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If you?re a diehard trailsman your hiking boots are always dirty. Rain and nippy temperatures won?t deter you. But for all you fair-weather walkers, the outdoors season begins today with the vernal equinox.

The early shift to daylight savings two weeks ago stretched your available hours. You have that much more time to gobble up the copious natural beauty that tempts at almost every turn each in the North Bay. With so much undeveloped land set aside in parks and preserves along the North Coast, hikers have a chance to literally venture off the proverbial beaten paths of Annadel and Spring Lake parks to places where they might not run into another soul outside their own hiking group.

This year there are a number of new and still largely undiscovered spots to explore, taking in the diverse Sonoma County geography. Many are open by tour or permits only but worth the extra planning. Some are in the evening, taking advantage of the longer days or even advancing moonlight.

Hiking in early spring offers particular rewards, said Jonathan Glass, field programs director for Sonoma County LandPaths, which leads hikes on publicly owned properties, many otherwise not opened for unlimited public access.

?I like spring because you still have enough water in the land so it?s very much alive. It just seems like it?s a time of new growth,? he said. ?It?s very crisp and fresh. Later in the summer and fall it?s nice but everything is crispy by then.?

Here are a few less trampled spots:

<b>Healdsburg Ridge in Healdsburg:</b> This recently opened piece of wildland, protected by the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, is a great place for a gentle hike or pondside picnic with the family.

Unlike many of the open space properties, these 160 acres can be explored any time. Several trails lead through grasslands, oak woodlands and chaparral. The higher reaches overlook the Russian River where it bends through Healdsburg, panoramic views that take in the Mayacmas and Fitch Mountain. You can access the <b>Fox Pond Trailhead at the east end of Arabian Way in Healdsburg.</b>

On April 23 from 5:45 p.m. to 8 p.m., LandPaths will lead a guided walk, pointing out native plants and wildflowers on the ridge. The moderate two- to three-mile hike, is free and families are welcome. Bring a picnic dinner. For information go to LandPaths.org, e-mail outings at LandPaths.org or call 524-9318.

<b>Steamer Landing Park in Petaluma: </b>A bit of wilderness awaits only steps away from downtown Petaluma in this new pocket-sized nature area near the Turning Basin. Few people even suspect it?s there, says David Yearsley, founder and director of Friends of the Petaluma River.

This new city park has just a quarter-mile of trail on the McNear Peninsula. But the tall native grasses and waterfowl can make you feel miles away from civilization. Views from the top of a rise offer a historical perspective on the river channel, from the grainery towers to the old barge docks.

On April 5, Friends of the Petaluma River will host an open park day at the new River Heritage Center, located in an old livery stable in the park. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. members of the Traditional Small Craft Association will stop on their annual procession of the river and show off handcrafted wooden boats and examples of traditional shipbuilding techniques. Enter the part at the end of Copeland Street across D Street from the new transit hub. Friendsofthepetalumariver.org, 763-7756.

<b>Willow Creek near Duncans Mills: </b>This is a fairly new addition to the string of beaches and properties that make up Sonoma Coast State Park. But at this point, you still need a permit to explore this area, so remote that its higher reaches have been dubbed ?islands in the sky.? LandPaths is managing this land and offers periodic orientations outlying rules for using the property. At that time you will get a map and combination of the gate.

You can explore this wildland by foot, horseback or mountain bike. In the spring it?s smothered in wildflowers. The land also has a rich archaeological history. Pomo and Miwoks gathered here as one of the first points in the salmon migration up the Russian River.

On May 2, LandPaths will lead a hike of the Willow Creek watershed, starting at Duncans Mills and going over the ?islands in the sky? to the top of Red Hill and eventually to the coast. This walk will give a rare opportunity to see one of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District?s newest acquisitions ? the Poff Ranch.

?The ranch (which is still occupied and ranched by the Furlong family) has stunning vistas of the Sonoma Coast,? said Glass. ?From the top of Wright Hill, you?re able to see all the way north to Goat Rock and all the way down to Bodega and on a clear day down to Point Reyes and Tomales Bay. It?s just dramatic.? The moderate to steep hike is seven to eight miles so bring your own lunch. 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information about permits or this and other hikes check out LandPaths.org or contact outings@LandPaths.org; or 524-9318.

<b>Montini Ranch in Sonoma: </b>Locals have long known this ranch as a pretty open meadow of grazing cows on Fifth Street West. But now that it is under preserve by the county open space district, hikers can see it with new eyes from high above as a scenic backdrop to Sonoma.

?You feel like you?re peering right over the town,? said Caitlin Cornwall, a biologist and conservation planner with the Sonoma Ecology Center, which leads public hikes of the property. In April, you?ll see poppies and lupine galore.

Hikes are not on a formally constructed trail so ?you feel like you?re following your nose through the landscape and ducking under tree branches,? Cornwall said.

The Ecology Center will lead a full-moon hike of the hilly ranch on April 6 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. On May 2, a hike will push off focusing more on the geology of the land, which has been both ranched and mined for basalt. Upper reaches offer views of the San Francisco and San Pablo bays. That morning hike will be from 9 to 11 a.m. To reserve a spot on either hike contact Elly Seelye at 996-0712 ext. 124 or e-mail at: elly@sonomaecologycenter.org.

<b>Calabazas Creek Open Space Preserve in Glen Ellen: </b>Located off Nun?s Canyon Road, this newer preserve used to be part of the old Beltane Ranch. There are some 1,300 acres of truly remote land.

?The hike up the canyon of Calabazas Creek is beautiful,? said Cornwall of the Sonoma Ecology Center, which leads hikes of the land. ?There are really gorgeous pools and cliffsides that have coral bells and monkey flowers in spring. And then you come out of the canyon into this big meadow that once had a couple of old homesteads. It?s an isolated bowl. You don?t even see the rest of the valley.?

Beyond that are forests and chaparral and then the final reward ? the high ridge that separates the Napa and Sonoma valleys.

The Ecology Center?s next trip is a family hike of the preserve from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. May 15. For information or to reserve a space contact Elly Seelye at 996-0712 ext. 124 or e-mail at: elly@sonomaecologycenter.org.

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