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.
Along with fellow volunteer docent Dave Chalk, Bill Meyers started leading hikes through the park 13 years ago. They now run Bill and Dave's Hikes, which leads trips in Sugarloaf, San Francisco, Yosemite, Kunde Vineyards and other locations. The hikes became so popular that one year, for a hike on the Fourth of July, 212 hikers showed up. This year, the number was a more reasonable 80 or so, and the $50 per-person fee went straight to funding operations of the park, making the annual hike one of the park's biggest fundraisers.
And it needs the support. The 3,900-acre park closed in 2012 when California announced it couldn't afford to keep it and 69 other state parks open. Public upheaval spread about shuttering Santa Rosa's Annadel and Sonoma's Jack London parks, but immense popularity and historical value saved those two. Less noise was made for Sugarloaf Ridge, however, which is something of a forgotten middle child of the "big three."
Still, this stunning park has a large support base of visitors, and within half a year, volunteers had the park open and running as smoothly as it ever did under state control. Ultimately, 65 of the 70 state parks slated for closure were kept open or reopened, but Sugarloaf's story is particularly heartwarming.
Team Sugarloaf is a consortium of five nonprofit groups that have banded together to run the park. The Sonoma Ecology Center is the lead group, negotiating with the state and overseeing general park management; the Valley of the Moon Observatory Association operates the Robert Ferguson Observatory; United Camps, Conferences and Retreats operates the campground facilities; Valley of the Moon Natural History Association operates the visitor's center and helps with volunteers; and the Sonoma County Trails Council maintains the park's 25 miles of hiking, biking and horseback riding trails.
"We all put our strengths together and our ideas together to manage a park," says Richard Dale, executive director of the Sonoma Ecology Center.
It takes about $285,000 annually to keep the park open, almost $50,000 less than it cost the state in 2011. Most of the money comes from campground fees, but Dale says at least $25,000 in fundraising is needed each year to make up the difference. So far, public support has been strong, and the state has been helpful. "They've been bending over backwards" to work with Team Sugarloaf, says Dale, allowing events like docent-led fundraising hikes and a Friday-night summer concert series to take place in the park's amphitheater.
The concerts have drawn around a hundred people to the park each Friday, but the monthly stargazing nights at the Robert Ferguson Observatory routinely see 200 attendees staring at the sky, away from city lights, through one of the three high-powered telescopes at the observatory. One, nicknamed a "lightbucket," was built by one of the park's docents almost 20 years ago and uses a 24-inch reflector to gather light and condense it into an eyepiece, which is reached via ladder at the top of the scope. "The bigger the mirror, the more faint the objects you can see," explains volunteer observatory docent and amateur astronomer Dickson Yeager.
The observatory also hosts solar-viewing parties—but not using the lightbucket. "If you looked at the sun through that," says Yeager, "your head would catch on fire. I mean literally, it would catch on fire."
"Yeah," agrees fellow volunteer observatory docent Jim DeManche. "Have you seen those survival shows where they take a parabolic mirror and put a cup of water [under it] and it boils it? That's your brain."
The solar viewing, he explains, is done with a smaller telescope that can take photos of distant galaxies. It uses a computer program to clean up and filter images, allowing viewers to safely see an image of the sun's surface, with sunspots and even solar flares sometimes visible.
Together with the iconic telescope here in the big white dome, this trio of telescopes and collection of dedicated and knowledgeable volunteers make the observatory a standout of the park system. "This [observatory] is most accessible and most active," says DeManche, noting that Santa Rosa Junior College, Sonoma State University and Pepperwood Preserve also have observatories.
The observatory is popular, and even more so during a meteor shower. (DeManche points out that there will be a shower during the next public viewing night, on Aug. 10.) "The thing is, this was all done without public funds," says Yeager. "It was literally all done by the docent community."
As of now, Team Sugarloaf wouldn't mind running the park past its five-year contract with the state. It draws in volunteers and keeps the future of the park separate from the state's funding woes, says Dale. Having the state "find" almost $60 million in missing funds, $20 million of which was designated for state parks, doesn't encourage public trust. But Dale doesn't think government shouldn't be involved. "I firmly believe the state needs to be the owner of the land, resources, cultural objects," he says. "We need to have that kind of public trust of ownership."
If things keep going as well as they have in Team Sugarloaf's first year, it might become a model for other parks. "I'm not hearing about anything else like this," says Dale, "where state parks are closing and people are stepping up."
Yeager, who was a docent even before Team Sugarloaf came to be, says the funding crisis has brought a new sense of ownership to the park's volunteers.
"This place is just so much more alive than when the state was running it," he says. "It's incredible."
LOCAL STATE PARKS OPERATED BY OUTSIDE ORGANIZATIONS AND VOLUNTEERS
Annadel Taken over by Sonoma County Regional Parks in 2012, returned to state control July 1, 2013
Jack London Run by Jack London Park Partners through 2017
Sugarloaf Ridge Run by Team Sugarloaf through 2017
Austin Creek Run by Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods
Bothe-Napa Valley Run by Napa County Regional Park and Open Space District