SANTA ROSA – Sometimes, when looking for a new trail to traverse, it's wiser to leave the work to others. Even the best guidebooks can lead you astray or, more likely in my case, can be misinterpreted and result in unplanned meanderings.
So it was with equal measures of relief and excitement that I heard about an unusual trail-running race at Annadel State Park near Santa Rosa.
We had long sought an edition of Fresh Tracks set in the Sonoma wine country, and this seemed the perfect fit – the seven-mile Annadel Loop through the heart of a 5,500-acre stretch of the Sonoma Mountains, challenging but not overtaxing, the perfect combination of forest and meadow and sparkling lake.
Best of all, because it was the annual September run sponsored by the Empire Runners Club, they marked the entire course with blazing orange ribbons and employed kind folks at junctions to point the way. Therefore, the chance of getting lost, even for a guy whose internal GPS routinely goes haywire, is next to nil.
One last bonus: It was an age- and gender-handicapped race, meaning slug-slow 50-somethings weren't blown away – at least not immediately – by speedy runners with young legs and lungs. That's because, depending on your age and whether you were born with a Y chromosome, you were given as much as a 20-minute head start on the whippersnappers.
Which is why, like the famous Dipsea race over Mount Tamalpais, the Annadel Loop often is won by either someone on Social Security or someone yet to go through puberty.
This year's winner was 66-year-old Keith Krieger, whose age group had a 20-minute head start, followed by 11-year-old Job Skandera, who started 11 minutes early. The actual fastest competitor, elite ultrarunner Leigh Schmitt, placed seventh because of the handicap.
But enough about the racers. The real star is the trail itself. And, because I wasn't so preoccupied with finding the correct twists and turns to avoid my pathological fear of getting lost, I actually was able to cruise along and enjoy the sights.
First, a bit about the park: The Pomo Indians first trod upon the oak-, madrone- (and later, eucalyptus-) studded forest and chaparral-laden meadows. They were displaced by European cattle barons, who later gave way to cobblestone quarry magnates, who eventually sold the land to a sportsman named Joe Coney for a personal retreat. In 1971, Coney sold the land to the state parks system.
In the decades since, restoration efforts have improved eroded fire roads for equestrians and mountain bikers as well as those on foot, tidied up single-track trails for hikers and protected the arboreal environs.
As you begin the seven-mile trek at the well-signed Cobblestone Trailhead off Channel Drive, you see why this area was once a quarry whose stones paved the streets of San Francisco and Sacramento. The first mile takes you uphill through a canopy of live oak, but you aren't exactly enjoying the fragrant, overhanging branches. Rather, you are bobbing and weaving over half-buried stones – the few that turn-of-the-century quarrymen must have missed.
Once you finally get used to the rocks, you notice the black oak trees are garnished with what appears to be verdant lichen, which also covers some of the boulders and exposed roots, lending a primeval vibe to the area.
A few left turns (still on the Cobblestone Trail) and the path flattens out into a meadow that, in summer, is mostly beige and scrub brush. But in spring, the state brochure promises, a glorious bloom of lupines, redwood orchids and poppies effloresce.
Once you hit the sign and turn left on the Orchard Trail at 1.2 miles, you alternate between groves and meadows, meadows and groves, an alternating light and dark that makes the climb more palatable. Eventually it merges into an extended, sun-dappled grove that leads you (at Mile 2.3) to the Rough Go Trail. Except for one switchback, Rough Go is not that rough, rocks notwithstanding. Besides, it ends in a half- mile.
A right turn outs you on the Lake Trail, which, as its name promises, leads to a "lake." The quotation marks are needed because it's a man-made body of water called Lake Ilsanjo, which former land owner Joe Coney named for himself and his wife, Ilsa. As watering holes go, it's pretty enough, blue and sparkly. The park brochure says Ilsanjo "is not stocked, but bluegill and largemouth bass live here."
Our trail, though, veers away from the lakeshore after a half-mile and meets up with the Warren Richardson Trail, where you make a right. Be prepared for the steepest climb of the route. It lasts seven-tenths of a mile on a well-groomed fire road, and it can be a grind because of the vertical gain and the fact it's not the most scenic stretch.
Relief awaits atop an intersection marked with a wooden post reading "North Burma Tr." The next mile and a half is a downhill, single-track jaunt, sometimes steep and rocky, through groves of Douglas fir and madrone and the omnipresent oak.
More than a few participants in the Annadel Loop emerged from that stretch with bloodied knees, elbows and, in one case, an injured wounded left cheek, so be careful. But since you're just traversing the trail, not hell-bent on racing it, there's no need to hurry.
The Burma levels off right before the trailhead at Channel Drive. Turn left, and you have two choices. You can stay on the relatively flat dirt path or take the parallel, pancake-flat paved road back to the start at Cobblestone.
Only after finishing the loop and perusing the park brochure in greater detail did I realize there are vast swaths of the park to the south that this loop didn't cover. The 4.3-mile Marsh Trail, the 2.9-mile Lawndale Trail and the Steve S Trail, only eight-tenths of a mile but all of it lovely single track, would have to wait for another day.
Back at the trailhead, the awards ceremony was taking place. As the top runners gathered for a group picture, it included not just Krieger and Skandera, but also a 48-year-old woman, a 72-year-old man and a 12-year-old boy.
The race photographer asked Krieger to bend on one knee to be at the same height as Skandera in the shot. Gingerly, he knelt. You could almost hear the creak of the joints. But he was all smiles when the photog asked them to say "cheese."
Annadel Loop Annadel State Park
Trail: 7 miles
Directions to trailhead: Take Interstate 80 to the Highway 12 exit at signs for Napa/Sonoma. Continue on Highway 12 past Sonoma for approximately 15 miles. Turn left on Melita Road, which turns into Montgomery Drive. Make a left at Channel Drive and park in the gravel lot next to the sign for the Cobblestone Trailhead.
Route: If you're not part of the annual race, read carefully. From the Cobblestone Trailhead, go 1.2 miles uphill and make a left on the Orchard Trail. At 2.3 miles, turn left onto the Rough Go Trail. When the Rough Go Trail ends at 3.2 miles, veer right onto the Lake Trail. Follow that trail for nearly a mile on well-groomed dirt roads around Lake Ilsanjo before turning right onto the Warren Richardson Trail. Stay on the Richardson Trail, heading uphill beyond the South Burma Trail. At 4.5 miles, make a left downhill on the North Burma Trail. Follow the single-track North Burma for 1.5 miles until you reach the junction with Channel Trail and Channel Drive. Turn left and go about 1 mile back to the Cobblestone Trailhead.
Toilets: One portable at trailhead
Parking fee: Not at Cobblestone trailhead
Poison oak probability: High
Will there be blood? Watch your footing heading downhill on the North Burma Trail.
Probability of getting lost: Trails are well marked at junctions, but bring a trail map to make sure.