Sugarloaf Ridge State Park

25.00 Miles
3point5stars (3.73)11
3point5stars (3.55)
3stars (3.36)
2605 Adobe Canyon Rd.
Saint Helena
More Info
Heading up hill on Lower Bald Mountain Trail, not too far from the park observatory.
Heading up hill on Lower Bald Mountain Trail, not too far from the park observatory.

Sugarloaf Ridge State Park sits amidst a biologically rich crossroads for many of California's native flora and fauna. Here it's possible to catch glimpses of the state bird, the state tree, the state flower, and even the state rock. And yet, the park was an afterthought that almost never came to be.

The State of California bought the property in 1920 with the intention of damming up the creek to create a reservoir to facilitate the production of electricity for Sonoma State Hospital. Local opposition to the plan helped shelve the idea. It eventually became part of the state park system in 1964.

A guided hiking group heads towards a rocky overlook of Sonoma Creek valley.
A guided hiking group heads towards a rocky overlook of Sonoma Creek valley.

The park contains the headwaters of Sonoma Creek. Though some relatively flat meadows bracket the creek itself, much of the park is made up of peaks along the Mayacamas Mountains that continue south towards the town of Sonoma. The high point in the park is Bald Mountain, which rises to 2,729 feet above sea level. That sits about 1,500 feet above the elevation of the park headquarters building.

The parks has somewhere between 20 and 25 miles (depending on the source of your information) of trails, ranging from paved paths to natural packed dirt and even some rocky scree-like segments.

Napa Valley as seen from the summit of Bald Mountain.
Napa Valley as seen from the summit of Bald Mountain.

The trail to the summit of Bald Mountain is mostly paved, which doesn't make for the most natural of hikes, but it does provide an smooth and even surface that might help to offset the difficulty from the steepness in places. There are alternate routes to the peak that take a more circuitous route (such as via the Gray Pine Trail) if one wants to avoid pavement.

About a third of the way up Bald Mountain lies Vista Trail. Not only does it provide a convenient turning point to complete and more leisurely loop back to the park HQ, it also features a prominent rock outcropping worth a visit all its own. I thought our guide called this feature Indian Rock. It juts up and out from the trail providing breathtaking and sweeping views of Sonoma Creek valley before it empties into the larger Sonoma Valley.

From the top of Bald Mountain one can easily peer into both the Sonoma and Napa valleys, two of California's most celebrated wine cultivation areas. On clear days one is also supposed to be able to see the Golden Gate Bridge to the south, the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the east. The peak can be windswept and quite chilly compared to the areas just beneath it so dress in layers.

Gray Pine Trail provides a natural packed dirt and sometimes rocky path down the mountain to the east. The trail here is occasionally steep and requires some careful footing in places.

Like many other state parks, Sugarloaf was threatened with closure due to severe budgetary cutbacks. Team Sugarloaf non-profit organization was organized to take over operation. Please consider making an extra donation to the organization when you visit.

Headed back
Coppertone and Roger on the trail as we double back towards our trailhead. (Photo by Austin Explorer)
Starting point
If you look closely, you can see buildings near where we started off in the distance. (Photo by Austin Explorer)
Picnic Bench View
We enjoyed this view while resting and having a snack before heading back down the trail. (Photo by Austin Explorer)
Look at that
Coppertone and Roger look off into the distance to see where we started off the hike. (Photo by Austin Explorer)
More Milkmaids
The Milkmaid wildflowers even dominated in the lower elevations along Lower Bald Mountain Trail. (Photo by Austin Explorer)
This brave lizard held his ground on a rock to ensure his prime, sunny spot for warmth. (Photo by Austin Explorer)
The wildflowers on the slope of Bald Mountain lived up to our expectations. (Photo by Austin Explorer)
Poppies and Lupine were among the flowers on Bald Mountain, even if overpowered by the white Milkmaids. (Photo by Austin Explorer)
Descending from Bald Mountain
Coppertone pauses to take in the view of the wildflowers on Bald Mountain. (Photo by Austin Explorer)
Bald Mountain
The wildflower covered southern slope of Bald Mountain as seen from the Gray Pine Trail. (Photo by Austin Explorer)
Gray Pine Trail
Looking back over the Gray Pine Trail. Plenty of recent fire damage but the park keeps coming back. (Photo by Austin Explorer)
Lots of space
Headed back downhill towards the main park entrance gate. (Photo by Austin Explorer)

