‘The heart of Santa Rosa’: Spring Lake Regional Park turns 50

Spring Lake Regional Park in Santa Rosa almost didn’t happen until city and county negotiators worked out a plan. This year it celebrates its 50th anniversary.|

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.

‘A gem’

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.

The Flood Control District sought to acquire the property through eminent domain, with plans to divert high flows from the two creeks into a reservoir during the wet seasons, then drain it each summer to maximize storage capacity for the next winter.

The city had no plans to fight the acquisition, but the city and county were miles apart when it came to the land valuation, according to an account in the 2017 edition of the “Sonoma Historian: the Journal of the Sonoma County Historical Society,” as told by the late John Klein, longtime Santa Rosa city attorney.

And it wasn’t what the city wanted.

So Klein asked then-Chief Engineer Gordon Miller how much re-engineering would be required to make and maintain a permanent lake.

Not too much, was the answer. Miller offered to pursue new state funding for park and recreation projects that aided with development of Spring Lake park. It also softened the city’s position on valuation but provided enough funding to the city to invest in facilities at Howarth community park.

And they got a new park at Spring Lake, which opened a decade after the reservoir and its three dams and diversion structures were completed.

Bob Morrison, now 85, retired from Sonoma Water as deputy chief engineer. As a younger man, he was involved in the design and construction Spring Lake and remembers starting with a site that was boggy and abundant with mosquitoes, frogs and toads.

He also recalled a prune orchard, now covered by lake, where he picked prunes as a youngster and, later, was promoted to tree shaker, earning a dollar an hour, before starting summers working for the Flood Control District during high school and college.

When construction finally did start in 1961 (it lasted three years), fill from the lake floor was excavated to help build the three earthen dams that form the reservoir, and trenches were dug to create diversion channels from Santa Rosa Creek on the north and Spring Creek on the south, in addition to other infrastructure. One bit of trivia: Hans Albert Einstein, the great Albert Einstein’s son, then a professor of hydraulic engineering at U.C. Berkeley and an expert on sediment flows, consulted on the project.

Nowadays, Michael Schloss, 68, walks around the lake each day with his wife, Julie Simkovitz. Sometimes, twice a day.

But he says he “grew up here,” playing hide and seek among the tules and cattails beginning around 1964, and running up into the wooded hills, where a man he and the other kids called “Old Man Shotgun” sometimes warned them off.

‘A great park’

Now that the park has been developed, the pair love watching the seasons pass and the park change.

“It’s a great park,” Simkovitz said. “We just love it.”

Hart, who served as regional parks director from 2010 to 2017, noted the park’s “critically important role” in flood control. But “beyond that, it kind of has it all,” Hart said. “It’s such a wonderful, magical place.”

“I always considered Spring Lake to be the heart of the regional parks system,” she said. “In the same way, I consider it the heart of Santa Rosa.”

Her successor, Regional Parks Director Bert Whitaker, started his life in the parks system as a lifeguard at Spring Lake in 1995, in part by dragging himself through the weeds and mud on the lake bottom in search of a mannequin as part of his training.

Nearly three decades later, he finds little outwardly about the park has changed, but it programs and offerings continue to expand.

“It’s such a diverse audience that uses Spring Lake,” from the runners and walkers that appear like clockwork when the park opens each morning, to the student cross-county runners the flock to the trails in fall, to the campers who come from all over the Bay Area to sleep beneath the trees, he said.

The park for decades had what many considered a cloud overhead, in plans for a bridge over the middle of Spring Lake connecting the end of Highway 12 at Farmers Lane to Highway 12 near Melita Road — a plan that grew increasingly unpopular and finally was abandoned in 2008.

The park’s 50th year will be dedicated to some upkeep and maintenance, like fresh paint on the bathrooms an bathhouses; new asphalt and striping on much of the paved trail, boat launch and parking area; and a major redesign of the signage and wayfinding system in English and Spanish, including naming of some unnamed trails and use of QR codes to provide access to additional information.

“We really wanted to show that we care deeply about Spring Lake and invest back in it,” he said.

The nonprofit Sonoma County Parks Foundation also is holding a Spring Lake Photo Contest in honor of the anniversary.

Kim Roeser, on a fast-paced walk around the lake on Tuesday, said she’s a fan of the whole park system, with a regional park pass, a T-shirt, a water bottle, because, “Why not?”

“I’m a nerd,” she said.

But Spring Lake is her regular go-to, often with girlfriends, for a walk or a bike ride.

“I’m just so glad that our community had the vision to come up with this,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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