By Suzie Rodriguez
One of the special things about winter hiking is the show often taking place in the sky. Whether a dark storm is approaching, puffy clouds are clearing, or the setting sun casts an orange glow, winter skies can be breathtaking in Sonoma County’s parks.
The Laguna de Santa Rosa is beautiful and fascinating in any kind of weather but offers a unique setting for winter walks. The sky is so open here, it's a constant element of your visit. As Sonoma County’s largest freshwater wetlands complex, the Laguna offers plenty of wildlife viewing as well as the wonder of being close to marshes, vernal pools, woodlands and other rich riparian habitat.
As you’d expect, the Laguna is a vital stopover for migrating birds as well as a permanent home to other bird species. The 1.8-mile Laguna de Santa Rosa Trail runs between Highway 12 and Occidental Road, just east of Sebastopol, and offers expansive views that extend far past the wetlands to Mount Saint Helena to the east. Learn more about the Laguna Trail or download the map.
Situated on Bodega Bay, with views that stretch forever over the Pacific Ocean, Doran Beach is justifiably one of Sonoma County’s most popular parks at any time of the year. In winter, the 2-mile stretch of sand is the perfect place for wind-swept beach walks.
As you hike along, you’ll study swift-moving cumulus clouds and watch seabirds dance in and out of waves rolling onto shore. Wander into the grassy dunes, where trails branch off, and soak up the magnificent surroundings from a different perspective.
Maybe you'll get lucky and see a rare "roll cloud" like this one that appeared over Doran in late October 2018. Roll clouds are a low, tube-shaped, and infrequent type of arcus cloud. They usually appear to be "rolling" about a horizontal axis, almost like a sideways tornado, though they aren't dangerous. They can be created by downdrafts from thunderstorms or from the outflows of cold air from sea breezes.
Learn more about Doran Beach.
A former cattle ranch southeast of Windsor, Shiloh Ranch is home to diverse ecosystems ranging from open grasslands to moisture-loving plants that thrive beside a shaded creek that bubbles along with winter rains. Nearly 8 miles of multi-use trails lead hikers, bikers and equestrians over hills, through canyons and onto ridges with big-sky views.
Much of the park burned in the 2017 Tubbs Fire. Although extensive regrowth has occurred, scars are clearly visible and provide a unique opportunity to see how oaks, bay laurels, and other trees and plants respond to wildfire. As part of the fire recovery, Regional Parks in late 2018 completed a major renovation of the Canyon Trail, greatly improving its stability and accessibility.
The Ridge Trail, which rises more than 700 feet and offers a far-ranging western view from the top, makes for an excellent hike on a winter day — or try the fern-lined Creekside Trail. Wildlife sightings include raptors, rabbit, fox, bobcat and coyote. Learn more about Shiloh Ranch or download the trail map.
Though fabulous all year round, Helen Putnam Park in Petaluma offers the opportunity to see coastal fog rolling in while hiking the vista points. Just recently, our Youth Crewleveled out and revamped some of the trails. This compact open-space park features a beautiful oak savanna, grasslands, and ridges with panoramic views of the Petaluma Valley to the east and the Chileno Valley to the west.
A 6-mile trail system lets hikers, bicyclists and equestrians explore the landscape on routes of varying difficulty and length. The main section of the Bay Area Ridge Trail is paved, providing a multiuse access through the park. It’s an important habitat for wildlife and birds. A picnic area, playground and gazebo are near the Chileno Valley Road entrance. Dogs on leash are welcome on all trails. Learn more about Helen Putnam or download the trail map.
Know before you go
- Parking at the Laguna de Santa Rosa Trail is free.
- Parking at Shiloh Ranch, Doran Beach and Helen Putnam is $7 or free for Regional Parks members.
- Dogs on leash are welcome on the Laguna Trail, Doran Beach and Helen Putnam.
Suzie Rodriguez is a Sonoma-based writer, editor, lifelong outdoors enthusiast and past president of Bay Area Travel Writers.
Published/Updated: October 2020