Volunteers helping to rebuild Sonoma County parks after the fires

Early on a Saturday morning in May at the base of Hood Mountain, the process begins when the volunteers of the nonprofit group Volunteers for Outdoor California - VO-Cal - climb from their tents and gather for a quick meal. They're a lively, cheerful group, a mix of ages, sexes and occupations: a math teacher, a computer executive, a land use official, a construction worker, desk jockeys, students, store clerks and retirees.

Once a month VO-Cal sponsors a weekend trail building project somewhere between Big Sur and Sonoma County, and put out the call for volunteers. This weekend they've driven in from Oakland and San Mateo, Sacramento, Napa and Sonoma County to lay in a new section of trail across a burned slope near the summit of Hood Mountain. The new stretch will bypass and replace a leg of the Nattkemper trail deeply eroded by runoff.

After a safety briefing and crew assignments, the 70-odd volunteers and their section leaders ride a van from camp up a steep fire road, then hike a half mile on foot to the summit, and fan out single file along a steep hillside. Perched above an incredible vista, the trail-less slope is studded with blackened tree trunks from the recent fires. The new trail route across the hillside is marked by a line of small red flags, placed by park staff the day before.

Armed with heavy tools of the trade - McLeods, Pulaskis, Pick Mattocks and tamper bars - individuals in the crews begin chopping out stumps along a third of a mile of wild land, carving a level platform into the soil for the new trail, digging out mats of roots, moving dirt and awkward large stones.

Several hours later, a 3-foot-wide ribbon of freshly cleared and turned earth has been shaped into a rough track that's starting to look like a path. A few of the most difficult trees are still being chopped and dug and levered out. After an hour, two volunteers victoriously raise one particularly stubborn stump overhead after they axe and wrench it from the middle of their section.

Before it's finished, the emerging trail must be properly sloped and channeled for runoff water, with stone armoring applied at intersections with natural drainage. The entire process is both a feat of hand-crafted art and engineering.

Many purposes

The engineering part - the trail layout, design and supervision - is provided by Sonoma County Regional Parks staff. In a bright orange parka, Karin Davis-Brown, the Park's trail Planner for Hood Mountain, walks up and down the line of volunteers, answering questions, checking features. Just to get to this point has taken many months of her team's time, for coordination, research, design, regulatory filings, budgeting and logistics.

It's a full-time job, she says. And while they do hire contractors for some work, Regional Parks relies heavily on volunteers and partnerships with groups like VO-Cal to build and maintain the miles of trails.

Regional Parks' Project Manager Steve Ehret is even more emphatic. With limited budgets for materials, staff and equipment, he says, volunteers are crucial. And their value is multiplied: Every hour of contributed volunteer labor actually qualifies the Parks for funding that would otherwise not be available.

“Most people don't realize that volunteer hours are key to obtaining a massive amount of financial support for the Parks,” Ehret says, to build bridges, repair and realign old or environmentally poor trails, and maintain them safely for the public.

Like VO-Cal, the Sonoma Trails Council is a nonprofit group that coordinates volunteers to make and maintain local trails. The Council hit their 50th birthday in 2017. They were formed, CEO Ken Wells notes, the same year as the Regional Parks. In the intervening span, they've laid and maintained many miles of the county's trails.

An engineer by training, Wells suspects most people who walk or ride the trails aren't aware of the sweat, time and detail that goes into them. Every inch must be cleared, cut and graded, dressed and finished; a problem spot can take eight people three to four hours just to rough out 10 feet of trail.

But, he notes, the volunteers who do it earn a special reward: a sense of tangible accomplishment. They've made something of value they can see, share and revisit any time with pride.

Portals into the wild

Park planners like Ehret and Nelson view trails as the best - and most times, the only way - the public can walk or ride into nature. Trails provide a chance to wander through and physically experience the wonders of California's remaining wild places.

To accomplish that, planners must not only consider the needs of mountain bikers, day hikers and horse riders, but ensure the trails are accessible to people with varying physical limitations or handicaps.

At the same time, they are charged with protecting the environment, preserving the wildlife living in the parks, and shielding other irreplaceable natural resources from damage or harm. Animals need access to often limited sources of water, for example, and protected areas to raise young. Very rare plant and animal species must be sheltered from human impact.

To balance recreation and public enjoyment with sustainable management requires “boots on the ground.” Planners spend hours walking the landscape, looking for sensitive areas or features visitors may want to experience, and visualizing how the trail can work with the conditions they find, yard by yard.

The result of all these efforts in Sonoma County is an unusually rich network of trails that wind into fantastic regions and natural spaces.

Dave Chalk and his buddy Bill Meyers are among the guides and naturalists who lead trail walks into those places, as "Bill and Dave." After 18 years and guiding roughly 10,000 hikers, Chalk is still enthused about getting people out to explore some of the less familiar, but wildly spectacular trail sights. His current favorite trails in Sonoma County are in the McCormick addition of Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. But, he's quick to add, they're all great trails.

From the rolling hills of Putnam in Petaluma, up to the river walk near Gualala, from the dense shade of Armstrong's redwood paths to the blue sky Pacific views of Sonoma Coast, the county has an incredibly diverse variety of park trails to explore and discover, from wide, flat and paved, to single track and challenging. Self-guiding trail maps, nature activities, guided walks and special tours are available from the parks and many nature groups.

And for those with the passion to participate in keeping trails open, and creating new trails presently on the drawing board, new volunteers are always welcome.

Stephen Nett is a Bodega Bay-based Certified California Naturalist, writer and speaker. Contact him at

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