‘The heart of Santa Rosa’: Spring Lake Regional Park turns 50
It was a perfect, warm, weekday afternoon, and a man named Jose sat on a bench at the edge of Spring Lake, resting and stretching his neck during an interlude in his daily walk.
A pair of towering redwoods to his right offered shade. Chirping birds provided ambience. Lush, green plant life all around radiated with a sense of well-being.
A gap in the trees along the shore, one of which arched gracefully so far over that its branches dipped in the water, created a window through which a kayak could be seen gliding across the still lake, against a backdrop of wooded hills.
Nothing about the scene suggested the swampy marshland that once occupied this space, nor the bare earth that surrounded the 72-acre reservoir in the months after its construction in the 1960s.
Yet both were necessary for Spring Lake Regional Park, opened to the public in 1974, to exist and flourish over the half-century since the creation of what has become one of the region’s most popular outdoor destinations.
At 50 years old, Spring Lake welcomes more than 650,000 visitors a year who engage in a vast array of activities that continues to expand.
Visitors can walk, run, cycle, skateboard, scooter, paddle, swim, bird watch and camp. But there’s also yoga, the inflatable summertime Water Park, fall Water Bark for dogs, day camps, nature walks and several new cabins to rent, including one that is accessible to the disabled.
The whole campground, former Regional Parks Director Caryl Hart said, makes Spring Lake “an experience that people could have that’s right next door, that’s right in the middle of the city, yet that people could experience as being in a wild place.”
The Environmental Discovery Center offers hands-on learning to walk-in visitors and student field trips, as well as classroom and on-site presentations.
Sandwiched between Howarth Park and sprawling Trione-Annadel State Park, Spring Lake also forms part of a unique city-county-state park complex totaling 5,550 acres of recreational open space. It’s all within easy reach of half a million people and offers outdoor fun and tranquillity to everyone from hard core hikers and cyclists to kids on trikes and elders with bad knees.
But even on its own, the 320-acre regional park is “a gem,” said park ranger Beth Wyatt, who has been assigned to the park for 16 years.
“An oasis,“ ”a refuge,“ ”an amazing place,“ is how several visitors described it late Tuesday afternoon.
“I love coming here,” said Sonia Quintero of Glen Ellen, who was walking her tawny-colored shepherd, Sir Kingsley. “It’s amazing to have this in the middle of all the chaos.”
“It’s a great park,” said Marsha Matisek, who was just finishing a walk with her husband and another couple, close friends for 25-odd years. “It has something for everyone.”
Joe Kaiser and Stefan Merkl said when they lived in Novato and only knew Santa Rosa from what they saw from Highway 101, they never imagined it might be a place they’d want to live until five, too-long years in Florida sent them back to California.
Settled in Fountaingrove for a year now, they’ve found the beauty of Spring Lake and the warmth of its visitors high on the list of reasons to love Santa Rosa and the larger region.
“It’s like an oasis in the city,” Merkl said as he and his husband prepared for a walk around the lake. “This is such a nice treasure for Santa Rosa. … Little did we know!”
‘A dry mud hole’
Yet, Spring Lake Regional Park almost didn’t happen. It only came together through the foresight and diplomacy of a pair of public servants representing city and county.
In the early 1960s, they agreed to find a way use the land for something beyond the planned flood control reservoir that, each summer, would have been nothing more than what one local historian called “a dry mud hole.”
At the time, the city of Santa Rosa owned what had been the McCrea Ranch, purchased to create a new city park next to Lake Ralphine, now part of the city’s Howarth Park. It had been central to the McDonald Water System, which the city had acquired to serve as its municipal water system.
But the Sonoma County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, now Sonoma Water, needed the site as well, to help safeguard central Santa Rosa from the periodic flooding of Spring Creek and Santa Rosa Creek, which would inundate central Santa Rosa, including the Montgomery Village neighborhood, and even areas further west. The site was to be part of the larger Central Sonoma Watershed Project, which included four flood-control reservoirs — Matanzas, Piner, Spring and Brush Creek — only one of which, Matanzas, would hold water year-round.
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