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Log Entries
Hiking through the outer solar system
By Austin Explorer on 6/17/2023
Rating: 4stars Difficulty: 3stars Solitude: 3stars
Distance: 4.67 Miles Duration: 2 hours, 49 minutes

Coppertone and I joined our friend Richard for a hike along Sugarloaf's Planet Walk.  The Robert Ferguson Observatory that served as our starting point also stands in for Earth in the Planet walk.  Subsequent planetary markers on the trail are spaced proportionally to match their relative distances from the Sun.  The Mars marker came up rather quickly.  The outer planets' markers only come with more milage and some elevation gain.

The walk follows along the Meadow and Brushy Peaks Trails.  Along this path we symbolically traversed the solar system all the way past Neptune.  There is also a marker for Pluto farther ahead.  But we'll stay out of the fierce debate concerning whether Pluto should be considered a planet or not.

Near our picnic bench turnaround point a small section of trail was cordoned off.  The reason being a large beehive has been established in the hollow of an Oak tree.  There was a constant stream of bees coming and going from the opening right onto the trail.  A short and simple detour a little farther away from the tree still allowed access to the nearby picnic table.

Despite the number of people we encountered on the trail we had our picnic spot all to ourselves.  After enjoying a rest and snacks we doubled back along the path we took back to our trailhead.

Searching for wildflowers
By Austin Explorer on 4/11/2021
Rating: 3stars Difficulty: 3stars Solitude: 3stars
Distance: 6.88 Miles Duration: 4 hours, 35 minutes

Coppertone and I revisited the park at what we hoped would be the near peak of wildflowers in the park.  We recall a blanketed slope at Bald Mountain that we wanted to see again.

When we started our hike at the Observatory hiked the Meadow Trail we were a little concerned.  There just didn't appear to be that many flowers around.  Recent fires had certainly taken its toll, but one would expect wildflowers to be some of the first to come back in force.  One interesting thing we also noticed in the area was the apparent physical removal of the enormous brambles of blackberry bushes that used to line the trail.  Looks like we'll have to pick another park later in the year to pick and eat.

The steep climb up the Gray Pine Trail was pretty much as we remembered it from past visits.  Steep.  And on top of that some false summits thrown in to make you think the hard work was just about over.  Still, as you top off on the rolling ridge that leads to Bald Mountain you are rewarded with views of Mount Tam, Mount Diablo and peaks into two of the best valleys for wine in the world.

Thankfully, when within sight of Bald Mountain we could see the south facing slope was indeed covered in wildflowers.  From a distance white flowers, probably Milkmaids, were the only color to be seen.  Even up close they dominated.  But as we got closer to the summit we could see plenty of blue from Lupines as well as some orange Poppies and a few other pallette selections thrown in as well.  We may not have arrived at the peak, but we got to see what we came for.

Our route back to the car took us down the relatively busy Bald Mountain Trail.  A turn onto Lower Bald Mountain Trail lead to the Observary and our car parked not too far away.

We were a little disturbed by a couple of groups on the trail hiking with no masks.  These weren't folks who were a little slow in applying masks on hand when passing by others, but rather people with no masks at all.  We had to dart off trail, always a bit no-no, twice to provide the requisite 6 feet of separation from them.  It's a disturbing sign with the pandemic still in force.  We may need to select parks and routes with wider trails, such as those suitable for jeeps to ensure we can maintain distance while still staying on the trails.

Mapping out more of the trails
By Austin Explorer on 6/14/2020
Rating: 3stars Difficulty: 3stars Solitude: 3stars
Distance: 2.78 Miles Duration: 1 hour, 28 minutes

Another visit the park to map more of the trails here.  This time Hillside Trail was our main goal.  We found a fantastic picnic spot along this trail.  We'll have to remember to come back to the area at a later time.

