Like good deals? A buy one get one? How about 2 parks for the price of 1 hike? The hubs and I hiked from Hood Mountain Regional Park to Sugarloaf Ridge State Park last weekend and my calves are still sore! This is one of the more strenuous hikes in Sonoma County and the rewards are totally worth it! We climbed 1,900 feet from the Pythian entrance to the summit of Hood Mountain and down to hang out on Gunsight Rock and enjoy the most beautiful views of Sonoma Valley and down even further into Sugarloaf where water was falling off all the creeks and streams! Water wasn’t the only thing falling, it was the hubs’ turn to be clumsy on the trails. 🙂
We rarely start hikes this late in the day but this one started at about 3:45 pm and ended at sunset. Started off by parking one car at Sugarloaf and driving to the Pythian entrance to Hood Mountain Regional Park. We think this is the more strenuous way of reaching Gunsight Rock. We have hiked to Gunsight Rock from Pythian, Sugarloaf, and Los Alamos and now the final way is the through hike. Definitely one of the more difficult ways to experience these gorgeous views!
Head up the paved road from the parking lot. I would recommend taking Lower Johnson Trail cutoff to enjoy a more comfortable hike off the pavement and more views of the creek below. We could see some signs of the October fires that went through here but not a ton. The benches were still there and amazingly so were the houses that we could see from the trail. The first 1/3 mile of the hike is at a super steep grade then tapers off to just a steep grade. We followed Lower Johnson trail around the water tanks and through trees that had been scorched. It was sad to see the destruction from the October fires but so amazing to see all of the new growth already happening.
Thankfully we have been having some decent spring rains and the streams were all flowing nicely. Part of Lower Johnson Trail was closed (to Merganser Pond) so we took the detour around on Panorama Ranch trail. This is more of a fire road and the signs of the fire were everywhere. The grasses haven’t come back in here and burned trees were down everywhere. The hubs and I were so thrilled to see the Orchard Meadow largely untouched! Bright green grasses everywhere with wildflowers popping up dotting the landscape with white, orange, and purple all over! There was an old homestead here that did not make it but the old oak and fruit trees did.
Upper Johnson Ridge trail was our first of many experiences on this hike where the fires had wreaked havoc. It was so sad to see. Swarms of box elder beetles were hovering around us and in the downed trees. Burned and fallen trees were everywhere. Some were still healthy and green on their tops. As we reached the Hood Mountain trail and ridgeline you could see the fire had taken out all the underbrush that used to be there. Now you have an easy view of the valley below through the burned bushes and trees. So many wildflowers were popping up and sprouts at the base of the Manzanitas. Hope is there.
Along the ridgeline, we could see both Sonoma Valley and over to Napa Valley. Fully sun-exposed and no clouds it was gorgeous to see. The only bummer is we knew we were up for the next difficult climb and push to the top. It is a wide fire road at a steep grade with shade from trees…and their fallen leaves which makes it a bit slippery! Take as many breaks as you need and feel the burn in your thighs! The summit is near!!
Before the fires, the summit of Hood Mountain wouldn’t have much of a view due to the tall and full Manzanitas. Now, you can see through the charred bushes out to the valley below. We still stood on the rock jutting skyward as we used to do and took in the 360-degree views as we caught our breath. The views are great here but even better at Gunsight Rock! Take the currently unmarked trail west through the charred Manzanitas and head down to Gunsight Rock.
There was a burned sign leaning up against a tree marking the fork in the trail where you can go west to Gunsight Rock or down to Nattkemper trail. DO NOT MISS GOING TO GUNSIGHT ROCK! This is the reason you are up here!! Make your way through the burn area that is now thriving with wildflowers until you reach a large rock formation. Climb it. Now sit and enjoy the fruits of your labor! If you are like me and scared of heights, enjoy the views, take some pics and then get down back on to solid ground! The hubs does so much better than me up there! We sat on the rock and enjoyed the views out to the city and the Sonoma Valley below. Take as much time as you can handle here. It is seriously the best spot in the Sonoma Valley for views.
After you have had your fill of heart-pumping heights, climb back down and make your way back to the fork in the trail and take Nattkemper trail down to Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.
