56% SINGLETRACK44% FIRE ROAD
This is a piece of land that has opened to mountain biking relatively recently. It was opened to the public in 2006, and I only found out about its existence in 2010. Formally known as the Willow Creek Addition to Sonoma Coast State Park, this park's status is unlike any other ride location on this website. While the owner of the land is technically the state, this is not a state park. Rather, it has a special status as a "community-powered park", where it is maintained by volunteers and a coalition of conservation organizations under the leadership of a non-profit called LandPaths.
Using the trails at Willow Creek requires a permit, which can only be obtained following a one-hour orientation session for which advance reservations are necessary. The permit is free, but donations are encouraged (given the nature of the park's management). Once you have the permit, you can keep visiting the park without having to attend the orientation session each time. For more information, refer to the park's website linked on your left.
The orientation session covers a description of the nature of the managament of the park and—along with explaining some of the details of park access and use that could just as easily be communicated on a printed brochure—seems to be geared toward promoting this kind of park management by inspiring others to start similar ventures on other park lands. Of course, it's a good opportunity to collect donations in person as well.
Once you're handed a permit and a parking decal, you're expected to carry the permit with you and have the decal affixed to your vehicle's windshield (if parked on the property) whenever you're in the park. You are allowed to bring additional guests with you once you have a permit, but there's no provision for cars without a parking decal to be parked on the property. (You could try parking in the nearby town of Duncan Mills and riding in or carpooling from there.) The permit expires at the end of the calendar year, but you'll receive renewals by mail. The permit can expire completely under certain situations, requiring you to repeat the orientation session, but I'm not completely clear on all the details of that. The park is open from sunrise to sunset and the gate is kept locked by a combination padlock. The combination for the lock is emailed to permit holders after the orientation session.
The trails at Willow Creek are a mix of wide and smooth fire roads, singletrack, and some singletrack that seems to follow what used to be old road surfaces. There are views of the ocean (though a bit distant) from a few of the trails, as well as some vistas of surrounding ridges from here and there. The trails allow a few loops within the park's boundaries. Arguably the most interesting one of these from a mountain biker's point of view is the partially wooded triangle-like loop made up of Fern Tree and Badger Hill Vista Trail, Full Monty Trail, and part of the Islands in the Sky Loop. (This particular ride passes through part of this loop.) Other than these loop options, the park features a number of spur trails ending at vista points or at the park's boundary. Some of these are worthwhile, and two such spurs are featured on this particular route.
If you live far away from this location, whether it's worth driving all the way to ride here is a matter of opinion, at best. If you've already ridden multiple times at all other ride options within driving range from where you live and you're curious for new places to try, you certainly shouldn't miss this option. You'll leave here with a smile on your face. Otherwise, though, it probably won't give you anything more than other good ride options that are closer to you. If, however, you live somewhere nearby, this is a first-rate ride option for you and you're lucky to have it available.
You might want to keep in mind that some trails at Willow Creek (mostly some singletrack, I believe) are subject to seasonal closure. I was told that this is driven more by the weather than by set dates. You'll definitely want to check the park's website for trail conditions if you plan to ride here during the wet part of the year.
Note that this route doesn't necessarily represent a hand-picked ride that's preferable over other routes possible in the park for any reason. This really only happens to be the best route I could pull off during my first ride here. I think it's still a route that manages to hit a few of the park's mountain biking highlights on a short ride without too much exertion.
The ride starts with a discouragingly steep fire-road climb on Islands in the Sky Loop Trail. The average grade is somewhere around 11%, but there are many spots that get pretty close to 20%. The only other trail option you can take from the parking area starts out even more steeply and way more technically than this. Advanced riders will think of this climb as nothing more than a good workout, but out-of-shape riders may afterward describe the experience with more colorful language. Once you reach the top of the first ridge and some views to the other surrounding ridges and to the ocean open up around you, you will have left the ride's worst extended climb behind you.
The first spur trail on this route is Seven Springs Trail. This singletrack seems to follow the "shelf" of a fire road but the dirt surface of the trail is fairly narrow. This is a trail where you'll be turning back from the park boundary sign marking the beginning of the private lands of the MRC lumber company. The trail also features some very nice scenery, most of which you get to enjoy during your return along this trail. Seven Springs Trail is almost never flat, but most of its slopes are gentler than the initial climb of the ride.
