Lawd knows there’s more to it all than eating and drinking and taking some silly quizzes about North Bay towns. There’s also that wild elixir known as fresh air. Here are some of our favorite lesser-known haunts. Getting out and about are Brett Ascarelli, Gretchen Giles and Patricia Lynn Henley.
Sonoma Overlook Trail
A stroll with a view. That’s the Sonoma Overlook Trail, which winds its way up a hillside on the edge of the picturesque town of Sonoma. Most of the path makes its way through oaks and brush, giving a sense of relaxed exploration. At the top the trees and other foliage give way to open meadows, providing fantastic views of the surrounding region. On a clear day you can see the north end of San Pablo Bay as well as the streets of Sonoma spread out below.
Returning back down the trail, there’s an alternative route to the upper trailhead located inside the tree-shaded Mountain Cemetery, where Sonoma’s pioneer families were laid to rest. The round trip, including a loop at the top, is slightly less than three miles, and the hike is a gradual one, never more than a 7 percent grade. It’s estimated that the entire trip, including walking from Sonoma Plaza to the trailhead and back again, requires less than an hour and a half for most brisk walkers. Many hardy locals use this well-maintained trial for jogging.
The trail was created after a 1990s corporate attempt to turn the property into a $2,000-a-night exclusive resort. Angered by this proposed use of publicly owned land, locals rallied and passed a ballot measure preserving the property as permanent open space. Volunteers built the trail, with financing from individuals, civic groups and local businesses. This year, the lower trailhead’s parking lot was realigned and an informational kiosk installed. Low stone walls that will also serve as benches and landscaping using drought-resistant native plants will be added by early next year, making an already appealing trail even more enticing.
The lower trailhead is at the entrance of Sonoma’s Mountain Cemetery, just north of the Sonoma Valley Veterans Memorial Building, 178 First St. W., Sonoma. For those who like to know what foliage they’re seeing as they walk, the Sonoma Ecology Center offers free docent-led hikes. Trail is open dawn to dusk daily; no pets, horses or bicycles allowed. 707.833.6900. —P.L.H.
Short List: Sebastopol Super Playground Great fun for little ones (corner of Pleasant Hill Avenue North and Valentine Avenue). Shiloh Park Lovely hiking trails, unexpected pond stocked with plenty of noisy frogs at the top of the ridge (5750 Faught Road, Windsor). Cloverdale River Park A super place to launch kayaks and canoes into the Russian River (31820 McCray Road, Cloverdale).
Travel back, if you will, to the magical world of Marin, circa 1972. The family car is a convertible VW bug. The family home is a Ross Victorian that rents for $175. The family roach clip is affixed to a ghastly marble sculpture from San Francisco’s tony Gump’s department store. And in the summer, every Thursday, the family pastime is meeting other families in San Anselmo’s Robson-Harrington Park to drink Annie Green Springs and play volleyball.
At least, that’s what the adults did, whooping it up and pretending to like sport, when the real pleasure probably came from lying on the grass panting, drinking pop wine and sneaking the roach clip around.
Meanwhile, we kids had all of Robson-Harrington to explore. There was that ghostly, lovely old home with its many terraced gardens and its mysterious corners and curious nooks. There were the terrifying rumors that someone still lived there, or was it a ghost? There were the heavy, scented, fruit trees aching with summer’s growth; the full lush grass of the front garden; the low walls ringing the entire property; the fig trees to climb; the brick remains of another house to hide behind. What a large, overwhelming playground of the imagination is Robson-Harrington Park!
Surely, it must have shrunk.
At less than three acres, Robson-Harrington can’t sustain the grandiose memories of childhood, but it’s still a lovely place to stroll, climb, picnic, loll, hide and wonder.
Built as the family home for a lumber baron in 1906, the house passed into real estate magnate Kernan Robson’s hands in 1923. He later named it in honor of his father and mother, whose maiden name had been Harrington. Old photos show the home, which once boasted an adjacent carriage house and the requisite out-of-place palm tree, alone on its haughty hill, where now it is crowded by residences on all sides just two blocks from San Anselmo’s main street.
