Even those new to Sugarloaf Ridge State Park might expect to find the rolling hills, wooded trails and bucolic camping sites that have long made it a jewel for local hikers and bicyclists. Hearing the song “Soul Man” echoing through the trees, not so much.
But that’s what they would have heard Friday night as the band Rosetown Soul and R&B Revue kicked off its “Funky Fridays” performance at the park’s amphitheater before a packed crowd who came to dance and party under the sky and support the local park at the same time.
“It’s hard to imagine a more spectacular setting,” said Lou Kinzler of Santa Rosa who came with his wife, Olivia. They brought their own chairs and a cooler full of goodies including homemade banana nut muffins. “I get excited about this place every time I come up here.”
Many in Friday night’s crowd were regular hikers who wanted to give back to the park, which was slated to be closed until a nonprofit group stepped in to manage it and other state parks facing similar fates.
“I really felt it was something I should do,” said Lora Pritchard of Sebastopol, who said she has been a member for the last four years of an area club that has been leading local hikes for three decades. “But the shows have been great. It’s a beautiful place to listen to music.”
The amphitheater, which can accommodate about 300 people, sits near the top of the park, set against the backdrop of hills and trees and hiking trails that rise up to the peak of Bald Mountain, which on clear days can offer views of San Francisco Bay and Mount Diablo.
Nonprofit groups that have assumed management of state parks in Sonoma County, including Sugarloaf, have expanded entertainment options at outdoor venues to generate public interest in the parks and to help cover operating costs.
“The most dedicated hikers in the area come to Sugarloaf, as do the crazy bike riders who like to climb hills. But a lot of people don’t know it exists,” said John Roney, who manages Sugarloaf as an employee of the Sonoma Ecology Center, the lead partner in the team that oversees the park’s general operations.
He said the outdoor concert series at Sugarloaf, which wraps up next Friday with a performance by A Case of the Willys, has attracted a diverse crowd that he hopes will be inspired to pay return visits to the park.
The concert series is on pace to raise about $23,000, which would be a relatively small amount of the park’s $330,000 budget. But Roney said the money will help the park with its needs, which he said include a four-wheel-drive pickup.
“The cushion is making us comfortable writing the check,” Roney said.
In addition to “Team Sugarloaf,” nonprofits operate Jack London State Historic Park near Glen Ellen and Austin Creek State Recreation Area in Guerneville. The groups stepped in under a law that allowed the state to negotiate with nonprofits, private concessionaires and other groups to try and keep open 70 state parks that had been slated to shut in 2012.
The three parks rely mainly on day-use fees, venue rental, concessions and — in the case of Sugarloaf and Austin Creek — camping fees to meet operating budgets. But outdoor events such as Funky Fridays also have become an important source of profit.