If you find yourself staying in Sonoma with a dog – or really, anywhere in the greater Bay Area – you’ll quickly learn that most trails are not pet-friendly. This was probably my biggest gripe about our time in California, and I’m pretty sure if I had a nickel for every time I bitched about this, I could afford a mansion in Seacliff… and maybe even a sweet Bugatti to snazz up the driveway.
After three years of traveling around the U.S., Stephan and I are quite familiar with the restrictions for dogs in national parks. That said, we’ve had a lot of success finding some totally awesome trails at state parks in pretty much every state we’ve stayed. That is, until California. Unless you want to walk Fido around a bunch of paved parking lots, California’s state parks are not going to be a haven for exploring with your pup. Consequently, we had to find another solution. Cue Sonoma County Regional Parks.
While Sonoma’s regional parks are much smaller and have both shorter and fewer trails to choose from, we ended up spending a lot of time in these greenspaces over our three-month stay. And while it wasn’t the long-distance hiking we were used to, some of the parks peppering the county were surprisingly scenic. Even if you aren’t traveling with a pup – whether you’re simply looking for a shorter outing or have kiddos with you – Sonoma County Regional Parks make a surprisingly nice place to enjoy the outdoors.
Sonoma County offers a fairly impressive 56 parks and recreation areas to explore. To read about each park, including locations and amenities, check out Sonoma County’s Find a Park page. For full-sized map showing all of Sonoma County’s parks, click here.
Map courtesy of Sonoma County Regional Parks: https://parks.sonomacounty.ca.gov/Microsites/Regional%20Parks/Documents/Visit/Maps/SCRP-Park-System-Map%202022_ADA.pdf.
If you’ll be hanging around Sonoma County for a while and plan to take frequent advantage of the regional parks, it may behoove you to purchase a membership pass. The annual pass costs $69 for general membership or $49 for seniors (62+ years). The pass covers unlimited entry into all Sonoma County Regional Parks for one year, and also includes one night of free camping at any applicable park. Annual passes can be purchased online, at a handful of park entry kiosks, or at a number of local businesses.
With a $7 day-use fee per site, entry into Sonoma County’s parks is not particularly cheap. Consequently, it only takes ten visits to make the annual pass worthwhile. In the three months we were there, we probably paid for our pass at least three times over.
During our stay in Sonoma, we visited just seven or eight off the long list of parks. Sonoma County is pretty sprawling, so we were typically looking for spots within an hour’s drive of our house – and typically much less for post-work walks (the traffic around here is no joke). A couple parks we visited just once, while a few we found ourselves returning to time and time again.
Whether you’re in the area for a while, or are just looking for a nice day outing, read on to learn more about a handful of some of Sonoma’s scenic parks.
Helen Putnam Regional Park (Petaluma)
Sitting just southwest of downtown Petaluma, Helen Putnam is a small but attractive little park. It offers just six miles of trails, but it’s a great place to take in some of Sonoma Valley’s classic rolling hills and pastoral landscapes.
The network of trails here form a tight web of short, crisscrossing paths, so you kind of have to meander all over the place if you want to make a longer route. Our go-to was a 2.5-mile return with 240 feet of gain that combined the Ridge, Yarrow, Panorama and Pomo Trails. Instead of forming a 2-mile loop and returning to the parking lot via the Pomo Trail, we typically retraced our steps via the Panorama and Ridge Trails to try to extend it by even just a half mile.
Pro tip: Whatever combination of trails you choose here, make sure to include the Panorama Trail. It traverses the top of the open hillsides, and offers some beautiful views of the surrounding countryside.
Sonoma Valley Regional Park (Glen Ellen)
A hidden gem in the tiny town of Glen Ellen, Sonoma Valley Regional Park was our go-to park during our stay in Sonoma. Had it not been recommended to us by a random stranger we chatted up during a walk in nearby Maxwell Farms Regional Park in Sonoma, we may never have found it. Always ones to heed the advice of locals, though, we headed over to the park the day after our chance encounter.