Next, before setting out southeastward on Upper Old Barn Trail, this route also represents a quick stop at the "Old Barn" that lends its name to two of the trails in the park. The structure is not exactly historic, though. Taking Upper Old Barn Trail in this direction, you'll be descending (quite rapidly) on another singletrack that follows an old road surface. Parts of this trail are very clearly old doubletrack, one half of which has fallen to disuse. This joy ride ends at the junction with Willow Creek Road.
Willow Creek Road is another smooth fire road but most of it climbs at a very moderate rate (at least the portion that's included in this route). The grade is typically something around 5%. This particular route doesn't follow Willow Creek Road past the junction with Jamboree Trail.
One important note about Jamboree Trail is that the park's official map (linked on your left) currently shows the wrong location for the junction where Jamboree Trail starts off Willow Creek Road. The map clearly shows Jamboree Trail starting from the first of the two hairpin turns on Willow Creek Road as you climb eastward. This is either out of date or simply mistaken. The trail starts a short distance after the second hairpin turn instead, as evidenced by the plot of the ride route on this page.
Jamboree Trail seems to be designed for nothing but mountain biking fun. It's a "true" singletrack, is pretty narrow, and has many playful ups and downs. The trail has a few stretches that unmistakably zig-zag for no reason other than pure fun. There are only two things that I can hold against this trail: It doesn't provide any loop opportunities, and (at least as of the time of my ride here) the trail was moderately overgrown and the trail surface was somewhat soft in some places—typical signs of an underused trail. I was unable to ride here without brushing past numerous branches and bushes (sometimes vigorously) though I didn't notice any poison oak. This could also be a significant consideration during peak tick season. By the way, the park map shows the icon for a vista point at the end of this trail. The "view" from that point is from afar and through plenty of trees. So, if you decide to ride this trail merely for the prospect of a nice view, you'll be disappointed. If you're after riding fun, however, it's recommended.
This ride then backtracks along Upper Old Barn Trail to get to the trail labeled as "Fern Tree and Badger Hill Vista Trail" on the park map. (I'll call it Fern Tree Trail from now on.) This stretch is a significant climb, but at least it's (pseudo-) singletrack.
Once you're on Fern Tree Trail, you'll have reached arguably the most scenic part of the ride. As you approach a cluster of trees atop a knoll while riding through a trail across a meadow, the name of Islands in the Sky Loop may take on some meaning. This ride follows along the western side of this knoll with some (final) climbing along an ex-fire-road singletrack. As of the date of my ride, this trail was pretty bumpy as far as singletracks go and had no shortage of "potholes", some of which could feel pretty harsh. As you start descending against the backdrop of the last few ocean views while passing by the junctions of two spur trails leading to some vista points, some small drainage berms that transect the trail start showing up. (These might be eroded in time after they're built, but they were pretty prominent during my ride here in October 2011.) If you intend to carry any speed through this occasionally steep descent, you might want to be careful about these. Then again, they would make nice targets for bunny-hopping.
You transition to Full Monty Trail without even noticing it. Full Monty is a wooded trail and seems to be another "true" singletrack. This is probably the trail that's most likely to satisfy experienced mountain bikers. It has steeply descending sections and parts of it are very technical, though that's usually more due to dried pockmarks and ruts on the seasonally muddy trail surface, rather than any rocks. Those small drainage berms are present on Full Monty Trail as well; all the way to the end of this ride, in fact. This trail exhibited quite a bit of damage from equestrian use during my ride here. On Full Monty Trail, you also ride past the junction with an older trail that's now closed for habitat restoration, but don't think that's the trail you should be taking to complete Islands in the Sky Loop (like I initially did). The short trail that you do take, which seems to be named "Pressure Drop Trail", comes a short distance after this closed trail. Descend the few hundred feet of the steep Pressure Drop Trail and you'll find yourself back at the driveway into Freezeout Flat, which will take you back to your parking spot.
For some post-ride treats, the closest option to this ride is the tiny village of Duncan Mills, which you probably drove through to get to Willow Creek. You'll find a few eateries here and at least one coffee shop. If those don't work and the handful of extra options in Monte Rio (four miles east of Duncan Mills on Route 116) aren't good enough either, then you'll definitely find plenty of options in Guerneville, which is another four miles east of Monte Rio. If, on the other hand, you are in more of a sight-seeing mood and looking for something more scenic, you can try your luck in tiny Jenner instead, which is on the coast, about five miles west of Duncan Mills. Jenner has only two options that I know of in terms of eateries but, as long as they happen to be open, both of those have a view of the water. We're not talking about mind-blowing views of ocean bluffs here exactly, but they're cute nonetheless.
© Ergin Guney
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