Sharing trails with cows

In this week’s Petaluma Parks story, we take a visit to South Petaluma’s Tolay Lake Regional Park, one of the largest parks in the county.|

“We got cows!”

That bewildered, flying bovine-inspired, mid-tornado declaration, from the 1996 movie “Twister,” is perhaps not one of the most frequently recited movie quote of all time -- or even close. The most commonly quoted cow-related movie line is probably from Billy Crystal’s “City Slickers.” Or anything starring Roy Rogers. But one might estimate that "We got cows“ could be the line most frequently uttered by visitors who make it as far as the pasture and grazing fields at Petaluma’s Tolay Lake Regional Park.

Because if you do make it past the bucolic farmstead and picnic area near the picnic, past the barns and the hay wagon and the mysterious sign announcing “Nighttime Creatures,” and past the first of many gates warning “Keep gate closed, grazing area,” you will, sooner or later, most definitely have cows.

Well, you’ll see them, anyway.

And you’ll hear them. Cows are actually rather talkative, it turns out.

Most likely, you’ll have to decide, more than once, whether the cows have right-of-way on the trail or you do. Because it’s almost impossible to walk more than a half-mile at Tolay Lake Regional Park without encountering a cow or two (or three or four) coming in your direction on the very same trail. It’s even harder to take a picture of the hills, the vast expanses of grassland, or the many photogenic features popping up all around you without snapping a shot of a cow in the majority of them.

From the moment you park in the lot and pay your required fee and notice the historic ranch buildings that mostly house rangers now, it’s pretty obvious that Tolay Lake is one unmistakably agricultural public park.

Purchased by Sonoma County from the Cordoza family in 2005, the expansive 3,426-acre property is known to many for the annual pumpkin patch and celebration that took place annually there in October, and continues (when possible) as the Tolay Fall Festival. For decades, the place was a working ranch, and the presence of the cows that still graze there - a mutually beneficial arrangement between the County and local ranchers - are just one of many reminders of the area’s farming and ranching history. The land’s history, of course, reaches far back before the Cordozas.

As explained in a sign near the front lot, “Tolay Lake Regional Park protects the ancestral lands of the coast Miwok. Enjoy the park with respect for the Coast Miwok and their belief that the Sacred is everywhere and in everything.” The seasonal lake for which the park is named is dry during the summer months but frequently becomes rich with life during the rainy months. Centuries ago, the lake, widely accepted as sacred to the original people of the area, was historically the sight of important spiritual ceremonies that drew tribes from all over the region. The park, opened to the public in the fall of 2018 and officially dedicated in March of 2019, has a rich and significant history that will, in future years, be celebrated and shared through exhibits and interpretive displays being developed in cooperation with the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, descendants of the people who once lived here in large numbers. Other plans for the future include additional trails - an estimated 18-miles worth - plus hikeable campsites, a visitor center with “bunkhouse” - hard to imagine that happening any time soon, though - plus outdoor classrooms and educational areas, expanded equestrian amenities and actual restrooms, maybe (at the moment, there are port-o-potties).

Until any of that happens, visitors to the massive park on the outskirts of town will need to content themselves with simply exploring 11-miles of gorgeous trails, in the company of cows and the occasional bull. Many of those trails, by the way, are among the widest, most social-distance-friendly of any park in Sonoma County. After all, cows use them regularly.

And cows are not small.

One unique touch-point to keep in mind, however, are the aforementioned gates. One enterprising pedestrian was seen producing a small bottle of hand-sanitizer to treat her hands after opening and closing one gate, and reattaching the small chain that functions as a fastening mechanism. The trails include the large Causeway Trail, the East Ridge Trail and the Fish Pond Trail, the latter a smaller path that leads over small bridges to a pleasantly untamed fishing pond where ducks and other waterfowl can often be spied upon.

The further one ventures at Tolay Lake, the more breathtaking are the vistas they will encounter, with vast expanses opening to views as far away as Mount Tamalpais in Marin County. Those views, of course, take on a different character depending on the time of year you visit. Currently, the vibrant green hills of January have given way to the golden brown slopes and grasslands of July. This is a spot to return to often, on foot, bicycle or horseback, to experience the constant ebbs and flows of nature, while pondering such questions as, “Now that it’s been established that ’We got cows,’ I wonder what those cows are saying about us?”

(This is No. 27 of a multi-part series, taking an in-depth look at the parks and park-related facilities in the town of Petaluma. Tolay Lake Regional Park is at 5869 Cannon Lane, off Lakeville Highway, and is open 7 a.m. to sunset daily. You can reach David Templeton at

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