To be honest, we weren’t expecting much, and were totally surprised with how beautiful the short trail around Suttonfield Lake was. If you stick to trail around the shoreline, it clocks in at 2 miles with just 110 feet of elevation gain. We were able to make a slightly longer loop by heading north along a connecting trail atop a hill about halfway around the lake, which gave us a trip of around 3 miles with about 300 feet of gain.
Not only were the reservoir and rolling hills unexpectedly scenic for such a tiny regional park, but it ended up being an absolutely gorgeous spot to enjoy the exploding spring wildflowers.
The tail-end of winter was exceptionally rainy and dismal when we first arrived in Sonoma in mid-February. However, the end result was a superbloom of epic proportions. The spring of 2023 saw one of the best blooms in recent years in California, and the area around Suttonfield Lake was no exception. The San Francisco Chronicle published a map of superbloom hot spots across the state, and this tiny regional park was highlighted as a prime location for poppies and lupine as well as Pacific blue-eyed grass. We were so lucky to have this right in our backyard, and were there at least three or four afternoons a week during peak bloom.
Doran Regional Park (Bodega Bay)
Unlike most of the regional parks in Sonoma that boast either lakeside trails or bucolic backdrops, this one offers visitors some prime beach access right along Bodega Bay. With a wide, two-mile-long strip of sand, Doran Beach is perfect for some beachcombing and an afternoon stroll. We found it exceptionally nice during the off/shoulder season, when most campsites were vacant and just a handful of people were wandering around the beach.
In addition to beach access, Doran Regional Park also offers a boat launch, fishing jetty, and 120 campsites for both tents and RVs. Despite being more developed than a lot of beaches you’ll find further north along Sonoma’s coast, we never found it overly crowded. Of course, that may well have been because we were well outside of peak summer season. However, even in the busier months, we’d imagine the large swath of sand would provide ample room to spread out for a picnic or some sandcastle building.
For the bird lovers out there, adjacent to Doran Regional Park you’ll find the Bird Walk Coastal Access Trail (also covered with the park pass). The short, mile-long path meanders around a saltwater marsh area as well as two freshwater ponds. It’s a small area, but abounding with heron, egrets and other waterfowl.
Spring Lake Regional Park (Santa Rosa)
With a population of just under 200,000 people, Santa Rosa is Sonoma County’s largest city. Right off Highway 101, the city offers an abundance of restaurants and wineries as well as a handful of nearby state and regional parks. Santa Rose is even home to the Charles M. Schulz Museum, as the cartoonist spent most of his career living and creating his beloved comic strips here.
Just south of the city, Spring Lake Regional Park offers a small greenspace with a paved/groomed lakeside path. The main trail around the lake is virtually flat and just two miles long, but it’s a decent place to get out for a quick walk – especially with kids or dogs. However, if you’re looking for a ‘real’ trail, rather than an urban walking path, you can do much better than Spring Lake. For us, this was our least favorite park of the bunch.
If you do choose Spring Lake and want to escape the traffic of the main path, you can follow a narrow boot path that heads southeast away from the lake and main parking lot. Here you’ll find a lesser-traveled trail that eventually connects to Trione-Annadel State Park. The latter has a much more extensive network of trails to explore, either on foot or on bike – however, like all of California’s state parks, no dogs are allowed. If you’re without a fuzzy companion, this would make for a great extension from Spring Lake. If you’ve got a pup, though, heed the signs and turn back when you arrive at the state park boundary.
Pro tip: If you head just 10 miles east on Sonoma Highway 12, you can hike at Hood Mountain Regional Park (also dog-friendly). The summit trail clocks in at around 8 miles with 2,000 feet of elevation gain. This one was on our to-do list, but we never made it up there due to weather, trail closures, and other circumstances. Additionally, Taylor Mountain Regional Park is just 5 miles west. Another dog-friendly park, Taylor Mountain’s summit route is about half that of Hood Mountain, totaling around 4 miles with 1,000 feet of vertical gain.