More mapping
By Austin Explorer on 6/7/2020
Rating: 3stars Difficulty: 3stars Solitude: 3stars
Distance: 4.63 Miles Duration: 2 hours, 31 minutes

Coppertone and I made our first real outdoor foray after COVID-19 and chose to map some trails we had not yet visited at Sugarloaf Ridge.  Despite the pandemic the parking areas were almost full.  Seems like others were anxious to get outdoors as well.  Most on the trail had masks and observed proper social distancing.

The track file for this outing looks a little weird, but our goal was to map segments we'd missed before, so we jumped around from here to there.

The trail surface of the first half of the Creekside Nature Trail is some of the nicest we've seen anywhere.  This should be ADA compliant and was really well done.  On the downside, several of the nature trail tour guide markers seem to be missing.  The second half of the trail has a rougher surface and more elevation variation.  Definitely not ADA compliant on that end.

The Stern Trail is a wide jeep path, which normally does not make for the most ideal hiking experience.  The top is even paved.  However, there are some very nice views to be had by hiking it without having to expend too much energy to get to the higher spots in the park.  Not only views within Adobe Canyon, but also spilling out into Sonoma Valley.

Vista Trail Loop
By Austin Explorer on 9/2/2019
Rating: 4stars Difficulty: 4stars Solitude: 4stars
Distance: 3.78 Miles Duration: 1 hour, 55 minutes

Coppertone and I returned to map out the Vista Trail segment, which we had only partially hiked in the past.  We did a counterclockwise loop using the Meadow-Gray Pine-Vista-Bald Mtn.-Lower Bald Mtn.-Meadow trail segments.  In a nutshell, what this meant was stairs going up and sloped trails coming back down.  If you prefer stairs on the descent you'll want to reverse the direction of what we did today.

Along Meadow Trail we stopped to look whether there were any Blackberries on the brambles along the trail.  There were a few available for picking, but not as much as during our previous visit.  While doing this we could hear a number of California Quail chirping to each other to alert the group about our presense.  We could never manage to catch a glimpse of them in the thicket.

We spotted numerous harvester ant mounds along the trail though most had settled in their homes with the temperature rising.

The climb up Gray Pine Trail and the first half of Vista Trail is strenuous.  The stairmaster workout took its toll on us and demonstrated that we have yet to get back into decent trail shape.  At least the tree cover over these steep sections provided ample shade for us to stop and catch our breath.

After about halfway through Vista Trail the path flattens out somewhat as the path largely follows the contour of the hillside.  The word Vista in Vista Trail also becomes apparent at this point.  At the waypoint Vista View the scene is extraordinary.  It's practically a 360 degree panorama over the southern half of the park.  The Robert Ferguson Observatory, a vineyard on the opposite side of the canyon, numerous peaks, some still fire scarred, some still verdant.  This would be a spectacular spot to stop for lunch and soak in the views.

We also stopped briefly at Indian Rock, a spot we had visited in a previous hike on our way up to Bald Mountain.  It boasts a nice view as well, but the Vista View point takes the cake.  It's pretty much all downhill back to the trailhead from this point on, which was a welcome respite for our tired legs.

In the end the trail length, elevation gain and expected time to finish were reported to a remarkable level of accuracy in the park's official map, which we recommend you purchasing.  It provides a great level of detail for this park as well as adjacent Hood Mountain Regional Park that's not found on the free (and quite adequite) maps handed out when entering the park.

Hills and views
By Austin Explorer on 8/18/2019
Rating: 4stars Difficulty: 4stars Solitude: 4stars
Distance: 6.95 Miles Duration: 4 hours, 1 minute

We decided to revisit Sugarloaf Ridge State Park to map out the Brushy Peaks Trail in the park's northeast corner.  We parked at the Observatory and when we first drove up we wondered what might be going on as the lot was full of cars.  A large group of familes were camping.  We're not sure what group they might have been with and they had all completely cleared out by the time we finished our hike.

