Shuttle bus service launched to allow more people to preview Mark West park

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Sonoma County Regional Park officials knew there was pent-up interest in exploring the newest addition to the county park system — a 1,192-acre wooded wonderland in the upper Mark West Creek watershed.

But a crush of sign-ups for the first in a series of preview days designed to get people on the land before the park can be opened on a continuous basis forced officials to scramble to accommodate additional visitors.

With just days to go before Saturday’s inaugural preview day at the Mark West Regional Park and Open Space Preserve, new arrangements have been made for a shuttle to take people between Schopflin Fields in Santa Rosa and the Mark West park entrance on the day of the preview.

“We were totally blown away,” Park Manager David Robinson said Friday after watching the growing waiting list for reservations. “It’s really exciting. It’s awesome. The people of Sonoma County love their parks. It’s so apparent time and time again.”

Parking space is scarce at the new property, forcing park officials to get creative. Robinson said he was thrilled with how readily he was able to arrange liability insurance, the key to offering the shuttle service and vastly increasing the number of visitors allowed to explore the newly acquired parkland off Porter Creek Road.

There are still other monthly preview days ahead, each second Saturday through the end of the year. If there’s enough demand, buses can be arranged for those occasions, as well, he said.

Robinson knows lovers of the outdoors are impatient to set foot on newly public acreage that’s been touted for its rugged, natural beauty and abundant wildlife along a pristine stretch of Mark West Creek.

But planning for development of the park has barely begun and is expected to take about five years. In the meantime, park officials have opted to hold “park preview days” that would allow visitors to explore the landscape on their own, without having to depend on guided tours or acquisition of permits.

“It’s amazing the amount of feedback we get, just the excitement,” he said. “And it’s a beautiful park. It really is.”

Transferred to the park system last fall by the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, the new park property was pieced together through $23 million in taxpayer-funded acquisitions over the course of more than a decade. It is located across Porter Creek Road from the Safari West wildlife preserve, which is adjacent to Pepperwood Preserve, and helps form a continuous, 4,500-acre swath of protected land in the Mark West Creek corridor.

The property offers a mix of redwoods, Douglas fir, oak woodland, chaparral and grasslands, with a 2½-mile stretch of Mark West Creek that serves as spawning ground for salmonid fish.

Park officials had hoped to bring visitors onto the land for preview days beginning in March, but were delayed by heavy winter and late-season rains.

“We’ve had a lot of interest in the preview days,” park Communications Manager Meda Freeman said. “We’ve had regular calls and emails from people wanting to know when they’ll be able to visit.”

The park property has at least 7 miles of trails and ranch roads, most developed by a previous landowner. Park crews and volunteers recently created about a mile of new trail connecting the Porter Creek Road access point to the property.

The limiting factor is parking.

There is only space for about 125 cars at 3000 Porter Creek Road, where park visitors will have to leave their vehicles. Park officials are very concerned that any excess traffic spilling out onto the narrow, curving roadway could pose a serious safety risk, Robinson said.

About 120 people have expressed interest in shuttle service through the park’s ticketing site over two days last week — a boon not only for the Mark West previews but to the park service generally, given its interest in exploring greater use of shuttles for more environmentally friendly park visitation, Robinson said.

Details are still being worked out, but the buses are likely to leave Schopflin about every 45 minutes beginning at 8:30 a.m. for the 15-minute ride to Mark West.

To sign-up for shuttle service and learn more about the new park, go to tinyurl.com/y3x3ke4d.

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

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