When I originally planned my visit to Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, I had no idea it would involve a hike to the end of our Solar System. Sugarloaf Ridge is a 4900 acre park that offers camping, hiking and picnicking, as well as accom-modating horseback riders. A dozen hikes are available ranging from easy to stren-uous, from one to nine miles in length. Elevations rise and fall between 600 - 2700 feet.
The scenery changes around every bend. Open meadows, dank creeks, marshes, moss, sunny vineyards and high vistas assure a splendid variety of plantlife and color. I looked over the list of hikes, taking into consideration that darkness falls early this time of year.
But first, a visit to the Robert Ferguson Observatory!
The Ferguson Observatory (RFO) has a compli-cated relationship with Sugarloaf Ridge. While it is on State Park land, it is operated separately, sort of. It sits about a half mile into the park, so anyone wishing to visit the observatory must pay the park entrance fee. However, if the observatory is open on a day that the park is closed, you still pay your entry fee but are not allowed to hike on any of the trails, even though several of them begin right next to the telescopes. This can put the volunteers at the observatory in the awkward situation of having to police the paths, with no ranger on hand. I have to say though, no one was complaining. Twas just my own observation.
Today RFO had a small telescope set up with a sun filter where visitors could view sunspots. Downstairs is a classroom, a full kitchen, and the main observing room with a roll-back roof and a huge hand-made telescope for night viewing. RFO offers a 6-week astronomy course that repeats throughout the year. They hold regular Friday night "Star Parties" open to the public. You can also rent the observatory for private parties of up to 50 people, however you are required to pay the overnight park camping fees when you do so.
Sun gazing completed, I looked at the list of possible day hikes. "Why don't you take our planet walk," suggested the RFO docent. He pointed to a gate with a path. A "Planet Walk" was not listed on my information sheet. I was informed that the walk placed the planets proportionally along the trail. "Sure," I said. Seeing groups of families with kids on the walkway, I figured it was short and I'd still have time for one of the other hikes afteward. Planet Walk it is!
As I departed Earth for planets beyond, four horses stared at me. 'Perhaps," I thought, "they are representing the four winds and directions and blessing my journey." More than likely though, they just thought I was weird. Or more worrisome, perhaps they know something I don't. Hmmmmmmm.
It only took a few minutes to reach Mars as it was a mere football field length away. The foot-path was flat and manicured. The surrounding terrain included a large open meadow, although the rock formations on the distant mountainside looked strangely like dwellings of other-world creatures. A couple of children went tearing by me on their way to Jupiter.
I reached Jupiter in another five minutes. It is three times further than Mars from the Sun. I was informed by the sign that I was now amoungst the first of the "outer planets." The terrain changed subtly. Oak covered hilltops and bramble choked creeks now greeted my view.
The journey to Saturn took ten minutes, leading me into a more forested area. Here fallen Autumn leaves began covering the path and footbridge, making the trail a little more slippery, along with the cover of trees keeping the path moist and muddy.
Arrival at Uranus (hold the jokes; I've heard them all), fifteen minutes later gave me pause. The info at this outpost informed me that to get to the next planet - Neptune - was a mile, all uphill. I had anticipated this being a short "family walk," so I had not brought any water with me. I did however, have my purse slung over my shoulder, not realizing the length of the trek. To go on or not to go on. What the heck. It's only a mile... but then... how far to Pluto?
The elevation began to increase immediately. Halfway to Neptune I encountered a "serious" hiker heading downhill. He looked at me with my purse and commented, "I guess you're not in it for the long haul to the summit." "No," I replied. "I'm just going to the end of the Solar System." He looked alarmed and informed me that it would be a challenge to reach Pluto. And then he remembered, "But I think Pluto's not as far as it used to be." I specu-lated the reason for this was that Pluto had been downgraded from a planet to first a "dwarf planet" and later to a "fairly large rock." He chuckled and went on his way.
As I climbed I viewed vineyards below me, and came across the very Uraniun sight of a crop of solar panels out in the middle of nowhere. The sign at Neptune advised another mile to Pluto at the summit of Brushy Peak. Here the trail became very steep, covered in many places by loose rock. Well, I'd come this far, and although I was thirsty, decided to continue. As it turned out, Pluto was only fifteen minutes away, not at the summit. It had been moved.
I whizzed back through the solar system in 75 minutes, over the leaf covered trails and past dying sword ferns, arriving back on Planet Earth where water and lunch awaited. My little stroll had turned into a 5 mile hike, but it was worth it.
There was enough daylight time left to walk the one-mile Creekside Nature Trail. Now this truly is a nice family walk. It is right across from the main parking lot, next to the campground. As dusk set it, a herd of deer in a hilltop silhouette munched on the grasses, while the sound of chirping frogs took over the squawks and caws of scrub jays and ravens.Numbered signposts correspond with a brochure you can pick up at the Visitor's Center, identifying seventeen types of plant and mineral life.
Sugarloaf Ridge State Park is now closed through February. The observatory remains open. As with a number of the Sonoma area State Parks, the prospects of escaping closure are good. A partnership with a non-profit organization has been accepted in Sacramento, with poly-financial details still to be worked out.
Hope to see you at the parks.