Tolay Lake Regional Park is the largest park in Sonoma County Regional Park system with almost 12 miles of hiking on 3,402 acres of rolling green hills and 8,000 years of history. Open to the public without a permit since late 2018, more and more Sonoma County locals are finding this park to be a beautiful hidden gem just outside Petaluma!
Tolay Lake Hike
With wide trails going through open grassland and gently up hillsides for stunning views, this easy hike is perfect for hikers of all ages and any time of year! The big loop from Causeway trail up to the East Ridge trail to the vista Three Bridges (amazing views of all three of the bay bridges!), then back down and around Pond trail where you just might see golden eagles and up to the West Ridge trail with more spectacular views of Tolay Valley, Petaluma River Valley and San Pablo Bay is the longest and best way to explore the park. If you aren’t up for that, make up your own loop or out and back and check it out at different times of the year! Our most favorite is when it is green and the wildflowers are in full bloom!
Starting out on Causeway trail you walk across what used to be Sonoma County’s largest freshwater lake until ranching and farming altered the flow of water. During the winter, Causeway trail and the east side of the park may be inaccessible due to the seasonal Tolay Lake taking over the trails.
During the fall, Sonoma County Regional Parks puts on a wonderfully fun and educational fall festival at the park. You will pass by some of the barns and historical ranching equipment before you walk through the shade of the trees.
Walk through the gate and make sure to close it behind you! We don’t want the grazing cows to be too free-range! 😉 The cows are pretty docile and are used to having humans cruising by. If they are in your path, go wide around them and keep on moving slowly past them. They don’t mind you there!
On this hike, we did see 2 bulls grunting and yelling while drawing lines in the dirt and butting heads but that is the first time we have ever seen this and we gave them plenty of room!
If you continue on Causeway trail it changes to East Ridge trail to lead you past private property (with vineyards!) and the only shady spot in the park, an oak grove, and on up to Three Bridges Vista Point. We had done this on a previous visit to the park and loved it! But this time we had our eye on the valley loop and West Ridge trail.
This time we hung a right on Pond trail after seeing a mom cow yelling for her young cow to come join her under the eucalyptus tree. It was so cute! He hollered back and went running straight up to her. Must have been hanging with the bigger cows we had already passed. Yes, the bosslady provides commentary on what all animals are saying as we see them. 🙂
Pond trail is just above the seasonal Tolay Lake and below East Ridge trail. It winds around some serpentine rocks jutting out and leads you to the Vista Pond and the Fish Pond. The views across the park valley are gorgeous with all the different shades of green and brown grasses and birds flying all around.
We took the short loop around Vista Pond and then stayed on Pond trail to cross the valley. Passing the trees near Fish Pond, look for birds and cows! They like to hang out here.
Walking straight across the valley we came across more cows grazing and saw a herd on the hill jogging down to the fence. We paused to try and figure out why they were running, have you seen cows run? It’s pretty entertaining!
Hang a right on Farm Bridge trail like you are going back to the parking lot and look for the bridge that crosses a small stream and leads you up to Burrowing Owl trail.
Burrowing Owl Trail
Burrowing Owl trail is a short connector trail that goes straight up to West Ridge trail. When you need a moment to catch your breath, turn around and enjoy the expansive views of where you just hiked. Tolay Lake is a beautifully elegant hike and one of our favorites in the Sonoma County Regional Parks!
At the top of Burrowing Owl trail, you have the option to turn right and cruise along West Ridge trail toward the parking lot with views of Petaluma River Valley and Tolay Lake OR you can turn left and check out some of the best views the park provides! Hint, we went left!
West Ridge Trail
West Ridge trail is normally windy but the day we went was pretty calm and we were graced with clear skies too! Our first time back on the trails after almost 2 months due to the stay at home orders…this was a huge treat for us to have perfect hiking weather!
When you go without hiking for a couple of months, you need to get your body used to it again and this was the perfect park for that! We ended up only going out to the South Creek trail lookout and turned around. Next time, we are going straight up West Ridge trail and all the way out to Bay View Vista!
South Creek trail lookout was amazing though!!! Definitely go down the little dip from West Ridge trail and up to the knob to experience some incredible expansive views of Petaluma River Valley, Mount Tamalpais, the city, and San Pablo Bay. We paused here for a bit before heading back. This was the cherry on top of the entire hike. Cannot wait to go back and see what the views are like from the very edge of Tolay Lake!
Heading back on West Ridge trail we enjoyed the slight breeze and lack of dodging cow pies as we made our way to Cardoza Road trail. The smell of the eucalyptus trees flowing in the breeze is a great end to your hike.
Don’t forget to stop and check out the goats and chickens before hopping back in your car!
Parking is $8 or included with your Sonoma County Regional Parks pass. Portable potties are available in the parking lot. Parking usually isn’t an issue, there are a lot of spots. Our hike was an easy 6 miles with 486 ft elevation gain/loss with little shade. Great year-round hiking on not too hot days. You get the Petaluma Gap breeze as well as a breeze off the bay on most days. Dogs, horses, bikes ok! Petaluma is just a few miles away and is quickly becoming a foodie paradise with its diverse options! Or you can go over the hill to Sonoma and enjoy some delicious wine selections!
Things We Love:
We loooove layers! Living in the bay area we all know the weather can change quickly from cold to warm to windy to cold again. We start our mornings off with two to three layers on top and a beanie then as we warm up and the weather warms up we start to remove the layers. Base layers are extremely important to have breathable yet wick away sweat and most of all are comfortable. We both love our Marmot base layers as well as a couple of other brands that are staples in our hiking wardrobes. Beanies are a great way to keep the noggin warm and hair from flying all over in the wind too.
Do you have a favorite layer??
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