Thanks to very active nonprofits like The Wildlands Conservancy and the Sonoma Land Trust, Sonoma County is constantly opening new public open space with robust trail systems and fantastic recreational opportunities. The newest park in the county can also lay claim to the best views. Overlooking the Rusaian River estuary and the rugged Sonoma Coast seastacks, Jenner Headlands Preserve just opened providing a range of trails suitable for the little ones all the way up to trail runners headed to the top of adjoining Pole Mountain Preserve. Dean, 5 years old, and Raylah, 7 years old, had a great time hiking thanks to a wide variety of activities that kept them entertained while mom and dad reveled in the panoramic views.
For the littles, we recommend taking time to head up the Pole Mountain Trail. It’s less than a mile to the overlook where the whole family can take turns looking through the fixed telescope to find harbor seals basking on Goat Rock Beach. For all other ages we recommend heading south along the Raptor Ridge trial for a much more varied experience. This trail eventually connects up with the Pole Mountain Trail where hikers have the option to head up to the top of the mountain for an 8-mile hike or to walk back downhill to create a 4-mile loop past the telescope and back to the parking lot.
The Raptor Ridge Trail starts out more or less level giving the kiddos a chance to get over their typical initial reluctance to hike. The first stop along the way is a fallen tree that makes a great climbing structure putting the kiddos in a playful mindset which makes the rest of the hike more pleasant. If you time it right there is a large patch of Naked Ladies with a beautiful coast background. Put that iPhone portrait mode to work and update your Instagram!
The next stop along the way is a dry creek bed heading up the mountain to the left. A quick exploratory excursion will no doubt turn up some lizards lurking among the rocks. As with any off-trail exploration in California, be aware of your surroundings for snakes and poison oak.
After the creek, the trail starts heading up the ridge along with the “I’m tired” moans. Fortunately, they call it Raptor Ridge for a reason. Kids with binoculars will be in a constant state of amazement at the Northern Harriers skimming the grasses, Peregrine Falcons hovering on the wind, and Red Tail and Cooper’s Hawks soaring overhead.
The next section of trail is where it gets a bit steep but it is also where the red barn comes into view. Let the kids know that there is a perfect spot for lunch right next to the barn so they have a goal to work towards.
Before you get to the Barn you will pass a huge rock pile with an ancient pine tree and tons of California Laurels sprouting from it like punk rock hair. This a great spot to take a break and let the kids climb around on the rock and trees. It is quite a marvelous place. The laurels grow in the most peculiar vertical way that we have only ever seen before at the Gualala Point Regional Park campground.
A couple of switchbacks past the rock and tree stack is a nice patch of blackberries if you need a bit more boost to get those kids to the barn for lunch. Next to the barn, in the lee of the wind (which was particularly intense the day that we went), are eight or so picnic tables with epic views of the Sonoma Coast and Russian River Estuary. This is just under the halfway point so take a load off and relax until the littles are reenergized.
Only a small uphill section of trail remains before you get to the Pole Mountain Trail junction. Head left, through the gate, and the remainder of the hike is downhill. The downhill section has far fewer stops to make which is just fine for Dean and Raylah since they are happy to skip and sing songs as long as they are going downhill.
You will pass another large rock stack with laurel growing out of it but this one has quite a lot of poison oak growing on the west side so be sure to go with your kids to help them steer clear of an itchy rash. The laurel on this stack is a female tree that produces fruit. The native people in the area would sun dry the fruit and eat the lower third of the flesh. Inside is a nut that when roasted, can be eaten or pounded into meal.
The last stop on the way back to the parking lot is the fixed telescope. See if you can spy Cafe Aquatica in Jenner next to the boat launch. It is the perfect spot for a post-hike refreshment (or hot cocoa if it’s cold). The kids and parents all agreed that Jenner Headlands Preserve is a raging success and we will definitely be coming back on a sunny day in the future.