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Sonoma County’s latest gem of a park opens Saturday on the north face of Sonoma Mountain, affording visitors miles of new trails and stunning views rarely seen by the general public.

PDF map of North Sonoma Mountain

About 2 miles along the park’s new main trail, the forest thins to reveal a 180-degree view of northern Sonoma Valley and the Santa Rosa Plain. On a clear morning this week, a number of prominent landmarks were visible in the distance, including Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, Hood Mountain and Mount St. Helena.

Almost as astounding, reaching this vantage point at an elevation of about 2,000 feet did not require strenuous effort, thanks to the cleverly designed trail, which weaves across the diverse landscape at a relatively modest incline.

Planners of what officially is known as the North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park and Open Space Preserve hail the 820-acre site as a model of ingenuity and collaboration among public and private entities. The preserve, located about 3 miles up Sonoma Mountain Road from Bennett Valley Road, abuts Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, offering hikers, runners and equestrians unfettered access to both outdoor settings.

Connecting parks in such seamless fashion is considered the “holy grail” of park planning, said Bill Keene, general manager of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.

Caryl Hart, Sonoma County Regional Parks director and a former member of the State Parks Commission, said the layout of the preserve alongside Jack London offers “perfect examples” of the integration sought by park managers statewide to boost attendance and revenues.

Saturday’s unveiling culminates 12 years of property acquisition and planning on the part of the Open Space District and its partners, which include the state Coastal Conservancy and Bay Area Ridge Trail Council. The district spent about $20 million for five of the six properties that constitute the new Sonoma Mountain park, starting in 2003 with the purchase of the 169-acre Jacobs Ranch site.

The ranch is now the park’s entrance, where visitors park and self-pay a day-use fee of $7. Access is free to Regional Parks members.

Visitors can use a bathroom before launching on the 4.5-mile ridge trail, which starts out in a damp forest studded with oaks and redwoods. A new footbridge crosses over Matanzas Creek, which was flowing swiftly this week.

Continuing along seasonal wetlands, the trail is raised with pebbles and lined with stone to keep hiking shoes from bogging down and to facilitate drainage. The path gets steeper as it re-enters the forest before emerging again to the fantastic views.

Mountain bikers are allowed to use the first 2 miles of the trail before they have to turn around, due to a deed restriction on a parcel that prevents through access, according to a spokeswoman for Regional Parks. Dogs are not allowed anywhere on the trail. Keene said park managers are considering whether to allow dogs in the future at the trailhead near the parking lot.

In addition to the main trail, there’s a wheelchair-accessible vista point above the park entrance and the Umbrella Tree Trail, which is three-quarters of a mile long and leads to a lone bay tree and picnic spot with views of Santa Rosa and Bennett Valley. There also are several creekside tables in the redwood grove at the Ridge Trail footbridge.

The trail and road improvements cost $1.5 million. Hart said Regional Parks has lease agreements with AT&T and PG&E for equipment the two companies have on the mountain. She said the money will help underwrite the park’s maintenance costs.

The county trail connects with Jack London’s Hayfields Trail. The state park has more than 20 miles of trails, and next month will debut a new 1.2-mile section on Sonoma Mountain’s eastern flank.

With the new trails in the county park and the existing and new trails in Jack London, Sonoma Mountain now has 8 miles of Bay Area Ridge Trail, which, when completed, will offer more than 340 miles of contiguous trails for hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians along the ridgelines overlooking San Francisco Bay.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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