Starting off from the Observatory, the Meadow Trail was nice and easy with gently rolling hills.  We've passed through here many times in the past.  We stopped a few times along the way to check out the thick blackberry brambles.  Though most berries were still red we were able to find a few ripe specimens which we sampled.

The climbing started in earnest at the junction with the Brushy Peaks Trail.  Unlike the more open Meadow Trail, there is ample tree cover at the start of the trail here, which was a relief given that the morning's cloud cover was already beginning to burn off.  The creek that the trail follows here was already dry.

We stopped at several spots along the trail leading up to Brushy Peaks.  Wonderful canyon views were augmented by a vineyard across the chasm.  We're in Sonoma, so what else would you expect?  The view marked Picnic on the track file has a great picnic bench where one can stop for lunch.  The vineyards are closer here though the solar panels in the distance look a little out of place.

Once topping out at Brushy Peaks one might think that the climbing is over and it's all downhill from there, but that's not the case.  The trail turns to the west and heads towards Gray Pine Trail.  While doing so the trail undulates up and down several prominences.  So be prepared for continual elevation changes throughout the trail.

One thing we did enjoy on the upper reachs of Brushy Peaks Trail was the peeling bark of the many Manzanita trees here.

We turn south when coming to thein  Gray Pine Trail.  At this point it is almost completely downhill back to the trailhead.  That presents some of its own problems as some pitches are quite steep and the small pebbles on the surface don't do much to provide extra traction.  We had a couple of close calls on the way down but managed to avoid any falls.

With the elevation gain and mileage we might have taken this on a bit too soon as we have worked to get our hiking legs back.  But the views were great and it felt really great to get out in the hills again.  It's comforting to see continued recovery from the 2017 fires, though it remains a work in progress.

Canyon and Pony Gate Trails Loop
By Austin Explorer on 1/26/2019
Rating: 4stars Difficulty: 3stars Solitude: 3stars
Distance: 2.93 Miles Duration: 1 hour, 33 minutes

Coppertone and I decided to hits the trails for the first time in months in part to see the falls here while the water levels were high.  It just would not be the same in the fall when there might best be a trickle.

We walked past the park entrance gate along the road until we got to the Canyon Trail trailhead.  The trail immediately begins a consistent descent towards Sonoma Creek below.  The path all along this trail and mostly through Pony Gate Trail is heavily treed, providing some relief from the Sun.

Just prior to encountering the main falls on the trail there is a miniature but long, multi-step falls that of a seasonal stream that feeds into Sonoma Creek.  It was worth a stop of its own.  Compared to its larger companion nearby, the falls here provide but a whisper.

The main falls, which seems to have no official name, is a short distance beyond and at high flow levels provides a nice aquatic roar that drowns out most other sounds nearby.  It was not crowded at the falls, but during our time at the spot there was always someone coming or going.  It's obviously the highlight of the trail.

The trail continues on to the west this time ascending until it intersects with Adobe Canyon Road that leads into the park.  We took a right for a short distance along the road to the Pony Gate Trail trailhead.

From here, it's more uphill hiking.  The dense vegetation doesn't provide for much of a view but there are several additional streams, all easily fordable, bubbling and darting around their rocky beds.

Rather than continue on a small unhiked section of the Canyon Trail back to Adobe Canyon Road, we elected to go with the unnamed trail that heads more directly to the park entrance gate.  This choice minimized the distance we would have to walk along the road to get back to our parking spot.  It also turned out to be a fortuitous choice.  The sky opened up as the trail gently descended down a grassy meadow with the peaks of Sugarloaf Ridge clearly visible in the distance.  A fine way to end the hike.

We found that we are both woefully out of shape!  This wasn't a particularly hard hike and the elevation gain was not that high, but we suffered far more than we should have - a sure sign that we need to make a point of hitting the trails more often.

Gray Pine - Bald Mountain Trail Loop
By Austin Explorer on 4/1/2018
Rating: 4stars Difficulty: 4stars Solitude: 4stars
Distance: 6.82 Miles Duration: 4 hours, 43 minutes

Coppertone and I returned the the scene of our last failed hike here.  In February we went on a Bill and Dave's hike here but had to turn back due to Coppertone's blisters.  With a new set of trail shoes she decided now was the time to recreate the scene of the crime.  Thankfully her new shoes worked out great and we were able to complete what we think was the original hike's route.

