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Tolay Lake Regional Park

Open 7am to sunset

5869 Cannon Lane, Petaluma

The park is located off Lakeville Highway about 8 miles southeast of Petaluma.

Regional Parks website

Open space and views were plentiful Saturday morning for visitors to Tolay Lake Regional Park, Sonoma County’s newest, and largest regional park, at 3,400 acres.

For the first time, without any supervision, visitors were allowed free rein to traverse miles of trail, offering views of San Pablo Bay and much of southern Sonoma County.

The park’s expansiveness gave it a “totally different feel,” said Nicole Ruggeri of Sebastopol, who visited with her family. “There’s just skies for days.”

Opening day was more than a decade in the making. The former Cardoza Ranch, at 1,737 acres, was acquired in 2005 for $18 million by the county’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. A second section, the 1,665-acre Tolay Creek Ranch, was bought by the Sonoma Land Trust for $13 million in 2007 with support from the Open Space District and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Both parcels were later transferred to the county, which is co-managing the park with the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. The tribe’s ancestors lived in the area, and their involvement in its development and stewardship is meant to ensure tribal interests are protected.

The park’s 200-acre namesake water body is seasonal and won’t reappear until the winter’s heavier rains come. The lake once occupied more of the area before being drained by ranchers in the late 19th century, revealing thousands of “charm stones” that held sacred value for past inhabitants.

Officials have asked anyone who discovers such a cultural artifact to not disturb it and instead inform staff of its location.

Supervised tours have been offered since 2009, and the annual Tolay Lake Fall Festival has been a big hit in recent years among legions of local families. But for many visitors, Saturday’s opening marked their inaugural experience of the open space. Many were pleased with the new park on the whole, though some said it’s geography would take some getting used to.

“Basically, it’s just a big flat valley,” said Denis Hazlewood of Petaluma, who said he prefers hillier expanses like those found in Helen Putnam Regional Park. Hazlewood added that he was glad the land became a park instead of being developed into vineyards or suburban housing.

The park’s valley offers easy solitude, with a network of trails that beckons to hikers. The only sounds Saturday included the crunch of footfalls, distant birdsong and a call here and there from cattle grazing the dry grass as it rustled in the wind.

From the West Ridge Trail, Ed Jacobson of Petaluma was pleased that he could see the waters of San Pablo Bay and Mount Tamalpais framing the western horizon.

“I’m just very happy that it’s open,” Jacobson said.

Another hiker, Alison Archer Manchester, was optimistic that the views would be even better once the grass greens up. When her sons were little, she said, the family used to visit the pumpkin patch during the Tolay Fall Festival, an annual two-week celebration that wrapped up last weekend.

Looking north over the valley, Manchester smiled and remarked that it was “nice to see the park evolve.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

Tolay Lake Regional Park

Open 7am to sunset

5869 Cannon Lane, Petaluma

The park is located off Lakeville Highway about 8 miles southeast of Petaluma.

Regional Parks website

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