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Tolay Lake Regional Park, largest in county park system, opening soon

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Tolay Lake Regional Park, the largest in the Sonoma County park system, will open for daily public use late this month, marking a much-celebrated occasion that’s been 13 years in the making.

The park opening on Oct. 27 will lift the veil on hidden scenic treasures, miles of trails, diverse wildlife and hallowed aboriginal healing grounds — all of it mostly off-limits to the general public up to this point.

At 3,400 acres, “it’s a massive land base and an important ecological preserve for the county,” Regional Parks Director Bert Whitaker said. “And it has amazing cultural history.”

Located off Lakeville Highway about 8 miles southeast of Petaluma, the park takes in swaths of valley grasslands, rolling hills, creek canyon and oak woodland, as well as historic ranch buildings and the seasonal 200-acre lake itself.

The public unveiling gives Whitaker an answer to relentless questions he receives from an eager public about the park’s status.

“The feedback I’m getting is unbelievable,” he said.

Management of the park is being called a model of cooperation between the county and the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria, whose ancestors occupied villages on the site for millennia.

Indigenous people from across the region regarded the area as a sacred place for prayer and curative treatments, after which “charm stones” deemed to be imbued with the sickness that afflicted them were cast in the lake to drown the disease.

When ranchers in the late 19th century blasted the natural barrier that formed the lake, thus draining it, thousands of these charm stones were revealed. Some came from distant locations including Yosemite, Mexico and Canada, said Greg Sarris, chairman of the Graton tribe.

Now, as park amenities are phased in and the natural landscape restored, the respect for tribal interests will be ensured with the management partnership, Sarris and county officials said.

“It’s a precedent-setting model, whereby when we say co-manage, we will be sitting with the county determining together how the park is going to be used, for what purposes and what’s going to be done,” Sarris said. “We will be working with them to determine everything from trails to the type of use to the restoration of the aboriginal landscape, and also the cultural narrative that will go with the park.”

Said South County Supervisor David Rabbit, “It just adds to everything that’s good about this piece of property as a new regional park.”

It has abundant wildlife, more than 100 bird species, and offers spectacular spring wildflower displays. It also has panoramic views from sites along ridge lines in the park — in one direction, overlooking the Petaluma River, in another San Pablo Bay and San Francisco beyond, when it’s clear.

“You fall in love with the place,” said Bob Neale, stewardship director for the Sonoma Land Trust, which has overseen creek restoration, native tree planting and other habitat management work. “And one of the coolest things about it is it’s going to be accessible to so many people,” thanks to sections of flat, easily traversed terrain.

“You won’t have to be a mountain climber,” he said.

The park opening will create significant recreational opportunities for residents of south Sonoma County, which has only one other regional park, Helen Putnam in Petaluma.

It also renews access to a sacred place for descendants of those who sought its healing powers long ago.

“I’m just very happy,” said Sarris, whose tribe donated $500,000 for master planning of the park. “We can work together for the betterment and education of all people, Indian and non-Indian alike, to take care of our collective home and restore it to something helpful.”

The park is composed of two parcels acquired separately, beginning in 2005 with the $18 million purchase of the 1,737-acre Cardoza Ranch.

The land, which had been marketed as a development site large enough for 28 ranchettes, was acquired by the tax-funded county Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District and transferred to regional parks for eventual park use. It includes ranch structures and other artifacts of 150 years of use by ranchers, as well as the altered lake bed, its contents drained when the natural barrier that created the lake was blasted in the late 19th century.

In 2007, the Sonoma Land Trust acquired the 1,665-acre Tolay Creek Ranch for $13 million, with support from Open Space District and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. That property was transferred to regional parks last year, doubling the size of Tolay Regional Park. A 2-mile extension of the West Ridge Trail provides access into that part of the park.

While park officials initially expected to welcome visitors into the park after a year or two from the 2005 purchase, planning for restoration and development of the park seemed to stretch on interminably as a result of a variety of complications.

Locals have clamored for years to get onto the land, known primarily for the popular Tolay Fall Festival, a seasonal celebration that runs two weekends a year, including the next two. It draws about 18,000 visitors a year between public weekends and school groups, said Melissa Kelley, executive director of the Sonoma County Regional Parks Foundation.

There also are occasional guided hikes. But under interim management plans, unsupervised visits were limited to those willing to obtain special permits by participating in educational activities and taking orientation. About 3,000 permits were issued, and only for use on weekends, park officials said, But even they have mostly been restricted to the park’s northern reaches, Whitaker said.

The interim management plan and permit system were superseded by a new master plan approved Tuesday by Sonoma County supervisors, who also adopted a new environmental impact report and other documents whose adoption now makes daily public use possible.

Future plans include: an expanded system of nearly 30 miles of trail, including extensive multi-use trails; a bunk house; expanded picnic grounds; and an equestrian staging area; as well as displays and interpretation dedicated to the agricultural history of the site and its ancient use by indigenous people.

Much of the park will be maintained for passive enjoyment by visitors drawn by its scenic beauty and tranquility, and what Neale, of the Sonoma Land Trust, described as a sense of the past.

Beginning Oct. 27, the park will be open from 7 a.m. to sunset every day, though there may be intermittent closures later this year because of work on Cannon Lane. The lane provides the only access to the park and is slated to be upgraded. Visitors should check SonomaCounty Parks.org for any closures.

“It’s a little, beautiful hidden valley, and there’s a sense walking around there that feels like people have been there for a long time,” Neale said.