Tolay Lake hiker

Sonoma County trails with room for social distancing

Where to hike or ride during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Sarah Phelps

Recreating during the pandemic has made a couple of things abundantly clear: Getting outside for our physical and mental health is more important than ever, and some trails are better than others for doing that safely.

Here are three Sonoma County multi-use trails that offer room to spread out or take you off the beaten path. 

Lift your body and your spirits at Shiloh Ranch Regional Park

Shiloh Ranch landscape

Shiloh Ranch Regional Park in southeast Windsor features a rugged landscape in the foothills of the Mayacama Mountains. Many of the trails are former ranch roads, and their width makes it easier to keep your distance when passing other park users.

Ridge Trail Loop: The Ridge Trail is one of these wide roads. It climbs up through mixed woodlands to a vista point with sweeping 180-degree views of the Santa Rosa Plain. Park map.

Directions: This is a looped route, so there are two ways to reach the vista point. For a more gradual ascent, follow Big Leaf Trail southeast from the parking lot for about 1 mile, enjoying the big leaf maples, oaks, madrones and Douglas firs until Big Leaf meets Ridge Trail.

Head north on Ridge Trail for about.6 miles, climbing to a vista point with spectacular western views of central Sonoma County. After taking in the sights, continue north and west on Ridge Trail as it descends to the parking lot. The entire loop is about 2.5 miles with 400 feet of climbing.

Alternate hike: For an easier option, follow Big Leaf Trail to its intersection with Ridge Trail. Here, you’ll find a bench where you can pause for a pretty view and then head back the way you came.

Alternate hike: For a longer option, split off from North Ridge Trail to take a lap on Pond Trail, another loop of wide ranch road. The Pond loop adds 1.5 miles and requires brief (and steep) backtracking to return to Ridge Trail, but the extra distance boosts your workout and lets you see the park interior.

Know before you go: Ridge and Pond trails have steep, exposed sections, so on warm days, Shiloh is best in early morning or the evening. Dogs are not allowed on trails at this park. The 2017 Tubbs fire swept through Shiloh, and burn scars and regrowth are evident throughout.

Get a new point of view from Tolay Lake Regional Park 

Bill and Dave Hike at Tolay

At 3,400 acres, Tolay Lake is Sonoma County’s largest regional park. Located in the open, rolling hills southeast of Petaluma, Tolay is named for the freshwater lake that forms in its valley during the rainy season. Tolay is another park with old ranch road trails perfect for socially distanced hiking or biking.

Three Bridges Vista Point: On a clear day from the Three Bridges Vista Point, you can see the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, Highway 37 overpass, Bay Bridge, and even a few San Francisco skyscrapers winking in the sun. The 750-foot vista point also gives you a bird’s-eye view of grassland, marshland and the natural beauty that make up Tolay Lake Regional Park. Park map.

Directions: This 5-mile round-trip route begins on Causeway Trail, a ranch road that crosses the bed of Tolay Lake and gently climbs through oak woodland to join the East Ridge Trail and the vista point. There are several tables at the top, so bring a picnic to enjoy with the view. Return the way you came.

Alternate hike: Due to its path across the seasonal lake, Causeway Trail often floods during rainy months. As an alternative, hike the West Ridge Trail, which stretches 4 miles one way from the park center. You can turn back at any point, but if you hike to the end, you are rewarded with views of the Petaluma River, San Pablo Bay, Cougar Mountain, Sears Point, Mount Diablo and San Francisco skyline. 

Know before you go: The Tolay basin holds special cultural and spiritual significance for indigenous peoples. Tolay also has an agricultural history and continues to support year-round cattle grazing, which means you might share the trails with a ruminating bovine or two. The cows are mellow but give them a wide berth anyway and be sure to close the gates you pass through. Leashed dogs are welcome on trails.

Tolay has limited shade. On warm days, the park is best enjoyed in the early morning or evening, times that also make for wonderful wildlife viewing and few human encounters.

Find a fairy garden in Stillwater Cove Regional Park

Stillwater Cove ferns and sun

Located along Highway 1 between Fort Ross and Salt Point, Stillwater Cove Regional Park features a picturesque cove on the ocean, a creek and trails that weave through an impressive canyon of coast redwood and along the rocky coastline.

Canyon Trail: In a thick canopy of redwoods and waist-high ferns, what the Canyon Trail lacks in distance, it makes up for in tranquility and seclusion. This 1.6 mile-trail follows the crystal-clear water of Stockhoff Creek, which supports coho salmon and steelhead trout, and weaves up through a fairyland of redwoods, rhododendrons and riparian plants. Much of this trail is narrow, but you are unlikely to pass many other trail users, especially if you visit mid-week. Park map.

Directions: From the day-use parking lot, follow the trail into the canyon and head right, following the creek upstream. Free interpretive handouts at the trailhead will guide you along numbered signposts with detailed information about the flora, fauna and history.

A short spur leads to the one-room Fort Ross schoolhouse, which was built in 1885 and moved to this park in 1974 for preservation. Peek in the windows to get a glimpse of Sonoma County history. A bridge at the end of the Canyon Loop is missing due to storm damage, so to get back to the parking lot, you’ll need to rock hop across the creek or backtrack the way you came.

Alternate hike: For a longer option, visit the beach by following the Cove Trail for.3 miles (plus a dash across Highway 1). Or hike the Stillwater Bluff Trail for an isolated wander above the ocean. Reach the Bluff Trail by driving just north of the day use area and parking along Highway 1.

Know before you go: Cell phone reception is limited on the North Coast, so plan accordingly. Leashed dogs are welcome on Stillwater’s trails and the beach.

For any pandemic outing: Carry a mask and wear it when you come within 6 feet of other users. Drinking fountains are closed, so bring your own water. Remember to bring sun protection, too. Parking is $7 or free for Sonoma County Regional Parks members.

Watch this video to learn more about social distancing, face covering requirements and trail guidelines. 

Sarah Phelps is a marketing specialist at Sonoma County Regional Parks.

Published: November 2020

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