In the beginning, there was only Doran Beach, a 2-mile sliver of ocean shoreline that became the cornerstone of Sonoma County’s splendid landscape of regional parks.
The genesis was a half-century ago, but then as now, the stretch of pale sand and gentle surf — once part of the sprawling Bodega Rancho and acquired by the county during World War II — proved alluring to campers, anglers and bathers, who flocked to Doran’s shores by the tens of thousands.
Parks along the Russian River in Healdsburg and at Gualala Point on the coast were quickly added to the roster, under the oversight of a fledgling agency created by the Board of Supervisors in 1967 to operate a growing network of picnic sites, campgrounds and public spaces.
It was the dawn of a new era in outdoor recreation, with hiking and camping on the rise among young baby boomers. Prescient park supporters and planners saw fit to draw up recreational blueprints for a growing population and to preserve, while they were at it, the region’s forests and coastal access amid creeping urbanization and rising real estate prices.
The result, said Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Shirlee Zane, is “one of the best park systems, honestly, in the United States, if you look at what we’ve got in terms of the coast and the river and the redwoods and mountains to climb.”
“We wouldn’t have gotten where we are today if there weren’t people with vision,” she said.
In the past 50 years, Regional Parks has amassed 12,000 acres of public land — with more additions on the horizon — offering a diverse choice of natural scenery and adventure in nearly every corner of the county.
And the visitors — local and Bay Area residents, tourists from home and abroad — have come in numbers that bear out the decades of work, with taxpayer support. The now 56 parks, trails and beaches together see more than 5 million visits a year.
“Our county parks have really become important to quality of life for people,” said Bert Whitaker, a one-time river beach lifeguard who built a career in county parks and took over the agency’s top job in June.
From the sweeping vistas atop Hood Mountain’s Gunsight Rock to the secluded redwood trail at Stillwater Cove, from the rolling, wooded hills of Shiloh Ranch to the refreshing river waters of Steelhead and Sunset beaches, it is a geography that supports and sustains many of our most cherished traditions, forged around free time, with friends and family.
Unlike distant national parks such as Yosemite, these are places of discovery just minutes away from home, where visitors can find serene stillness or challenge themselves on miles of bike and pedestrian pathways. There are vast tracts of undeveloped land, small neighborhood playgrounds, athletic fields, a boat marina and even a historic one-room schoolhouse.
“It’s pretty cool to have all of this in your backyard,” said Aaron Schreiber-Stainthorp, who has lived in Santa Rosa only three years but knows the park system like few others.
Schreiber-Stainthorp and his now-fiancée, Jessica Pollitz, challenged themselves two years ago to visit every site in the park system. Their favorite destination at this point: Gualala Point Regional Park, a gem that combines redwoods and riverfront camping with bluff-top trails, rocky coastline and sandy ocean beach.
Special coverage: Sonoma County Regional Parks