Kernan and his wife, Geraldine, lived in the home for decades, childless but devoted to their garden and the community. After Kernan’s death in 1956, Geraldine stayed on with her housekeeper until her death in 1967. The town of San Anselmo took the property on in 1968 and the housekeeper lived on until her own demise in 1990, which explains a lot about that childhood sensation of being watched shimmying down trees and making mild mischief in the gardens.
Renovated as a Marin Showcase Home in 1979 and until just recently under the care of the Robson-Harrington House Association, which disbanded in 2005, leaving the property to the town’s recreation department, Robson-Harrington is now a marvelous experiment in community gardening. Geraldine Robson’s dear terraced gardens are rented out as individual plots for area residents to use in raising their own food and flowers. A recent Saturday afternoon visit found the beds thick with the scent of basil and that particular cat-pee-but-pleasant smell that hot tomato leaves emit in the sun.
The lawn that once hosted volleyball every Thursday could use some water, but the Italian ceramics that adorn the brick walls all throughout the property are a marvel in this age of Ikea. Robson-Harrington remains a magical place for the family to spend hot summer nights, even circa 2007. Robson-Harrington Park, 237 Crescent Road, San Anselmo. 415.258.4650.–G.G.
Short list: McNear’s Beach Park On San Pablo Bay with a swimming pool, this park provides the best of both worlds, including a snack bar and fishing pier (201 Cantera Way, San Rafael; $8 parking, $4 pool fee). Paradise Beach Park allows just anyone to enjoy Tiburon, too. Horseshoes, beach, picnic areas and fishing (3450 Paradise Drive, Tiburon; $8 parking).
Tucked discreetly beside Napa Valley College, the 350-acre John F. Kennedy Memorial Park is normally bypassed by visitors who are flooring it to make their winery appointments farther north. For locals, this is a good thing: they like having it to themselves. It’s one of those parks where those in the know go almost every day, stopping every now and then to carouse with the other regulars and their canines.
But as for the rest of you–well, you’re missing out. For the lite outdoorsman, the park offers sand volleyball, a sports green, a playground, a golf course and a driving range. Five picnic areas with barbecue stations fan out across the grass and are available to rent. There’s even an asphalt pad for launching model planes.
Best of all, the park runs alongside the Napa River and boasts a small boat-launch facility for starboard-savvy day-trippers. But for those whose pleasure craft is still several years on the horizon, a river trail provides the perfect alternative. Eventually, the river trail will lead all the way up to Trancas Road, about five miles north of the park, but for now, it’s roughly two miles long (at press time, the city of Napa Parks and Recreation Department could not confirm exactly how long the trail was, since a new section had just been added).
Although planes flying in and out of the nearby airport make the occasional, jarring din, the river trail usually floods with more pleasant sounds: foxtails rustling and bicolored blackbirds twittering.
One Tuesday morning, a local who’s preparing to move away laments having just discovered the park. While she walks, small, white butterflies flit prettily in and out of a wire fence that the Army Corps of Engineers has erected to foster riverbank plant growth. The air smells clean, too, like cedar and fennel. In the distance, traffic silently tootles over the corridor which will soon shuttle her away from Napa and to the South Bay. Kennedy Park, Streblow Drive off of Highway 221, Napa. 707.257.9529.–B.A.
Short List: Pioneer Park An old-fashioned, grassy and shaded neighborhood spot replete with small gazebo. This is a charming place for an evening picnic (on Cedar Street just a block off of Lincoln Avenue, Calistoga; 707.942.2838). Cuttings Wharf A two-lane boat launch on the Napa River, adjacent to Moore’s Resort, Cuttings is a small world of its own, perfect for fishing and culture hawking (take the Cuttings Wharf Road exit off of Highway 121). Bale Grist Mill State Park Also contained within its grounds is the first church in the Napa Valley, as well as the old “pioneer” cemetery and the 1846 water-powered mill that was once the center of Napa’s social life. Trails adjoin to nearby Bothe-Napa Valley State Park. (3369 N. Hwy. 29; 707.942.4575).