Sugarloaf Ridge State Park celebrates half a century
It has been home to hippies and homesteaders, Califorñio ranchers, and Native Americans. In the 1870s, its trees were felled for charcoal to heat San Francisco furnaces. In the 1930s, Boy Scouts camped in its meadows. Its dark night sky has drawn crowds, sometimes hordes, of craning necks to celebrate comets, eclipses and other celestial bodies. Human bodies have also been discovered there…
Today, the most common visitors to Sugarloaf State Park are hikers, equestrians, and campers, but mountain lions, coyotes and bears still roam its backcountry.
In 1964, some 1,500 acres in the Mayacamas Mountains near Kenwood were transferred into the California State Park system, creating Sugarloaf Ridge State Park (now a total of 3,900 acres). On Memorial Day weekend, 1969, the park was opened to the public. However, well before that ribbon cutting, the land within those boundaries, including the headwaters of Sonoma Creek, had significance and history all their own.
The Wappo Indian village of Wilikos was located at the headwaters of Sonoma Creek before the first Spanish settlers came to California around 1770. The houses people lived in were dome-shaped huts as much as 40 feet long, made of poles and grass thatch. A larger structure, a sweat house, in the center of the village was used by the men for smoking, steam baths, and various ceremonial purposes.
American settlers who came early to California were interested in the fertile land of the valleys, but by the 1860s and ‘70s some of them had settled in the hills near Sugarloaf Ridge. Sugarloaf Ridge gets its name from exactly what it sounds like: a loaf of sugar. Sugar wasn’t always sold in plastic bags at the supermarket. Before the turn of the century, it came in loaves that looked like oversized, upside-down ice cream cones; the grocer just broke off pieces for customers. Many western mountains and hills are named after the familiar “sugar loaf.” There’s a granite “sugarloaf” outcropping in the Tahoe area near Kyburz, a “Sugar Loaf Rock” in Western Australia, and a “Sugar Loaf Bluff” in Winona, Minnesota. According to the United States Board on Geographic Names, there are over 450 hills, mountains or peaks named with a variant of “sugarloaf” or “sugar loaf.”
The park, located at the terminal end of Adobe Canyon and its namesake road, encompasses three distinct ecological systems: chaparral-covered ridges, oak/fir woodland along the open meadows, and redwood forest in the Sonoma Creek canyon. A 25-foot waterfall cascades down the creek after the winter rains. Big-leaf maples, madrone, California laurels, gray pines and alders also grow here.
At least one of the early settlers near Sugarloaf Ridge supplemented his income by making charcoal out of Sugarloaf’s trees to feed San Francisco’s furnaces. In the late 19th century, San Francisco consumed about 3,600 tons of charcoal annually, the bulk of which came from sites around Sonoma County. In 1916, the Hurd family, whose Bear Creek Ranch was up near the top of Bald Mountain (at 2,729 feet, one of the highest peaks in Sonoma County), built a small schoolhouse on their homestead and hired a live-in teacher for their 11 children and some of the neighboring children, who went to school there until high school.
The State of California bought most of what is now the park in 1920 with hopes of damming Sonoma Creek and providing water for Glen Ellen’s Sonoma State Hospital (now called the Sonoma Developmental Center). Sonoma Creek begins in the park and runs for three miles through its southern portion. Work began on the water diversion project, with most of the labor performed by “inmates” of the hospital, but a legal dispute arose with nearby property owners and the project was cancelled. (The hospital eventually constructed Suttonfield Dam on property in Eldridge instead.)
Use of the area was then limited to grazing, camping, picnicking, and a Boy Scout camp, known as Camp Butler.
Beginning in 1931, Camp Butler was the site of weekend- and two-week-long summer activities for “inmates” of the Sonoma State Hospital and the children of staff members. The Boy Scouts were responsible for building the camp, which included a 28- by 18-foot cookhouse; campers slept in tents under the stars. Lack of fuel and staff due to WWII forced Camp Butler to close in 1942, after which the land was leased out to a series of owners for grazing and hunting.
