One morning in mid-March, I set out to hike up the mountain, following a recently opened stretch of the Ridge Trail along its southeastern slopes. My destination was Gunsight Rock Overlook, about a half-mile past the summit. No doubt about it: hiking up this mountain is a grunt. I know I grunted--and groaned--on a few stretches of old fire road in between the new trail sections. Climbing almost 2,000 feet over a distance of about three miles, this trail is not one I’d attempt on a hot summer afternoon.
But a bright, crisp, morning in early spring is another story. As I set out from the Pythian Road trailhead, my dog Sophie (properly leashed) trotting by my side, Hood Creek was gurgling and the chill in the air took the edge off the first climb, alongside a private road that leads to houses farther back in the woods. After leaving the paved road, the trail continued up through a pleasantly cool forest of oaks, firs, madrones, and other trees that shades much of the route and rustles with birds. Brilliant orange-and-black butterflies sipped from a mud puddle.
After about an hour, we turned onto the Valley View Trail, which dropped down past a pond, then leveled out. I had heard that this is a good trail to see wildflowers, and I wasn’t disappointed. Emerging from the forest into a more open area where I could look out over Sonoma Valley, I saw brilliant red columbines, pale yellow star lilies, California lilacs. The air was heavy with Sonoma sage in full bloom, its columns of blue flowers swaying in the breeze. A red-tailed hawk cried out as it circled far above.
Then the trail turned inland and we climbed past rock faces thick with moss and ferns. Just past a second pond, I sat and ate my sandwich in a meadow near the remnants of an old homestead--a few shacks and a lone brick chimney, a scrawny palm tree, bits of an old stone wall--and wondered about the people who had lived on this land and worked it.
Rested, we set out again, rejoining the main route to ascend through forest and chaparral to the summit, where views are mostly blocked by ceanothus and manzanita shrubs. A short, steep descent brought us to Gunsight Rock Overlook. The vista was exhilarating: Beneath me spread the Valley of the Moon, fresh and vividly green from winter rains, Sonoma Mountain rising beyond it to the south. The skies were a little hazy, but I could just make out San Francisco’s skyline, far away to the southeast. On clear days it’s possible to see the ocean in the west and the Sierra Nevada in the east. As I sat perched on the rocks, savoring the view and the warm sun on my face, a peregrine falcon swooped down the mountainside.
This mountain is mostly encompassed by Sonoma County’s 1,750-acre Hood Mountain Regional Park, which has picnic areas and miles of trails that pass through forested slopes (including groves of serpentine pygmy cypress), deep canyons, grasslands, and stands of native azaleas. The park’s 307-acre southern section, where I hiked, was acquired by the County in 2003 and opened to the public in October 2006. A new trailhead and facilities at the upper end of Pythian Road, just off Highway 12, and more than four miles of new trail were constructed with the help of $235,000 from the Coastal Conservancy. Opening this land to the public has eased access to the central and eastern portions of the park, as well. The new trails are open to bicyclists and equestrians as well as hikers, and connect to a network of multi-use trails in the Hood Mountain and Sugarloaf Ridge parks.
I had a hard time tearing myself away from Gunsight Rock, but eventually the shadows grew longer and it was time to head back. As we hiked back along the ridge through dense groves of manzanita in flower, hummingbirds darted from blossom to blossom. Then it was down, down, down, past the ponds, where pacific tree frogs were chiming their evening chorus, and through the woods, jays scolding and owls hooting me all the way to my car.
The park is open daily from 8 a.m. to sunset. To reach the Pythian Road trailhead, take Highway 12 east from Santa Rosa and turn left on Pythian Road, then drive 1.3 miles to the trailhead. Parking is $5 per vehicle. At the trailhead are water, restrooms, and picnic tables. See www.sonoma-county.org/parks/Pk_hood.htm.