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Anyone who has dropped into Pomo Canyon coming over the ridge from the Sonoma Coast can relate to the beauty and quiet of this special place.

Strolling amid the ferns and redwoods by day offers a taste of the peace and solitude of an earlier time.

By night, the steeply sloping walls make for a dark and cozy refuge, sounds of hidden life in the shadows infusing the air with just enough mystery to hint at the many species with whom we humans share space.

Come summer, campers can again lay their heads beneath the redwood canopy and awaken to the verdant plant life all around. Pomo Canyon Environmental Campground, part of the Sonoma Coast State Park, is being readied to reopen.

Long a favorite of local campers, this secluded campground south of the Russian River near Jenner was closed indefinitely four years ago amid recession-era budget cuts that left many wondering if it might be lost for good.

But an improved economic outlook and the simple campground’s relatively low operating costs mean the state park system is able to put it back in business, according to Mike Lair, acting superintendent of the park system’s Sonoma-Mendocino Coast District.

“It’s a cool little spot,” Lair said simply.

Located off the beaten path, three miles down a battered county road from Highway 1 and tucked into a redwood grove at the edge of the Willow Creek Watershed, Pomo Canyon is easy enough to get to — in a sturdy car — but feels far from civilization nonetheless.

A path along a rocky creek leads visitors back into the forest a quarter mile, past huge, mossy stumps that sprout fairy rings of younger trees. Trillium, sorrel and redwood duff blanket the ground amid ferns and shrubs, bay trees and redwoods.

Though the campground is closed, the canyon remains open for day use. To reach it, visitors must walk the last quarter mile up the road, past a locked gate.

Sebastopol resident Steve Trombley, 61, was spotted walking nearby last week with two friends and said it’s one of many local areas he savors.

“I’ve come to the canyon many times to hike,” he said. “I just enjoy the ferns and the deepness and the quiet.”

Sequoia Etcheverry, a program coordinator with the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, which has been maintaining the site, said she appreciates its cultural history and “the opportunity to connect with ancient experience in nature.”

“This place has been loved by humans for thousands of years,” she said. “You can see a legacy of all the different people and their impacts or their legacy of tending to it.”

Resurrection of the 21-site campground restores access to a haven fans will return to time and again, while offering new opportunities for exploration to those who have never had the good fortune to set foot in it. Others know it as the end-point for the popular Dr. David C. Joseph/Pomo Canyon Memorial Trail between Pomo Canyon and Shell Beach, and they may appreciate a chance to settle in a bit and set up camp.

Lair said he hopes to have the spot open for overnights in June.

The small campground near Jenner has often been described as a well-kept secret, particularly given the region’s otherwise high profile and heavy visitorship. Yet, it remains one of Sunset Magazine’s top-rated, nonreservable Northern California campgrounds, and fills up early on good-weather weekends — or used to.

Long before Europeans settled the area, the creek canyon drew native peoples who trekked coastward from as far away as Sebastopol and the Laguna de Santa Rosa through Willow Creek and Pomo Canyon before climbing over the ridge to the ocean, said Breck Parkman, senior state archaeologist with the California park system.

Early residents moved throughout the area gathering resources and going about the business of life in the Willow Creek Watershed, likely making camp in the canyon, said Suki Waters of Jenner, who grew up learning of her ancestral culture from her grandmother, a Kashia Pomo.

Sites throughout the area remain “near and dear to us for a variety of reasons,” Waters said.

More recently, Russian settlers had a ranch in the Willow Creek Valley on which they grew wheat, Parkman said. It appears from different kinds of redwood stumps in the canyon — some cut higher from the ground than others — that Russians also may have cut some of the timber.

“It’s a lovely place to camp,” he said. “There’s a lot of history there.”

Pomo Canyon was acquired by the state park system in 1985 as part of what was then known as the lower Willow Creek acquisition, an expanse of wetlands and riparian land adjacent to the redwood grove.

Land preservation agencies later purchased the upper creek section, a total 3,373 acres that were added to the park in 2005. The campground was developed in the ensuing year or two.

Half the campsites are strung along the creek canyon, the other half dotted about the hillside, roughly along the trail leading over the ridge to Shell Beach. The distance between the canyon and the coast is roughly 3 miles, though there’s a side loop on the 910-acre Red Hill property acquired for the park in 2000.

The trail makes a steep, somewhat challenging start through the redwoods before reaching the ridge line, where the prize is spectacular views of the coast and Russian River below.

The descent toward Shell Beach takes hikers through prairie grasses before they reach the Kortum Trail, which follows the coastline to Goat Rock. Additional links connect inland to trails in the Willow Creek Watershed.

Since its closure, the seasonal campground has been managed by the nonprofit Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, whose volunteers have continued to maintain the area. They control erosion and sediment into the creek, repair fences and reorganize campsites, several of which were at risk of washing down the hillside or becoming overgrown.

Use of the campground has been limited to school groups, environmental education and other special programming, Executive Director Michele Luna said. Several fragile areas along the creek remain blocked off by simple wooden fencing to allow recovery.

Pomo Canyon’s low-tech campground is perfect for minimalist camping. All gear and food has to be hauled overland from the parking lot to campsites.

Each campsite has a picnic table and fire pit, though the sites themselves are generally small, especially on the hillside, with room for tents of modest size.

Portable or pit toilets will be available when the campground opens, replacing now-shuttered lavatories that are believed no longer viable.

But campers will need to carry in any water they will need for drinking, cooking and cleaning, a change from the past.

To get to Pomo Canyon, turn east from Highway 1 at the south end of the bridge across the Russian River onto Willow Creek Road at Russian House #1, a brightly painted restaurant across from Bridgehaven. The patched and very badly potholed road winds past the Willow Creek Environmental Campground for about 2 ½ miles before transitioning to a gravel road veering right. The parking lot is another quarter mile along.

Camping is first come, first served and likely will cost $25 a night, as it was before the closure.

Dogs are prohibited.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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