Calabazas Creek preserve joins Sonoma County park system
Down a narrow, knobbly road off Highway 12, Calabazas Creek bubbles over rocks amid summer shade.
Approaching the creek, a footpath winds through the forested valley and grassland, past secret waterfalls and up into the Mayacamas Mountains, offering spectacular views of Sonoma Valley.
Rich in wildlife and diverse in habitats, Calabazas Creek Open Space Preserve is the newest addition to Sonoma County Regional Parks’ growing portfolio.
Purchased for $9.1 million in 2004 by the county’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, the 1,290-acre preserve was officially transferred to the regional parks department on Thursday.
“It’s really scenic and the diversity of habitats is incredible,” said Misti Arias, general manager of the open space district.
On Friday morning, Arias joined Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, who represents the area, as well as District Stewardship Specialist Leslie Lew and Karen Davis-Brown, a county park planner, for a tour of the preserve.
Home to wildlife including the California giant salamander, northern spotted owls and steelhead trout, the preserve boasts surprising treasures, including its history.
The land was once a part of civil rights pioneer and San Francisco businesswoman Mary Ellen Pleasant’s Beltane Ranch. A former domestic servant and leading abolitionist, Pleasant helped slaves escape via the Underground Railroad, according to the city of Santa Rosa’s Multicultural Roots Project.
Stepping across the land Pleasant once called home, Lew shared a bit more about the ranch’s history. Pleasant made her way west from Massachusetts and arrived San Francisco during the Gold Rush. While there she ran several businesses including boarding houses. She purchased the ranch in 1892 and designed and built the house that stands today on the 105-acre guest ranch which continues to operate under the Beltane name.
The ranch was purchased in 1936 by Ralph and Effia Heins and has remained in their family ever since. The open space preserve acquired in 2004 by the county takes in the undeveloped acres on its eastern side.
Situated off Nuns Canyon Road, it has seen unsanctioned public and private use over the years. In 2017, Sonoma County law enforcement cleared 3,000 marijuana plants from an illegal cannabis farm hidden on the preserve.
That same year the Nuns fire in October tore through the area on its way to burning over 600 homes.
While signs of the fire are still evident, the land is flourishing.
Manzanitas, which need fire to help seeds germinate, are sprouting all over the valley floor. As the fog cleared Friday morning, a red-tailed hawk swooped through the tree line and a scrub jay flashed brilliant blue as it hopped along a tree branch.
“You say ‘Did a fire really come through here?,’” Gorin said, as she paused to appreciate the forest’s new growth. She then pointed to an old, burned tree not far from the path. “You look at that granddaddy over there with the charcoal base and you say ‘Yes, a fire did.’”
The preserve sits between Sugarloaf Ridge State Park and Sonoma Valley Regional Park. The Wappo and Southern Pomo tribe called the area home, as did, the Coast Miwok.
Originally, the county’s open space district intended to convey the land to the state for Sugarloaf Ridge park, but budget constraints got in the way. Like many other preserves acquired by the county for similar purpose a decade or more ago, it remained on the district property rolls for years, in limbo.
Voter-approved funds from the 2020 Measure M sales tax supported Regional Parks taking ownership of the property, Arias said.
The acreage will remain closed to the public except for guided preview walks planned to begin in the fall.
The park’s opening to the general public will depend on the progress of a master plan, which can take two to five years, Davis-Brown said.
To help, the district will provide county parks with initial funding to cover some trail development, signs, restrooms and other park essentials, according to Arias.
There is hope that Calabazas Creek Open Space Preserve will be able to link with the nearby Bay Area Ridge Trail. As for now, opportunities for the park’s design are wide open.
You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at email@example.com. On Twitter @MurphReports.
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