The 1,500 feet of elevation gain and our reaction to it indicates that we are still not into true trail form.  We took our time ascending up the mountain via Gray Pine Trail and rested frequently to observe the wildflowers that are in bloom and the regenerative processes at work as the park and the surrounding area recovers from the devastating 2017 wine country wildfires.

There are parts of the park that look like the aftermath of a war zone.  But even in those charcoal back colored areas the monotony of the color is starting to break as more and more green pops up from the inky black.  Trees and brush that were burned to a crisp are resprouting from whatever place possible, even if that is only from the base of their ruined trunk.  Bald Mountain and Lower Bald Mountain seem to have larger swaths of decimated terrain that is just starting to come back.  Gray Pine also has pockets of destroyed foliage, but they tend to be a bit more spotty and miraculously untouched stands of trees punctuate the area more frequently.  As we have learned, fire is a capricious beast.

One of the upsides of recent fire activity is the expectation that this year's wildflower season should be above average.  Right below Bald Mountain this is borne out by large fields of wildflowers that blanket the steep hillsides.  Blue lupine are abundant as are a white flower I couldn't identify.  A couple of guys set a bad example for all by trampling right over some of the flowers so they could get a selfie against the backdrop of flowers they didn't happen to ruin.  There are plenty of angles for getting a shot of these flowers.  Stay on the trails and do everyone else a favor by ensuring the flowers will be healthy for them as well.

As is typical, the top of Bald Mountain was windy.  This felt fairly good after the tiring clime to the top.  There's a new beanch and set of signs that have been put in place since the fire.  From this high point one can clearly see into both Sonoma Valley and Napa Valley.  With the aid of the handy signs we were also able to pick out distant peaks such as Mount Tamalpais in Marin County and Mount Diablo on Contra Costa County.

We took the easy way down via Bald Mountain Trail.  A good portion of this trail is paved and presented the shortest route back to the car.

Bill and Dave's Blister Buster
By Austin Explorer on 2/17/2018
Rating: 4stars Difficulty: 4stars Solitude: 2stars
Distance: 4.50 Miles Duration: 2 hours, 9 minutes

Coppertone and I went on another Bill and Dave's led hike.  We had to turn around after a couple of miles because Coppertone's blisters from a previous hike has opened up and the 3M tape she had applied was no longer working in her favor.  We had to cut things short but proceeded to the nearest REI to buy some different shoes for her since the hiking boots she has really give her issues on steep terrain.  There was plenty of that here.

Intense group hike
By Austin Explorer on 4/16/2016
Rating: 4stars Difficulty: 4stars Solitude: 4stars
Distance: 7.13 Miles Duration: 3 hours, 51 minutes

Coppertone and I did our first hike with Bill and Dave Hikes.  The solitude rating here does not take into account the 29 people who were part of our hiking group.  Other than us, we saw few people on the trail.

We started off in the adjacent Hood Mountain Regional Park since its Los Alamos parking area is the only way to get to the McCormick Addition section of Sugarloaf Ridge.  A quick descent to Santa Rosa Creek, which was easily forded, and it was lots of climbing after that in Sugarloaf Ridge SP itself.

Our main goal of the hike was to get to the Granmother Tree, the largest Coastal Live Oak in Sonoma County.  Resting for a few moments under the grand old dame, a couple of our fellow hikers recited a couple of poems, one specifically written for the tree.

Official maps show the trail dead ending at the Grandmother Tree, but we contnued on to a lunch spot atop a peak surrounded by higher ridges.  This gorgeous spot provided over 180 degrees of vistas of forest, shrub and grassland.  We could have lingered for hours and been content.

We took a shortcut down to the Maple Glen Trail and eventually doubled back to the trailhead.  The hiking pace was brisk and the terrain tough, so much so that by the end of the hike we were exhausted.  Obviously we need to work on our endurance!

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