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.