Petaluma Parks: Walking Lynch Creek Trail
High, gray clouds move slowly over the historic Hunt & Behrens Feed Mill, as a pair of walkers move along Water Street, aiming for the bridge that crosses the Petaluma River and leads toward Lakeville Street. The day is warm, and though the foot-traffic is a fraction of what it would have been a month or two ago, one could hardly call the western appendage of Lynch Creek Trail to be deserted or forgotten.
The reason: it’s one of the only places left to legally (and safely) add some serious numbers to your step-counter.
When the Sonoma County Health Officer closed all parks in Sonoma County on March 23, one month ago, from small neighborhood spots with playgrounds to open spaces and popular exercise and nature areas like Petaluma’s Prince Park and Shollenberger Park, there was one notable exception to the drastic move.
“Paved, multi-use pathways outside of park boundaries remain open except to bicycles and horses,” the order states. Dovetailing with California’s statewide shelter-at-home order, which includes simple outdoor exercise among its short list of essential activities - specifically allowing walking, running and cycling - the continued access to such “paved, multi-use pathways” would seem to make them one of the only choices available for those hoping to get a better workout than just a walk around the block, over and over and over. In Petaluma, the most significant such walkway is Lynch Creek Trail, a 2.5-mile cross-town route that runs from Sonoma Mountain Parkway, along Lynch Creek and the Petaluma River, up to the edge of the downtown area.
With striking views of the river at several points along the trail - and a reasonably wide path on which to practice social distancing while also getting your heartbeat to an aerobically healthy level - Lynch Creek Trail is, however, not without its downsides. Certain stretches of the pathway have been the subject of much community concern, with reports of crime and open drug use occasionally resulting in police attention along the trail. A police taskforce assigned to the area was re-deployed elsewhere a year or so ago. In January, a sizable homeless encampment was removed by police, near where the trail dives down to travel under Highway 101. But with close proximity to a number of Petaluma residential neighborhood, many of which butt up against the trail, the trail remains a much-used exercise option, as well as a useful alternative route for those seeking to cross town without hassling with all the traffic.
On this particular Saturday, nearly 100 pedestrians and cyclists were spotted during a leisurely jaunt from the start of the trail on Water Street, just behind Brewster’s Beer Garden all the way to Sonoma Mountain Parkway. That those cyclists, approximately 90% of which were unmasked, had to maneuver around A-frame signs declaring “Pedestrians Only” speaks to how popular the pathway is to bicycle riders, and the potential need to rethink or better explain the current (and temporary) prohibition against bikes. (Short version for the no-bike-rule, supplied by the Petaluma Parks and Recreation Department: it forces people into passing each other at less than the required 6-foot distance that allows the trail to remain open in the first place).
One of the most notable attractions of the Lynch Creek Trail is its variety. Though the majority of its users do not deign to walk the full 3-mile roundtrip length, anyone who travels it for any distance will find an entirely new terrain and vibe, about every quarter-mile or so. The downtown area is strikingly Steinbeckian, with its views of corrugated granary walls and rusty bridges. The parts that skirt the river offer glimpses of birds and the occasional small animal, foxes and rabbits included. The journey becomes briefly urban-grunge apocalypse, diving beneath larger roadways through open tunnels anointed with graffiti. Vast landscapes of fields, with the Sonoma Mountains in the distance, give way to corridors framed with greenery, towering redwoods and brush. After a hop-and-a-skip along the edge of Lucchesi Park, where the Community Center is dark and play areas are cordoned off, the trail transforms into a wider, newer, fresher and cleaner passage through various residential areas, with streets and cul-de-sacs bringing patches of well-manicured lawns with flower beds and open skies.
Lynch Creek Trail is named, somewhat obviously, for the creek that begins in the Sonoma Mountains, and flows over seven miles to where it joins the Petaluma River. Several years ago, a group named Friends of Lynch Creek Trail was formed to advocate for the much used, and much loved pathway. Its fans continue to remind city government of the significance of the trail, and to call for a number of improvements - better lighting, increased police presence, improved signage - that will make one of Petaluma’s only cross-town recreation channels even better, cleaner, safer and more accessible.