Was that a little motorcycle whizzing past my head? The loud buzz seems like it's coming from inside my eardrum, but instinctively I pause and turn my head to follow the sound, where I'm half-expecting to see the Great Gazoo in his little flying saucer giving me a raspberry. Luckily for my companions and me, there's no little alien playing mind tricks, just a swath of large dragonflies, all different colors. Seemingly coming from nowhere, dozens of these stranger-than-fiction creatures are now hovering, darting and fornicating all around us.
Surrounded by manzanita trees, wildflowers, blue sky and fragrant bay trees and sage bushes, the serenity of the scene fills me with awe. My eyes get big and a little watery as the splendor of nature overwhelms my senses up here in Sugarloaf. But when I pick up my feet to move along the trail, the serotonin in my brain turns to lactic acid in my thighs, and I'm pushed off the ethereal plain back to reality.
During the 3.5-mile, 1,500-foot-elevation hike to Bald Mountain in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, the park can feel like a different world, a thousand miles from everywhere. But it's just half an hour from Santa Rosa—a little off the beaten path, is all. No wonder it's sometimes forgotten.
"It's a well-kept secret," says volunteer docent Bill Myers, leading my trek through heaven and hell. "It's one of the coolest parks around."
A few days later, I'm tackling rugged terrain and crossing shallow creeks in a tricked-out electric golf cart with park manager John Roney, who stops to say hello to each visitor he sees. After passing huge thickets of blackberry, which line the trails with fruit ready to be picked, we come to a stop at an overlook with what appear to be remnants of a brick foundation.
Roney explains that this is the former site of the cookhouse for the Sonoma Developmental Center's campers in the 1940s. Before Sugarloaf became a state park in 1964, it was used by the center for camping, picnicking and scouting. It was originally purchased by the state in 1920 to dam Sonoma Creek as a water supply for Sonoma State Hospital, but after local landowners voiced their opposition, those plans were canceled.
It's plain to see why locals wouldn't want to change a thing about this place. The serenity of birds calling to each other, wind rustling through the trees and clouds gently flowing overhead makes me want to get out and walk the rest of the way, but the two-mile trip would probably keep Roney away from the visitors center too long. When he's not in, the gift shop and nature center are closed. There's also no one else to answer questions like "Which hike should I take?" ("Well, how much energy and time do you have?") or "Is there cell phone reception in the park?" ("What service do you have? Sometimes you can get an AT&T signal on some of the trails.") He's the go-to guy, always happy to help out.
It might seem strange that just one person handles all these duties, but then again, it might also seem strange that our state parks, such natural places of refuge, continually face funding shortfalls, budget cuts and threats of closure.
Luckily for Sugarloaf, some dedicated fans are doing something about it.