With water bags strapped to their backs, Vic and Lynn David descended a hiking path near the coastal town of Jenner Friday, the sound of their footsteps muffled in a forest of centuries-old redwoods.
The path ended at the entrance to Pomo Canyon Campground, where a sign informed visitors of the price for overnight camping. Only there were no signs of campers or any people at all on this morning other than the Virginia couple, who seemed bewildered by the situation. The campground is currently closed to the public.
The 21-site Pomo Canyon Campground, which is part of Sonoma Coast State Park, is a place of rare solitude and beauty. But once again, its charms remain off limits to the public until further notice, save for day visitors passing through.
Last year, outdoor enthusiasts celebrated the state’s opening of Pomo Canyon for overnight camping following an extended period of closure because of budget constraints. Among the visitors flocking to the site were kids participating in education programs.
But state parks officials say the site remains closed this year because of damage from powerful winter storms. Willow Creek Road, which leads to the campground from Highway 1, also continues to wash away, raising long-term concerns about vehicle access.
The nonprofit Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods has moved its watershed education program from Pomo Canyon to Armstrong Redwoods near Guerneville this year because of the condition of the road and liability concerns, executive director Michele Luna said.
“We limped along all these years doing maintenance and restoration in these areas, but as time went on the road got so bad we had to have people sign waivers,” Luna said.
“I just couldn’t feel comfortable doing that anymore,” she said.
Pomo Canyon’s future fits into a larger debate over public access to the Willow Creek watershed and whether the state should impose more fees for visitors along the coast to help pay for deferred maintenance and ongoing management of trails, campgrounds and visitor amenities such as restrooms.
Farther along the road from where a gate to Pomo Canyon Campground has been closed is a 3,337-acre addition to Sonoma Coast State Park known as the Willow Creek addition that local taxpayers helped set aside by ponying up nearly $8 million in open space funds in 2005 to support a $21 million purchase.
The deal for the former timber property called for unfettered public access to the site. But it’s seldom visited.
Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins on Friday said officials are discussing the possibility of charging visitors a new day-use fee at Goat Rock Beach near Jenner and using some of the revenue to fully open Willow Creek and make repairs.
That idea would represent a significant scaling-back of state parks’ most recent plans for new fees on the Sonoma Coast.
The state agency has proposed charging new day-use fees at seven parking lots within Sonoma Coast State Park — four at Goat Rock, two at Bodega Head and one at Shell Beach. An eighth location is Stump Beach in Salt Point State Park. The proposal seeks day-use fees of up to $3 an hour, or $8 a day. There would be no charge for visits up to 30 minutes.
Hopkins said her desire is for state parks and the county to work collaboratively on the fee issue and on public access to the Willow Creek watershed.
“That’s absolutely a conversation we need to have,” she said.
The supervisor said negotiations over the proposed beach fees are scheduled to resume in August.
In the meantime, state parks staff is scrambling to clear downed trees and replace damaged tables and food lockers at Pomo Canyon in order to open the site to the public, Mike Lair, acting superintendent of the Sonoma-Mendocino Coast District, said.
However, fixing Willow Creek Road to make it more passable for vehicles is a longer-term and more vexing problem. Driving out to the campground Friday, Lair bounced around in a four-wheel-drive Chevrolet Tahoe used by state parks rangers.
Halfway through summer, water still fills car-swallowing potholes along the road, which also is eroding in several places. Willow trees have overgrown the route, their limbs scratching passing vehicles.
Lair said state parks spent about $100,000 shoring up sections of the road in fiscal year 2015-16. But he said that work resulted in shifting water elsewhere along the route.
“That’s the nature of this road,” he said from behind the wheel of the SUV.
Willow Creek Road, which is in the county’s jurisdiction, needs maintenance after each winter to make it more passable for the recreation season, said Susan Klassen, the county’s transportation and public works director.
She said because the road is in an “extremely valuable environmental habitat area,” improving it would be an expensive project requiring extensive regulatory permitting and environmental work. Klassen said she does not have an estimate for how much the work would cost.
As it is, the county struggles to prioritize rehabilitation work on much more heavily traveled thoroughfares.
On Friday, a few cars were parked outside the closed entrance to the Pomo Canyon Campground. Hikers can still access the site using Dr. David Joseph Memorial Pomo Canyon Trail, which is about 6½ miles. The trail’s other access point is Shell Beach on the coast.
Lair on Friday could not provide a timeline for when Pomo Canyon Campground might reopen to the public.
The other state-run walk-in campground in the Willow Creek watershed — Willow Creek Campground — also required storm cleanup before opening to the public in April.
You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 707-521-5336 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @deadlinederek.