Sugarloaf Ridge State Park
This first part was severely burned and black with pops of wildflowers along the trail. It truly is amazing how fast mother nature comes back and shows off her spring wardrobe of flowers. The wind was starting to pick up and so was our pace as the sun was going down. We were only halfway through the hike and needed to be down off the mountain before sunset.
The trail is narrow but not too steep. It is a little more technical than the fire roads on Hood Mountain. The trail was rocky and full of views. Steep in some parts but mostly a comfortable descent. Patches of neon green grass and wildflowers greeted us along the way as the sun started to disappear behind the mountains. We both slipped a little a few times on the rocky path so it wasn’t odd to hear the hubs slip on the trail. Until I heard him literally fall and almost start rolling down the grass hill. It is a pretty steep drop off! He caught himself, handed me the camera and I grabbed onto his backpack to help him up and make sure he didn’t roll all the way down! That would be cheating! 😛 I promise if I had it on video I would plug it in right here!
We carefully made our way down the hill and took in the views pausing at the sacred bench that made it through the fires and kept going (check out the video at the end for this). Our pace kept picking up the more the sun was setting. Rounding the corner we saw the canyon below that joins Hood Mountain and Sugarloaf. Whew! We were going to make it! Switchbacks and an easier part of the trail was ahead of us now.
We wound our way through the trees as it became darker and a little spooky! Once we could hear the sound of Bear Creek we knew we would make it off the mountain in time. Dreading the walk across the downed tree that crosses Bear Creek we made our way off the rocks and toward the creek…only one of us made it down without falling. I have video! Sort of. It’s just an arm with a walking stick and a leg that you see in the part of the video. I was a good wife and made sure he was ok as I kept filming Bear Creek! Later the hubs would laugh along with me. Now I know how he feels when I fall down on the hikes! 🙂
The tree crossing over Bear Creek wasn’t too bad. The rope that is up is much sturdier than the one we used last time. Thanks to whoever put that up!! From here it is a gentle climb up and through some more burn areas in Sugarloaf. The views were good but we were running out of daylight and we were going as fast as our tired legs would take us. Dropping down in the canyon on Goodspeed trail it was too dark to video. I was bummed as this is one fo the more beautiful spots in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. We had our headlamps on and crisscrossed the creek on the bridges careful to avoid the looming poison oak and finally made it back to the car! You’ll see a video of this part from the next morning. I couldn’t post without this beautiful part!
Not missing any time, we headed back to Hood Mountain Regional Park only to find the gates already locked. It was just after sunset and the park closes at sunset. No big deal, we headed home and left the truck there. Note to self, leave a note on the dash if you think you might not make it back in time so the ranger doesn’t worry! We received a call about 10 pm from the park ranger making sure we were ok. So awesome they checked!! I mean, what if we were really stuck on the side of the mountain?! Or lost! This is definitely good to know for the future.
Remember lots of water and snacks for this hike and give yourself more time to enjoy the views and take lots of breaks on those crazy steep parts!
Parking at Hood Mountain is $7 or parking pass, portable potty at the trailhead. Parking at Sugarloaf Ridge SP is $8 or parking pass, no toilets. 50% sun, 6.9 miles, 1,900 ft elevation gain/loss (strenuous), dogs on leash on Hood Mountain but no dogs on Sugarloaf Ridge SP. The nearest food area is the cute town of Kenwood. There is a SugarHood Shuttle the second weekend of each month that will drive you from one park to the other for a small donation.
Map My Walk Stats (no laughing! There’s no speed hiking here!)
Things We Love:
There were so many items we needed on this hike that we normally carry in our packs. The one item we usually don’t have in our packs is a headlamp. We brought our Black Diamond headlamps with us this time and were so thankful! The rocky terrain and complete darkness from being under the forest canopy would have made for a sad ending to our hike without them! They are super compact and the battery has lasted for a couple of years so far. We initially purchased them for our hike in the bat caves at Pinnacles National Park and have used them on sunset hikes as well.
Where else can you find us?
Don’t forget to check out the video of the hike on our Hike Then Wine YouTube channel!