Tolay Lake – a little known valley with a rich cultural and natural history
In 2005, two public entities and an ardent community group called “Friends of Tolay Lake” teamed up to preserve a little known scenic and culturally significant valley, 40 miles north of San Francisco. They prevailed after raising the funds from county, state, federal, and private sources. Tolay Lake Regional Park opened up to limited public access for the first time since the transfer in ownership to the regional open space district from a private owner.
Over a thousand prehistoric charmstones, culturally significant rock carvings, have been found since the lake was drained in the early 1900s. Some charmstones were sent to the Smithsonian Museum in the early 1900s. According to multiple historical accounts, long before the several-hundred-acre lake was drained, indigenous people performed healing rituals here, putting their ailments into stones that they threw into the water. The rocks, which came from locales across California, were discovered after an early settler dynamited one end of the lake in an effort to make the land suitable for growing potatoes.
The Cardoza family, owners of the property since the 1940s, grew pumpkins in the former lake bottom for an annual fall festival that brought thousands of visitors to the historic site for over 15 years. The Cardozas sold the land to Sonoma County, at a price below its market value, after park advocates successfully raised funds to purchase the 1,737-acre. Now an environmental review process is underway, and the public can visit the park by reserving a spot on a ranger-led hike.
The County of Sonoma’s Regional Parks Department is also consulting with Native American groups representing descendants of Miwok and Pomo tribes to study opportunities for cultural education. One project idea includes the cultivation and restoration of Purple Needle Grass, which was used by Native Californian basket weavers. In recent years, the state designated the rare drought-tolerant purple plant as California’s official state grass.