Exploring the lovely north side of Sonoma Mountain
|View north from the north slope of Sonoma Mountain
The park, managed by Sonoma County, is accessed from the west, via US101 and a series of charming and narrow country lanes. The trailhead elevation lingers around 1050 feet (400 feet higher than Jack London) and for now there are just two out and back trails. Umbrella Tree Trail is less than a mile and a good choice for beginners. The real draw here is North Sonoma Mountain Ridge Trail. This narrow path climbs through woods and grassland to Bennett Valley Overlook, where views north are unexpected and gorgeous. Hardy hikers can continue on past the overlook into Jack London State Park, where bragging rights can be earned with a climb to the state park summit, at 2370 feet. This option demands over 1200 feet in elevation change and is about 10 miles round trip.
|North Sonoma Mountain Ridge Trail
For my first hike here, I chose the overlook as my goal. The park's trailhead is pleasant and roomy, with a new vault toilet and an information signboard (but oddly, no paper maps -- print one out before you leave hone). North Sonoma Mountain Ridge Trail begins at the edge of California bay woods, and their spicy smell always gets me in the mood to hike. After a brief and gentle descent, the trail reaches a redwood grove with picnic tables. Stay to the left as Umbrella Tree Trail heads uphill to the right here. Sonoma Mountain Ridge Trail crosses the south fork of Matanzas Creek on a sturdy bridge and ascends slightly. Look for iris blooming here in late winter. Soon, the trail steps out into grassland. On my March hike, wildflowers were abundant, including blue-eyed grass, bluedicks, buttercups, and shooting stars. A huge eucalyptus tree anchors the property boundary on the left. At an easy grade, the trail winds through lumpy grassland dotted with a few small vernal pools. A sharp bend right orients the route uphill along the edge of woods where black and white oaks are mixed through bays.
After one sunny stretch, the trail steps back into the shade and the climb begins in earnest, via a long series of switchbacks through woods of buckeye, madrone, bay, and oak. Loads of flowers here in late winter, including milkmaids, hound's tongue, mission bells, woodland star, and red larkspur. With most of the ascending done, the trail cuts across grassy slopes and pockets of trees, before reaching a junction at 1.9 miles. Sonoma Mountain Ridge Trail continues straight, passing under high tension power lines on the way to Jack London State Park. The overlook path makes a sharp right.
|A switchback on the way uphill
After a short ascent, the hillside pauses at a level shelf -- this is the overlook! No benches or signs. A rougher path continues uphill, and just before a locked gate, scrambles up to a higher grassy knoll. I shared this scenic spot with wandering swallowtail butterflies, which were sampling flowers sprawled throughout the grass. The view was surprising -- Annadel State Park rises up gently from Bennett Valley and Sugarloaf Ridge and Hood Mountain comprise a giant wedge ascending from Napa Valley. Mount St. Helena looms off to the northeast. As I lounged and soaked in the beauty, I heard turkeys chortling somewhere downhill.
Eventually, I dragged myself up and headed back down to the trailhead. What a fantastic hike -- well done trail planners and builders!
The trailhead access road is very narrow -- drive slowly.
Dogs are not permitted on the trail (map says "at this time," so maybe they will be allowed in the future.
The official map shows the segment from the trailhead to the overlook as 1.9 miles. It felt closer to 2.5 to me. Next time I'll remember to bring my GPS.
Elevation change is about 800 feet, but the trails are well-graded.
$7 parking fee (self register at iron ranger).
Link to the official park page (BAHiker write up coming soon).
View more photos on the BAHiker Facebook page.