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A Sense of Balance

Among beloved state parks like Annadel, Jack London and Armstrong Woods, Sugarloaf—remote and beautiful—is Sonoma County's forgotten gem

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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.

NADAV SOROKER
  • Nadav Soroker

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."

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