In 1959 the “Reynolds Ranch,” as it was now known, was declared surplus state property. Its immediate public sale was prevented by the review of state lands for the placement of a North Bay Area state college. This allowed time for public and political forces to martial efforts to make the property a state park.
In 1964, it was transferred to the California State Park Department, with gates and a campsite opening to the public in 1969. Its first resident ranger was Glen Ellen native Milo Shepard, great grand nephew of famed writer Jack London, whose property, Beauty Ranch, the family had already donated to the state parks system to become the current Jack London State Historic State Park.
Ground was broken for the Robert Ferguson Observatory in 1997, the largest observatory in the western United States completely dedicated to public viewing and education, spearheaded by The Valley of the Moon Observatory Association. Sugarloaf was deemed to be an ideal location for star gazing; the protective ring of hills decreases the influence of light pollution from surrounding cities. It was completed in 2003.
Due to California’s budget problems, Sugarloaf was closed in December 2011. Six months later, a coalition of five nonprofit partners, called Team Sugarloaf, developed a five-year agreement to manage the operations of the park, while the state maintained ownership. That operating agreement continues to this day.
Each nonprofit in Team Sugarloaf specializes in one facet of the park’s operations. Team Sugarloaf is made up of the Sonoma Ecology Center (which heads operations), the Robert Ferguson Observatory, United Camps, Conferences, and Retreats (which manages the campground), the Sonoma County Trails Council (trail maintenance), and the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association responsible for public interpretation of the natural and historic features.
Sugarloaf took a huge hit in the October 2017 wildfires. More than 75 percent of the park’s acreage burned over a 10-day period. In May 2018, Park Manager John Roney was honored with a California State Senate resolution by senators Mike McGuire and Bill Dodd for his heroic response to the October 2017 wildfires. On that first night of Oct. 8, the fires spread so rapidly that campers in the park and residents of nearby Adobe Canyon Road were caught unaware – and some might have died had Roney and other park staff not risked their own lives to evacuate the area.
The public was allowed to return to the park in February, and camping fully reopened in late April, after hazard trees were confirmed safe or removed.
Money and volunteers were a big part of making the rapid recovery possible. Team Sugarloaf received an outpouring of donations, and along with grant money and volunteers were able to make headway removing hazards and replacing burnt bridges.
Sugarloaf received 150,000 visitors last year.
Team Sugarloaf has expanded the park’s Spanish language programs, added two campouts and a Star Party at the observatory, constructed a trail for physically handicapped users, and increased operations of its Sugar Shuttle, shuttling long-distance hikers between Sugarloaf and Hood Mountain and North Sonoma Mountain regional parks.
“The park is now thriving, with more visitation than ever, and strong and positive collaboration between the state, the community and the park. We imagine that the next 50 years will continue this innovation that brings local communities into state parks as partners, and we’ll see Sugarloaf welcoming more and diverse visitors, adding new and unique recreational opportunities, while protecting the park’s phenomenal natural resources,” said Richard Dale, executive director for the Sonoma Ecology Center.
During its 50th birthday celebration month, the park is offering free admission for Oakmont and Kenwood residents on May 13-17 and will have a calendar packed full of special hikes and events. A special “Sugarloaf Turns 50” celebration will take place on May 27, featuring a family nature hike, solar viewing at the observatory, TIPS Roadside Trolley serving up tri tip in the group campground, a history hike, and, at 3 p.m., a big Sugarloaf reunion featuring local politicians and people who have lived and worked at Sugarloaf over the years. RSVP for the reunion at sugarloafpark.org/event/sugarloaf-turns-50-a-celebration-of-a-special-park/?instance_id=15454.
Information compiled from A Sugarloaf Reader by Lawrence Maniscalco and www.sugarloafpark.org.