Helen Putnam Regional Park,
Sonoma County Regional Parks,
Sonoma County
In brief:
2.8 mile loop across grassy hills and oak woods outside of Petaluma. Hosts a Bay Area Ridge Trail segment.

Distance, category, and difficulty:
This 2.8 mile loop hike is easy, and the park is well-suited to beginning hikers. Trailhead elevation is about 290 feet. The park's highest point is 558 feet. The featured hike climbs to about 500 feet, then meanders a bit before descending back to the trailhead; total elevation change is about 400 feet. There is one big hill, and that's about it.

Some shade, but mostly exposed.

Trail traffic

Trail surfaces
Dirt fire roads and trails.

Hiking time
1 1/2 hours.

Nice any time, but probably best in spring.

Getting there:
• From northbound US 101 in Sonoma County, exit Petaluma Boulevard South. Drive on Petaluma Boulevard South north about 2.5 miles, then in downtown Petaluma, turn left onto Western Avenue. Drive west on Western Avenue about 1.8 miles, then turn left onto Chileno Valley Road. Drive about 0.8 miles on Chileno Valley Road, then turn left into the park.
• From southbound US 101 in Sonoma County, exit Washington Street. Drive west on East Washington (toward downtown Petaluma) to Petaluma Boulevard, turn left, then turn right onto Western Avenue. Drive west on Western Avenue about 1.8 miles, then turn left onto Chileno Valley Road. Drive about 0.8 miles on Chileno Valley Road, then turn left into the park.

Get driving or public transit directions from Transit and Trails:

GPS coordinates* for trailhead:
Latitude 3812'45.40"N
(* based on Google Earth data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)

Gas, food, and lodging:
Gas, stores, and restaurants back in Petaluma. No camping.

Trailhead details:
Parking for 35 vehicles, plus additional equestrian parking and 1 designated handicapped parking spot. $7 parking fee (via self-registration). There are restrooms at the trailhead, as well as a pay phone. There's a park map at the information signboard, but currently there are none to take with you (a new park map should be available at the trailhead soon). The park featured a small wheelchair-accessible playground, and one paved trail can be navigated by wheelchairs and strollers. There is no direct public transportation to the park.

Open from sunrise to sunset. Most trails are multi-use, but one is closed to cyclists. Dogs are permitted on leash only.

The Official Story
Sonoma County Parks Helen Putnam page
Parks office 707-433-1625

Map Choices:
Map from Sonoma County Parks (download pdf)
• North Bay Trails, by David Weintraub (order this book from Amazon.com) has a good map and trail descriptions, but doesn't show all the park's trails.

View photos from the featured hike.

