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Coming soon: Views from Sonoma Coast’s tallest peak

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A long effort to open the Jenner Headlands Preserve to the public is coming to fruition, with plans to throw open the gates at the end of summer and welcome visitors onto the land at last.

Construction of a new gateway to the property off Highway 1 has been under way for the past year.

It marks the entry both to the 5,630-acre Jenner Headlands and to adjoining Pole Mountain, a smaller Sonoma Land Trust property that provides a 360-degree view from the highest point on the Sonoma Coast.

“It’s a complicated project, and it’s been a long time coming,” said Brook Edwards, preserve manager and regional director for the Southern California-based nonprofit Wildlands Conservancy, which owns the headlands property. “We’re really excited to get it open.”

Located about 1 1/2 miles north of Jenner, the hillside acreage rises steeply above the village and the rugged Sonoma Coast, offering views of the Russian River estuary, Goat Rock State Beach and the mighty Pacific Ocean.

Once used for timber production and cattle grazing, the land was purchased in 2009 for $36  million by a coalition of land conservation entities, including the Sonoma Land Trust and the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. It is the single largest land deal in county history.

Now owned by The Wildlands Conservancy, the headlands property is co-managed by the Sonoma Land Trust and the open space district.

It fronts 21/2 miles of the coastal highway and offers 14  miles of hiking trails, mostly old ranch and fire roads that crisscross a mixture of redwood and Douglas fir forest, coastal prairie, oak woodland and chaparral.

The land is connected by Pole Mountain to the Sonoma Land Trust’s Little Black Mountain Preserve, creating a contiguous expanse of more than 6,300 acres for roaming wildlife, including coyotes, mountain lions, deer and threatened northern spotted owls.

Work crews over the next several weeks will put the finishing touches on what’s to be the only developed portion of the property: a nearly 6-acre area at the edge of Highway 1 that includes a split-level, 30-space parking lot and a day-use area with restrooms, picnic tables and a scenic overlook, connected by a 600-foot pathway that is accessible to disabled people.

Once it’s ready, the land will be open to the public free of charge, from 8 a.m. daily to sunset.

It has been a significant challenge to bring the $2.1 million Gateway Project together, however, given the environmental sensitivity of the coast and drainage issues that required a good deal of time and engineering to resolve, Edwards and others said.

Several dozen pipe drains set into the hillside, gravel-filled cavities, bio-swales and an infiltration pond were designed and built to defend against slope failure and channel runoff in the event of heavy rain. Straw wattles were laid along the hillside, as well, alongside new plantings and dirt fill, in some areas.

“Obviously, that’s a very scenic portion of Highway 1, the Sonoma Coast, and we didn’t want to detract from that scenic quality,” Edwards said. “And the plants will grow up. I think it will mature and soften up some of the edges.”

One key feature still to be added is a living roof and rock facing planned for the public restrooms, now a cinder-block structure dug into the side of the hill.

Designers hope the whole structure will blend into the landscape to a large degree, once workers pack soil fill around it, seed the roof with grass and rock in the outward facing surfaces to obscure the concrete.

“It’s just kind of built into the landscape,” said Paul Melzer, a co-founder of the conservancy and director for mission advancement.

A large amount of stonework already is done around the area, forming low walls along the trail and a sitting wall known as “the wave wall” where visitors can rest and check out the ocean views.

Several ornate, rust-patinaed, heavy-gauge steel gates, railings and kiosk frames also decorate the property and serve as entry signs, announcing “The Jenner Headlands Gateway.”

The new infrastructure and path will take visitors just a short way up a grassy hillside that rises 1,000 feet from Highway 1, reached mostly by a steep trail departing the day-use area.

Visitors will be free to walk unsupervised along the adjoining trails.

The Wildlands Conservancy is installing a telescope at the top, thanks to the generosity of a private family foundation, Melzer said.

Pole Mountain beckons for hardier travelers prepared for a 15-mile round-trip that includes a hike up the front face of the headlands, a drop down into Russian Gulch, and then a climb of 2,000-plus feet to the top of Pole Mountain, for a total elevation gain of about 3,500 feet, Edwards said.

Sonoma Land Trust spokeswoman Sheri Cardo said she hopes the public is excited about access to Pole Mountain, a 2,204-foot summit that offers an unobstructed view of the surrounding Sonoma County landscape as well as vistas of Mounts Diablo and Tamalpais, and the Farallon Islands in clear weather.

“Finally,” said Melzer, “we get to invite our visitors, which is our mission: to provide public access. That’s what we’re all about, so it’s exciting.”