A look back at Whitney Falls, Sonoma’s winter hiking destination of yesteryear

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Whitney Falls, a towering 70-foot cascade falling from sheer granite, has long been a popular, but forbidden, destination for intrepid hikers. It’s been on private property since the days of Gen. Mariano Vallejo, but landowners of the past were more likely to overlook trespassers who just wanted to marvel at the natural beauty of the waterfall. Boy Scouts camped there in the 1920s, while the Sierra Club led hikes up Sonoma Mountain to visit the falls in the 1950s and ‘60s.

According to a history on Whitney Falls published in the Index-Tribune in 1956, Vallejo sold the mountain-side land, several thousand acres, to M.A. Hardin in the early 1870s for $4,000. According to lore, the name Whitney Falls came from an early visitor who believed he was on the neighboring property owned by A.P. Whitney. In 1929, the property was purchased by D. P. Anderson of San Francisco.

Anderson was welcoming of visitors to the falls. There are numerous articles in both the Index-Tribune and the Petaluma Argus-Courier about youth campouts on the mountain, especially after a heavy rain like the ones seen this week. While in the summer the falls often dried up to just a trickle, a winter hike up the eastern side of Sonoma Mountain often promised a show.

“We left around 7 a.m. and found (the falls) around 1 p.m. It seemed to be 40 to 60 feet high. It was November and very cold that day. From it hung icicles 20 to 40 feet long,” Arnie Peters wrote in a 1998 letter to the editor in the Argus-Courier, remembering a childhood hike in 1926.

Visitors often had trouble finding the falls. Guides advised hikers to follow the creek, which was known as Carriger at the Valley floor but Fowler on the upper end. Despite the directions, there were several stories of people getting lost on their quest.

From the 1900s to 1950s, it was a common day hike for families, who would pack a lunch and trek up the mountain. It was a four-mile walk from “the mountain road” (wherever that may have been), according to a 1922 I-T article. Petalumans often made the 12-mile hike over the mountain summit to enjoy the splash of the falls. The destination was so popular, a wood cutter named Joe Warren kept a guest registry book at the base of the falls in a wooden box he fashioned.

Public treks up the mountain became an irregular treat after an Israeli exchange student visiting the falls on a hiking tour of the Bay Area fell to his death in 1954. After that, property owners were understandably concerned about the liability of hikers hurting themselves on their land.

Today, the ones who do make their way up to mountain are met by fences and “No Trespassing” signs, according to one Sonoman who has made the trek, but asked not to be identified since he was, in fact, trespassing.

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