ve been working for, for – well, my 18-year-old was just born when we started, so that’s how long it’s been – and the city has been behind us, but it’s just never worked out financially, so far.”
On a recent Sunday morning walk, beginning just after 11 a.m. with a quick pick-up of coffee downtown and an uphill journey past some of Petaluma’s prettiest historic houses, one quickly realizes that La Cresta Ridge’s adjacency to the dedicated Victoria and West Haven open spaces make the area seem even bigger than it is. The approach to the twin towers has a bit of a knight’s-quest feeling, as if one is approaching a round and slightly industrial-looking castle on a hill. Once there, the views of downtown Petaluma and the Sonoma Mountains, with summer-browned grasses in the foreground gleaming with golden light, are among the most striking and photogenic in Petaluma.
“It’s just a beautiful place to be in nature, and yet still so close to downtown,” allows Hogan. Since it’s not an official Petaluma park, the area does not appear on city-produced maps, so for years it has been primarily used by nearby residents and the occasional meet-up walking group. “Though lately,” notes Hogan, “because of the quarantine, I’ve seen a lot more foot-traffic up there, which is great. I’m delighted to see more people hiking and getting some use of the area. But you can sometimes be up there and feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, with nobody else around at all.”
Lydia Schindler, founder of the West Petaluma Hills Wildlife Corridor Coalition, has been walking on La Cresta Ridge for over 30 years.
“I raised my children here, and that’s where we would go for a quick walk,” she says. “Not until a few years ago did I realize it’s not owned by the city, that it’s private property. So I founded the coalition to try and do an acquisition of all the properties that make up the area. In addition to La Cresta and Ravine, there are a few other small properties that are owned by individuals. Getting the support of the city, should we be able to acquire these properties, has been an important piece of the puzzle. As it stands, they are on board with agreeing to hold title, but there have been some negotiating issues with the water company. And some of the other properties have recently been put up for sale. So we’re still working on it.”
Currently, with Covid-19 taking up much of the attention of all parties, momentum toward completion of the acquisition has been slowed, Schindler admits.
“This is not the right time to push ahead, I don’t think,” she says. “So we’re just sitting now. But our goal is still to move forward as soon as possible.”
A retired family doctor and certified California naturalist, Schindler has been over every bit of the La Cresta Ridge and Ravine, surveying plants and trees, identifying birds and animals that make their home there or use it as a stopping point on their way to other places.
“I’ve seen coyote there, and foxes and deer,” she notes. “I’ve seen evidence of bobcats, and years ago, I saw some badger evidence as well. There’s just a lot of wonderful things there for people to enjoy, including, obviously, the views. You can see the Sonoma Mountains, and St. Helena and Cobb mountain. On a clear day you can see the geysers. And of course, it’s a wonderful place to see people, a place for community. There are quite a few people who use it every single day. It really is a community gem.”