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Length 5.5 miles
Time 1.5 hours
Total Climb 1100 feet
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Helen Putnam

Helen Putnam Regional Park is a small county park in Petaluma. It doesn't have too many trails. Adding up the lengths of all the trail segments shown on the park map yields a total of only about 5.5 miles. (It's only a coincidence that the length of this ride is almost exactly the same.) While there aren't too many trails, none of the existing trails are closed to bikes and most of these trails are singletrack. You'll probably need to do multiple repetitions of any route(s) in order to add up to a significant ride length, but it can be done. This is not enough to make this park a destination for bikers from distant areas, but it does make it a very decent option for locals, especially when you consider that the park is so close to Petaluma that many people can ride here all the way from home, do some trail mileage, and then pedal back home.

This park is quite often pointed out as an option suitable for beginners. The truth of that depends a lot on the kind of beginner you're talking about. It's true that the trails in this park don't feature any long climbs (though there are a few short ones; some steep), most trails aren't too technical, and don't feature any rock gardens or many drops (except for one or two), and from that point of view, it's relatively friendly to beginners. However, a true beginner who has not done any significant amount of trail riding will still find serious challenges and scary moments here. Some of the singletrack in the park has sections that are narrow enough to make beginners nervous, they are occasionally off-camber, and there are some rutted trail sections (though that could change seasonally) and a couple of seriously steep surprise spots where beginners who are reckless enough to carry too much speed could get into trouble. Plenty of trails at Helen Putnam also feature wooden planks or thin logs laid across the trail periodically, presumably to control erosion. Experienced riders might not think twice about these, but many of these could make novice riders hesitate.

This is not to say that Helen Putnam is not good for beginners, though. It's just that truly "green" riders will still have plenty of things to pay attention to, and they may have to stop and walk across many more spots than a seasoned rider would expect them to, after first seeing this park. Beginner riders are welcome here, but they shouldn't expect "a walk in the park".

The short ride route on this page is a sampling of virtually all of the trails in the park. The park is small enough for free improvization, and there is little reason to try and follow the precise sequence of this particular ride. If you intend to download the GPS track available here and use it during your ride, it's much better to use it as a trail map of the park as you explore freely, rather than as a route to follow. Still, there are a few things you might want to pay attention to. If, like me, you prefer to do your climbs on fire roads or paved roads and your descents on singletrack, you'll want to pay attention to the direction arrows I've marked on the highlighted park map linked on your left and emulate those.

Those who use the park's main parking lot as suggested for this particular route will have to pay a day use fee, which was $7 the last time I was there. There's no attendant; you'll have to self-pay. As of October 2012, a payment machine has been set up here, which takes cards as well as cash. This means that the earlier payment method of putting cash in an envelope and dropping it in a slot may have been phased out by the time you read this.

Here are some quick descriptions of the trails:

Panorama Trail is essentially the only fire road of the park. Its beginning from the main parking lot (as on this ride route) is a rutted and very widened straight shot right up the nose of a ridge that's ridiculously steep. It narrows to an "almost singletrack" as it flattens at the top of the ridge and its portion between its two intersections with Pomo Trail is a cute and narrow singletrack (with a short climb right at the "elbow" of that segment that will take a little exertion). The rest of Panorama Trail is a wide and fairly smooth fire road that descends as you head east, though much more gradually than its beginning near the parking lot.

Pomo Trail and Fillaree Trail are both cute and quite playful singletrack trails mostly under some oak tree cover. Both trails trend slightly downhill in the easterly direction.

South Loop Trail is another quite pleasant and wooded singletrack. This is one of the trails where beginner riders may want to pay some attention, because there are some of those short "humps" that the hillside trail makes to pass behind some trees that are close to the trail's path. Some of these can be pretty sharp. For experienced riders, these are fun trail features allowing you to pump the trail.

Savannah Trail is another beautiful singletrack, part of which is under tree cover. Some of the spots that are narrow and off-camber (simultaneously) were on this trail, if memory serves. As you near the sharp turn close to Arroyo Trail, you also encounter a couple of short and steep "drops" on this trail, one of which made me get off and walk. There are also some roughly undulated parts of the trail in the portion that's close to the creek bed.

Arroyo Trail is a narrow and exposed hillside singletrack. Judging by the condition of the trail, I could guess that this could be one of the underused trails in the park, though I could be wrong.

Ridge Trail is nothing but a paved road that bisects the park. From a mountain biking point of view, it's good for nothing more than climbing back up toward the main intersection near the middle of the park from the park boundary on either end.

Given how small the trail network of this park is, I looked long and hard for opportunities to extend my ride outside this park. I don't believe any such possibilities via trails are available. Your only option for extending your ride here would be to hit the country roads heading west and south from the park and do a long road loop. That might not be such a bad thing if you're okay with road riding, especially during the green-grass season. The rural roads in these parts have stunning scenery, where the velvety green rolling hills are dotted with cows, patches of oaks, ponds and lakes, and scattered ranch buildings here and there.

© Ergin Guney


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