Final planning under way for Tolay Lake Regional Park could allow for daily public access later this year, opening the way to 3,400 acres of rolling hills, riparian oak woodland and seasonal wetlands in southern Sonoma County.
A long-term plan expected to be approved this spring will eventually add a visitor center, limited camping, and picnic facilities to the site. The plan also calls for restoration of the shallow, freshwater lake for which it’s named, allowing for more natural inundation and drainage over time, according to the season and rainfall volumes.
But in the near-term, it will be an achievement just to open the property and existing trails for regular public use, seven days a week, dawn to dusk, without the need for special permits or orientations.
“We’re getting pretty darn close,” Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt said last week.
The long-held county park land, located outside Petaluma, near Sears Point off the north shore of San Pablo Bay, hosts extensive wildlife, including a variety of raptors and songbirds that make it a popular destination for birders.
It is an important stop for migrating birds traveling along the northern flyway, and is a critical link in some 20,000 acres of conserved land that surround it, providing wildlife corridors through the region.
The property features impressive, panoramic views that, in clear weather, reach across the San Francisco Bay to neighboring peaks and the city of San Francisco itself.
It also has a rich history of residency and ceremonial use by the Coast Miwok, for whom it was considered a spiritual center and healing place.
Carved rock objects known as “charm stones” found in the lakebed date back as much as 4,000 years, though indigenous occupation of the land is believed to go back at least twice that far.
The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, whose ancestors roamed and revered the land in prehistoric times, have partnered closely with park officials on the lake restoration and contributed $500,000 to the master planning process.
“The site is very significant archaeologically, prehistorically,” said park planner Karen Davis-Brown.
Purchased in 2005 by the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District and later transferred to county parks, the 1,727-acre Tolay Lake Ranch property has been in limited use for guided tours, school events and the popular Tolay Fall Festival, which annually draws about 15,000 visitors or more, park personnel said.
Beginning in 2009, residents who participated in about an hour-long orientation could receive permits to enter the park for hiking, horseback riding, birding or cycling on the weekends. About 4,400 people currently hold permits, with about a thousand visitors a month coming through, the majority of them riding horseback, according to Davis-Brown.
The park currently offers 8.6 miles of trails, though current plans call eventually for 32 miles, including 10 for hikers only, as well as two backcountry camping sites.
In 2008, the Sonoma Land Trust bought an adjacent property known as Tolay Creek Ranch. Only slightly smaller than the neighboring “lake” ranch, it is expected to pass into county ownership within weeks — the adjoining land making for the largest park in the county system.
Rabbitt said some widening and road repairs will need to be made to Cannon Lane, the primary access point for the park, before it can open.