Go to Bay Area Hiker Home page

Less than 3 miles from downtown Petaluma, Helen Putnam Regional Park feels like a getaway destination, yet the park is conveniently close to US 101.Trailhead  The park's compact size favors short hikes, dogwalks, and daily runs for locals, but there's plenty of beautiful scenery to draw visitors from surrounding Sonoma County or northern Marin County. This is a good destination for beginning hikers, but there's not enough real estate to sustain a day long expedition. Eight trails (one a Bay Area Ridge Trail segment) wind through the park, and you can create loops ranging from 0.5 mile to 3 miles (if you're particularly creative). I wasn't ready to leave after a 2 mile hike, so I added on a loop within a loop, but this somewhat circuitous route can be easily shortened.
     Helen Putnam is blessed with hillsides of pure grassland and mature oak savannahs. Despite a history that includes cattle grazing, invasive exotics are rare. The intial climb from the trailhead Beginning in late winter, wildflowers are common throughout the park's woods and grassland. Coast live oak is the dominant tree, although you might see valley, interior live, and black oak as well.
     Start at the information signboard a few yards from the parking lot. The paved Ridge Trail (there's also an unpaved Ridge Trail) departs to the east, and a dirt trail, signed Arroyo Trail, climbs north. Turn left onto Arroyo Trail, and after about 110 feet, bear left onto an unsigned but obvious path. This informal trail ascends steeply through grassland where you might see buttercups and suncups in early March. On a February hike I saw a northern harrier hunting in the skies right above the trail. Panorama Trail feeds in from the right and the path crests at 0.17 mile. Pomo Trail There's a bench beside a sprawling coast live oak, a good place to stop and catch your breath after the climb. Views extend west and south, to a typical Sonoma County landscape of rolling hills dotted with cattle and goats. Panorama Trail levels out, and at 0.28 mile, you'll reach a signed junction with Pomo Trail. Bear right (straight) on Pomo Trail.
     The narrow multi-use trail ascends gently to a cluster of coast live oaks, and crosses Panorama Trail at a signed junction at 0.34 mile. Continue straight on Pomo Trail.
     At a barely noticeable grade, the trail descends into a forest of coast live oak. You will likely see white milkmaids and blue-purple hound's tongue in bloom as early as late February on the sides of the trail. Beware of poison oak, the most common perennial understory shrub in the park, and present (although inconspicuous in winter) through here.View east from a hilltop  As you draw near the northern edge of the park, outside noise drifts through the tree cover. There are some small patches of grassland, but the terrain is mostly woodland. A few black oaks can stop you in your tracks in autumn, when they boast orange-red foliage, and in late winter, when bright, velvet-like crimson leaves emerge. If you're quiet, you might glimpse hawks perched in the treetops. At 0.54 mile, Filaree Trail sets off on the left at a signed junction. Continue straight on Pomo Trail.
     From a bench along the trail a sloping grassy hillside permits views east to Petaluma. Pomo Trail steps back into the woods, and at a nearly level grade, contours across a hill. Ignore a side path heading left at 0.78 mile. A lone buckeye on the right heralds a return to grassland. At about 0.80 mile, an unsigned but obvious path heads uphill to the right. South Loop TrailFollow the path to a crest and viewpoint at 0.84 mile (the path continues straight toward Savannah Trail, but another path veers left toward the paved Ridge Trail; wander around if you like, but return to the path heading south). On a soft late winter or spring day, you might poke around for wildflowers. I saw a few early checkerblooms and some purple sanicle, and California poppies were obvious, but not yet in bloom. Views are best north and east, and on a clear day you should be able to see past Petaluma and US 101 to Mount St. Helena. When you're ready, take the path south, heading toward the visible paved Ridge Trail and junction. The path descends easily to a multi-trail junction at 0.95 mile. Cross Ridge Trail and begin walking on South Loop Trail.
      Almost immediately the trail splits. You can go either way; I chose left. South Loop Trail, open to hikers, equestrians, and cyclists, begins a circuit around a hilltop. Ridge TrailThe narrow path remains downslope from the ridge, and initially passes through another pretty coast live oak woodland. There were lots of milkmaids sprinkled through the grassy understory on my February hike, and some tall clusters of hound's tongue as well. Surprisingly, grass dominates the landscape beneath the trees, but there are a few ferns, clumps of poison oak, and a tangle of blackberry throughout. Near the park's eastern boundary, South Loop Trail emerges into grassland, and curves right to the hill's western slope. You may want to linger at a bench perched beside a coast live oak, and enjoy the views south (could that be Marin County's Big Rock Ridge in the distance?). After a brief ascent through oak-dotted grassland, South Loop Trail heads back into the woods.Ridge Trail  At 1.28 miles you'll close the loop and reach Ridge Trail again. Turn left onto Ridge Trail.
     The wide, paved multi-use trail descends through grassland, with a few coyote brush, buckwheat, and toyon shrubs along the trail. Look for shooting stars on the left in early March. Although this trail is heavily traveled, this area, sheltered on three sides by hills, is one of the park's quietest. Ridge Trail skirts the shores of a small pond, then reaches a junction at 1.51 miles. Turn right, then at 1.53 miles, before the water tank, turn left. A connector heads straight towards the paved trail again,but turn right at 1.56 miles, onto the unpaved Ridge Trail.
      The narrow but multi-use path crosses the grassy lower slopes of a hill, heading back towards the trailhead. Panorama Trail, approaching Arroyo TrailAt 1.72 miles, you'll reach an unsigned junction with Savannah Trail. (If you want to return to the trailhead now, continue straight on Ridge Trail.) Turn right onto Savannah Trail.
     Open to hikers, equestrians, and cyclists, tiny Savannah Trail heads north. After an initial passage through grassland, the trail edges close to a creek and ascends into an oak woodland. Paths feed in from the left, but ignore them and keep climbing on the main trail. Savannah Trail arches right, away from the creek, and heads uphill at a slightly steeper pace. At a break in the trees there are views back downhill to the pond. Cattail Trail meets Savannah Trail at 2.17 miles, at an unsigned junction. Continue straight (left)on Savannah Trail.
     As the trail sweeps north at a level grade, you'll reach the heart of the park, with nice views to the hills immediately east. Descending on Arroyo TrailAt 2.36 miles, Savannah Trail ends at a signed junction with Panorama Trail. Turn left onto Panorama.
     After a short flat stretch, at 2.42 miles you'll reach another signed junction, this time with Arroyo Trail. Turn left onto Arroyo Trail. The multi-use trail begins an easy descent, on the west banks of the familiar creek. At 2.58 miles, Panorama Trail breaks off to the right. Continue straight on Arroyo Trail. At 2.78 miles, you'll reach a previously encountered junction. The trailhead is visible downhill. Turn left and retrace your steps to the trailhead.

Total distance: 2.80 miles
Last hiked: Tuesday, February 26, 2002