Willow Creek Ranch: Connecting Ocean and Sky in Sonoma County

Our hike began in a misty pasture flanked by knotty oaks. Within minutes, however, we were in a forest dominated by coastal redwoods-giants craning out of the darkness toward the sky. From its hollow, Freezeout Creek (named because its northern exposure keeps it icy cold) sang to us as we made our way up a retired logging road.

Rounding a bend, we saw that the woodland opened suddenly to reveal grasslands rolling out to the horizon. Though we’d climbed less than a thousand feet, it felt like we’d reached the top of the world.

“This ridge has the best views of the coast that I’ve seen,” said Jonathan Glass, project manager for LandPaths, a local conservation group working with State Parks to care for the 3,373 acres known as Willow Creek Ranch. Had it been a clear day, to the west toward the Pacific Ocean we’d have seen the Russian River opening into Sonoma Coast’s largest freshwater marsh and then melding with the sea. But instead, we looked down on a bank of cool fog. It lapped at the hills and valleys below while we basked in high-country afternoon sun.

“This is a special place,” added LandPaths docent George Snyder, explaining that the small things-such as deer-nibbled branches, bobcat tracks, coyote scat, and the faintest hint of skunk in the breeze-speak to him as much as the wide-open views we were admiring.

But there was nothing small about the efforts to protect this expansive landscape by people like Glass and Snyder-two of the many volunteers and staff of LandPaths-and Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, another local conservation group.

“Many people in the community worked for years to create public access on Willow Creek and supported us and our partners in this important acquisition,” explains Andrea Mackenzie, General Manager of the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District (SCAPOSD).

In May, after four years of negotiations, the Trust for Public Land, SCAPOSD, and California State Parks finally announced the purchase and permanent public protection of just more than five square miles of Willow Creek Ranch-the biggest ever public conservation purchase in Sonoma County. “State Parks has long sought to include this property within the Sonoma Coast State Beach,” says State Parks Director Ruth Coleman, adding that the state beach is California’s third-busiest state park.

“This major expansion of the Sonoma Coast State Beach adds incredible public access to redwood forests and creeks, offering spectacular opportunities for public recreation and enjoyment,” says Sam Schuchat, executive director of the Coastal Conservancy.

Approximately half the funds for the purchase were provided by the SCAPOSD, through a quarter-cent local sales tax approved by Sonoma County voters in 1990. The remainder of the funding was awarded through grants (made possible by California voter-approved bond measures) from the Coastal Conservancy, the Wildlife Conservation Board, and the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

Willow Creek Ranch is home to nearly 30 endangered and threatened species-including northern spotted owl, osprey, sharp-shinned hawk, pallid bat, red tree vole, and northwestern pond turtle-as well as “the Willow Creek and Freezeout Creek watersheds, which are critical to the health and vitality of the Russian River,” says Al Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Conservation Board.

“The purchase of Willow Creek Ranch is an important acquisition that connects the coast to Sonoma County’s lush forests and creeks. This creates public access and a corridor for wildlife,” explains Senator Wes Chesbro, who along with Assemblymember Patty Berg, helped the long-awaited acquisition become a reality. “This is good for wildlife, good for the environment, and good for generations of Californians.”

“This is a beautiful piece of property,” adds State Parks Commission Chair Caryl Hart. “Acquiring it has been one of the highest priorities of the local community and California State Parks. It adds wonderful recreational opportunities to Sonoma Coast State Beach.”

“There aren’t many wild places on the Sonoma Coast where you can ride horses or a mountain bike,” says Michelle Luna, executive director of Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods. “Willow Creek provides recreational users with an opportunity to do things that they can’t do elsewhere.”

Returning to Willow Creek for another hike, we brought our 3-month-old daughter with us. She can’t yet take in the vistas or understand how amazing it is to be able to walk from the ocean to the hilltops and into the dense forests beyond. Whether she’ll like to hike, bike, ride horses, or watch birds, we don’t yet know. But with the addition of Willow Creek to Sonoma Coast State Beach, we know these lands will be here for her to enjoy, whenever she’s ready.

This kind of conservation transaction is only possible through the continued support of TPL’s donors. Donations from individuals like you allow TPL to work on large-scale, complex projects like this.

Excerpt from 2005 California newsletter.