Right now, Tolay Lake looks more like a shallow stream. And the park seems to be a collection of a few old agricultural buildings. On both counts, looks can be deceiving.

Welcome to Sonoma County’s second largest regional park, and one that could one day even be much larger when an adjacent tract of open-space land in the southern Sonoma County region is folded into the park. Named for an Indian chief, Tolay Lake itself would be about 400 acres of water, except it was modified for farming purposes years ago and now is a fraction of that.

The lake, which will gradually be slightly larger than its current size but never back to its full breadth, is the low-lying point of the park, which sites southeast of Petaluma, not far from Highway 37 and San Pablo Bay. A dirt causeway road bisects the lake’s watershed area and provides access to a few different trails, which can be done in a large loop around the park’s exterior northern and southern ridges.

The park is open only to hikers with permits or if you go on a ranger-guided tour. I took the latter option recently and joined a decent-sized group of people for a Saturday morning hike. Our guide was an extremely knowledgeable county parks ranger, who reminded me of the value of these experts in our midst. Our three-hour trek covered more than 6 miles, climbing to a small ridge, about 600 feet high, along a path known as the Three Bridges Trail. Yes, you can see three bridges from that point – the Bay Bridge, the Richmond-San Rafael bridge and the Highway 37 overpass. There are also clear views across southern Sonoma County, whether over to downtown Petaluma or across the Bay.

The 1,769-acre swath of parkland, small ponds, farm buildings and the aforementioned lake was purchased by the county about seven years ago for $18 million so it could become a park. Originally the plan was to open it as a regular public-access park, but the fragile environmental state of the property has kept access somewhat limited. I say ‘somewhat’ because the annual Fall Festival draws thousands of people to Tolay Lake each October and the guided tours and permits have been around for several years. A master plan is still being worked on to allow more regular access, but that’s not in the immediate future. The wide stretch of open land makes it a popular spot for nearby aviators to practice their aerial skills overhead so there’s a noise issue that may have to be addressed someday as the park’s long-term future is considered. For that matter, Infineon Raceway isn’t far away and the noise from there reaches well into Tolay Lake too.

So, what’s to see here, other than views of other places? For now, fishermen come to the park’s man-made ponds occasionally, and the cattle on the property roam around, interspersed with occasional hikers. There is also significant anthropological interest in the park, given that there is evidence of early Native American life there dating back nearly 10,000 years. Also, it’s a bird-watchers’ delight, as are many Petaluma area parks. We spotted an owl, hawks, coyotes and several other wildlife examples. One of my fellow hikers was Tom Reynolds, a local bird enthusiast and extremely accomplished photographer whose photos are often used by the county parks system. He graciously agreed to let me publish his photos of our hike here. They are in the slide show below and are absolutely stunning. To see more of Tom’s photos, click here.

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