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Take a Hike through Tolay Lake Regional Park's Newest Addition

Tolay Lake Regional Park in Petaluma

In early March the 1,737-acre Tolay Lake Regional Park — located between Sonoma Valley and the Petaluma River — nearly doubled in size, thanks to Sonoma Land Trust’s donation of the adjacent 1,665-acre Tolay Creek Ranch.

When the combined 3,402-acre ranch opens to the public later this year, probably on a daily basis, it will be the county’s largest regional park. The park’s Master Plan calls for 32 miles of trails, backcountry camping, a visitors’ center, picnic areas, and environmental restorations.

Until then, Tolay Lake Regional Park’s 1,737 acres and eight miles of trails remain open for weekend hiking, birding, biking, and horseback riding through a day-use permit program (see below). And with breathtaking, panoramic views of San Pablo Bay and San Francisco Bay — along with dazzling wildflower displays in spring, vast sweeps of grasslands, a seasonal freshwater lake, ponds, wetlands, and abundant wildlife — time spent on the trail here provides a memorable experience.

My favorite Tolay hike is up to Three Bridges Vista Point, about 2.5 miles one way. Near the trailhead, a causeway crosses Tolay Lake (when I visited during a break in this year’s abundant rains, the lake had actually spilled onto the causeway).

Human activity on this land dates back at least 8,000 years, and it was once the site of seasonal settlement by Coast Miwok, Pomo, and other tribes. The lake, considered sacred, became a spiritual center for Indians across California. Sacred stones, often called “charmstones,” were deposited in the lake. Some charmstones date back thousands of years.

After passing the lake, the trail meanders through agricultural land before winding slowly uphill. This hike has some nice elevation to it, but the climb happens so gradually that you scarcely notice.

Cows graze here and there as you move along, and raptors are plentiful — I’ve sometimes seen one or two Golden Eagles high above. Among the many other species that live here: burrowing owls, California red-legged frogs, white tailed kites.

After you reach the halfway point to Three Bridges, far-ranging views begin to make an appearance. The higher you go, the better they get, until you arrive at Three Bridges (there’s a good reason it’s designated a vista point).

The trail ends at Three Bridges, so head back the way you came. On your return, you could try something new by turning southeast (left) onto the Pond Trail. After checking out the ponds, continue down the Pond Trail and turn right onto the Tolay Creek Trail; after a short walk, turn right onto the Historical Lakeville Trail, and you’ll soon return to the parking lot. There are many return variations, and you can see them all by downloading the map.

More information

On May 6, 2017, Sonoma County Regional Parks will host a free “Sneak Peek at Tolay Creek” from 10 a.m.-1 p.m., with a hike through grasslands and oak woodlands. Advance registration is required. For more info and to register, visit this page.
NBC Bay Area’s Open Road host, Doug McConnell, recently did a segment on Tolay Lake Regional Park. You can watch it here.

Day-Use Permit Program

Until Tolay Lake Regional Park opens to the public late this year, a visit here requires a day-use permit, which allows you to visit on Saturdays and Sundays, from 8 a.m. to sunset. Regular day-use parking fees apply (Park members park for free).

Obtaining the permit requires completion of a free one-hour orientation, which you can accomplish online. The orientation covers permit procedures, rules, and regulations. After completing the orientation, you’ll receive a day-use permit, a gate access card, maps, and a copy of the park’s rules and regulations.

To learn more about the permit program, visit this page.

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