Best parks in Sonoma County to see ‘before and after’ the fires

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Special coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley.

Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here.

At this point post-fire, the whispering bells have begun to fade. They’re an understated wildflower, clusters of nodding blooms now a papery ivory. But they are everywhere. Rounding a bend on the Lower Bald Mountain Trail in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, as oak woodland gives way to chaparral, the Sonoma Ecology Center’s Tony Passantino points out bunches of them.

But just wait, he advises.

And sure enough, farther along, an entire slope explodes with whispering bells. They are as dense as the bleaching wild oat grass in the meadow below, as dense as the coyote brush, chamise, and manzanita that burned here. There’s no wind on this late spring morning but if there were, the flowers would be softly chiming. Bend close and sniff: They smell like Sweet Tarts, of all things.

Passantino is delighted. He’s never seen anything like this, and neither has anyone else on Team Sugarloaf, the partnership that manages the state park. You can find whispering bells in an ordinary season, but this kind of profusion hasn’t been seen in 50 years, since the last time these hills burned. The same kind of rare display is happening down valley at the Bouverie Preserve in Glen Ellen, where the normally elusive redwood lily can be found everywhere, says Jeanne Wirka, director of stewardship for Audubon Canyon Ranch.

And the oat grass? Passantino, Wirka, and Neill Fogarty, supervising ranger at Trione-Annadel State Park have all watched it take off. October 2017’s wildfires supercharged the soils with “a megadose of nutrients,” Wirka explains, spawning a bumper crop that stands eight feet high in places. As the grasses cure and fire season progresses the potential fuel load is a little worrisome, but it’s also important to observe and document the abundance.

Most of us, fire gods willing, will only have one opportunity to witness the rebirth of nature following wildfire. And it’s happening in parks all around us. Here are some places where the effects can be easily observed with a short walk.

Bouverie Preserve

When the Nuns Fire swept through Bouverie, part of a hub of public open spaces and preserves converging in Glen Ellen, it almost immediately presented a lesson in fire ecology. Land managers had done a prescribed burn on a portion of the property, and the difference in how the fire behaved on that parcel presented an instant opportunity to study the effect of that fire management protocol in the field. The rest of the preserve took a hard hit, including loss of much of the infrastructure that supported its educational programs as well as man-made improvements along the trails themselves, like bridges. But by the time fall rolls around, Wirka said guided hikes for student groups and the public will be offered—and there’ll be more months of change to observe. Contact: 415-868-9244 ext. 306;

Hood Mountain Regional Park and Open Space Preserve

Located along the high ground of the Mayacamas above Kenwood, about 60 percent of Hood Mountain’s 1,750 acres were torched by the Nuns Fire. Drier conditions and extreme winds intensified the firestorm in the southern reaches of the park, leaving hillsides of skeletal forest and charred earth in its wake. Recovery will be slower here, but still worth witnessing. To check it out, begin hiking at the Pythian Road entrance, climbing the Lower Johnson Ridge Trail to the Panorama Ranch Trail, then continuing on the Upper Johnson Ridge Trail to the summit. The total round-trip involves significant elevation change, so wear good shoes and carry plenty of water. The Sugar-Hood Shuttle is another option, accommodating a point-to-point hike from Hood Mountain to Sugarloaf; details are on the Sugarloaf website. Contact: 707-539-8092;

Special coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley.

Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here.

Pepperwood Preserve

Perched in the western Mayacamas between Santa Rosa and Calistoga, Pepperwood was directly in the line of the Tubbs Fire. More than 80 percent of the preserve’s 3,200 acres of wildland burned, along with some structures. Known for the diversity of its habitat — prior to the fire more than 750 native plant varieties and 150 species of wildlife could be found in its woodlands and meadows — the preserve’s land managers are now monitoring and documenting recovery of, among other things, the composition and succession of vegetation as the landscape heals, and the wildlife that makes use of those different plants. The preserve is open to the public for volunteer workdays, classes, and public walks, and the staff has incorporated fire ecology into its curriculum.

Contact: 707-591-9310;

Sugarloaf Ridge State Park

Team Sugarloaf has created a Fire Recovery Walk that traverses from an unburned meadow through a succession of torched ecosystems including grassland, oak woodland, and chaparral. The 2-mile loop leads hikers past scorched-earth shadows of trees fallen before fire moved through, where downed wood burned so hot it killed the seed bank in the understory and altered soil chemistry. Nature will take its course here, Passantino says, as it also will in the canopies of the surviving oaks, where a powdery mildew has coated the leaves that budded soon after the blaze. Link the Lower Bald Mountain Trail with the paved Bald Mountain Trail and then the Stern Trail to complete the recovery loop. Stretch it out by heading right and uphill on Bald Mountain Trail and returning via the Vista and Meadow Trails for a 4-mile option. Contact: 707-833-5712; or

Trione-Annadel State Park

Ranger Fogarty recommends a pair of walks through fire-affected areas in the 5,500-acre park. The first is a 5.5 to 6-mile round-trip from the Channel Drive trailhead, traveling up the Warren Richardson Trail (aka the Richardson fire road) to Lake Ilsanjo, and then making a clockwise loop around the lake. The route reaches into regions that “burned hot,” Fogarty says, where fire torched stands of madrone and Douglas fir. The second option makes a long loop linking the Lawndale and Schultz Trails outside of Kenwood and passes the Ledson Marsh, which got a “haircut” during the fire — where the reeds burned off, opening the water to view. Contact: 707-539-3911;

Tracy Salcedo is a writer living in Glen Ellen.

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