Hiking at Tolay Lake Regional Park

By Janelle Wetzstein

After 13 years of land acquisitions, environmental reviews and partner collaborations, Tolay Lake Regional Park in the hills southeast of Petaluma fully opened to the public in the fall of 2018.

Previously available only to permit holders and special event attendees, the park is open daily with nearly 12 miles of hiking trails, including a new extension of the West Ridge Trail leading to spectacular views that had been  inaccessible until now.

West Ridge Trail leads to views

Sunset from West Ridge Trail at Tolay LakeOn the West Ridge Trail, you don’t have to be an advanced hiker to reach panoramic views. Unlike the strenuous hikes required at parks like Hood and Taylor mountains, Tolay's West Ridge features a moderate climb to views of the Petaluma River, San Pablo Bay and the San Francisco skyline.

The new extension stretches the West Ridge Trail more than 4 miles one way from the park center, making for a round-trip hike of nearly 9 miles. So, while the ascent isn’t steep, the journey is long. You can turn back at any point, but the true end of the West Ridge Trail is worth the effort.

Tolay Lake West Ridge Trail ExtensionThe final 2 miles take you into the Tolay Creek Ranch addition to the park, acquired by our partners at Sonoma Land Trust and transferred to Regional Parks last year. The land now makes up the southern half of the park, and at the end of the trail, you are treated to an expansive view of the San Pablo Baylands, Cougar Mountain, Sears Point, and East Bay and San Francisco landmarks. In spring, the lush, rolling hills are unforgettable. 

Don’t miss the east ridge or valley floor

Tolay Lake Valley Historic Lakeville TrailLike the new West Ridge Trail, the East Ridge Trail also offers a moderately easy 2.5-mile climb to a vista point with bay views. And the Historic Lakeville Road Trail rivals both in a completely different setting. It meanders through the valley, ending at the pillars of a historic stone gate on either side of the trail. Shaded areas along the trail offer a peaceful place to rest beneath trees as cows saunter by.

Birds and wildlife abound

Tolay Lake Golden EagleNo matter which trail you choose, you're likely to see wildlife. Wooded groves and sunken marshes in the valley’s floor are home to waterfowl, amphibians, lizards, turtles and more. Black beetles work tirelessly, red-tailed hawks float effortlessly, coyotes pause to make eye contact with you before sprinting away. Chirping crickets serenade you. Families of deer munch on vegetation.

Natural rock outcroppings, particularly on the west ridge, provide habitats for squirrels, burrowing owls and lizards. The park’s woodlands and groves provide acorns, seeds, fruits, and cover for nesting for a variety of birds and mammals.

Raptors are abundant at Tolay Lake Regional Park. Hawks, owls, kites, kestrels, and golden eagles hunt from above as the wide open expanse offers the perfect setting for airborne assaults. 

And then there’s the cattle. This property has been ranched since the 1800s, and grazing continues in the park as an important vegetation management practice. The cows at Tolay seem much more afraid of humans than humans need be of them. If you haven’t had the chance to hike alongside cattle, see below for tips on sharing the trails.

Plan your visit

Tolay Plan Your Visit Hiking at Tolay Lake Regional Park is a unique experience, and we’ve only just begun. With a robust master plan that calls for an eventual 30 miles of trails, hike-in camp sites, a visitor center and bunkhouse, outdoor classrooms, equestrian amenities, new picnic areas and more (as funding becomes available), Tolay will have incredible experiences to offer. In other words, come see for yourself. 

These  Tolay Lake Regional Park FAQs can provide more background about the park and help you make the most of your visit. It's important to know that the park does not have drinking water so be sure to bring your own. Parking is $7 or free for Regional Parks members.

Sharing trails with cattle

Cattle at Tolay Lake

  • Keep dogs on leash: Dogs are perceived as predators. Cows cannot distinguish the difference between a coyote and a dog and may become aggravated by an off-leash dog.
  • Do not attempt to pet or feed the cows: Do not get in between a calf and its mother and do not approach a stray calf, as its mother is likely nearby.
  • If cattle block the trail: Make yourself known by waving your arms and shouting. This will usually make cows scatter.
  • Give cattle plenty of space and an avenue of escape: If you encounter a cow that acts in a threatening manner or appears to be sick or dead, please note the location and report it to parks staff.
  • Close fences behind you: Some gates that divide the land into grazing parcels have functional pedestrian entrances that open when pushed. Others that sit in stiff, dry soil, do not. In those cases, look for chains on the larger gate section that can be lifted to allow the gate to swing open. And don’t forget to close gates behind.

Janelle Wetzstein is a former marketing specialist at Sonoma County Regional Parks.

Published: November 2018

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