Foothill Regional Park (Windsor)
We made a quick visit to Foothill Regional Park one afternoon after visiting nearby Russian River Brewing’s beer garden in Windsor. Another small park, about the size of Helen Putnam in Petaluma, Foothill offers just under seven miles of hiking trails that zigzag around three small ponds.
Four routes here are dedicated hiking trails (Pond A, B, and C loops as well as the Ravine Trail), while the rest are open to hikers, cyclists, and equestrians. Most of the trails are virtually flat, however the Alta Vista Trails does gain a few hundred feet of elevation.
We created a loop around the park’s perimeter that was around 2.6 miles with about 470 feet of gain. From the parking lot on Foothill Drive, we headed north on the unnamed access trail until it connected with the Three Lakes Trail. From there we headed east, making a counterclockwise loop that followed Three Lakes to Alta Vista to Oakwood to Westside, ultimately rejoining Three Lakes and returning to the parking area. Overall, it was a decent little outing. Admittedly it wasn’t our favorite park, but we also thought it was significantly better than Spring Lake.
Tolay Lake Regional Park (Petaluma)
With 11 miles of multi-use trails (hiking, biking, and equestrian), Tolay Lake is the largest of Sonoma’s County’s regional parks. It’s also super convenient to both Sonoma and Petaluma – about a 20-minute drive from either town.
There are two main trails here, each traversing an open ridge that crosses expansive pasturelands. We hiked both during our stay in Sonoma. The East Ridge Trail (accessed via the Causeway Trail) clocks in at 5 miles with around 500 feet of elevation gain, while the West Ridge Trail tops out at 8 miles with about 600 feet of gain.
Frankly, we had kind of a love/hate relationship with Tolay Lake. It was a surprisingly scenic little park, nestled beside Keller Estate Winery’s perfectly-laid rows of olive trees and spanning rolling hills that offered a distant view of the bay and San Francisco Skyline (via the West Ridge Trail). However, it was also an absolute oasis for ticks.
Most of the trails here traverse open grasslands with grazing cattle. This is the perfect environment for ticks to thrive, as they’ve got a steady parade of hosts roaming through the tall grass. Sanchez was on leash – as per park regulations – and still managed to get thirty ticks in a single visit by just brushing through some of the vegetation alongside the trail. We paused at one point and they were just crawling all over her body. It was like a scene from a horror movie. We saw one off-leash golden retriever romping (unlawfully) through the grass, and we couldn’t begin to imagine how many of the nasty, parasitic arachnids were entangled in that thick coat of fur.
Note: Our nauseating little tick outing occurred on the East Ridge Trail. When we hiked the West Ridge, we had no such problem. Indeed, the West Ridge was a bit more barren than the East. However, the six-week time difference between our two outings (mid-March v. early May) could have also had an impact on the number of ticks we encountered. Whatever the case, if you go, be diligent and check your pup (and yourself) when you return home.
Where to go first?
Of the half dozen parks we visited, our three favorites were Helen Putnam, Doran Beach, and Sonoma Valley. With Sonoma Valley just a few miles up the road, we found ourselves there most weekday afternoons for a post-work walk with Sanchez around Suttonfield Lake. Although it was a bit further – a 20-minute drive west – we thought that Helen Putnam was one of the most beautiful. The views looking out into Sonoma Valley were just gorgeous. And despite it being 50 minutes away, we also found ourselves repeatedly returning to Doran Beach for some beachcombing and birdwatching. With a two-mile strip of sand, it was easy to spread out from other people and also get in a decent seaside walk.
While there are certainly a host of other parks and recreation areas to choose from, we hope this offers a good starting point. And if you’re staying in Sonoma, Petaluma or another town in the southern part of the county, several of these parks are super easily accessible. Happy park hopping!