Johnson Ridge trail leads to the summit of Hood Mountain, one of the California Wine Country’s most prominent peaks. The mountain towers majestically over the Valley of the Moon, prominently visible from Highway 12. The peak is also apparent from most of Santa Rosa. A trip to the summit (and nearby Gunsight Rock) yields spectacular views of much of the Bay Area, which is fitting, since the Johnson Ridge Trail is the northernmost section of the Bay Area Ridge Trail.
Three routes lead to the summit of Hood Mountain, all of which have over 2,000 feet of elevation gain. Of the three routes, the Johnson Ridge Trail offers the most varied terrain and scenery as well as the chance to observe local pioneer history. The trail also accesses one of the two backcountry camping sites around Hood Mountain. The Johnson Ridge Trail is actually composed of two parts, an upper and a lower section. The route to the summit of Hood Mountain initially follows the Lower Johnson Ridge Trail which actually begins well below the trailhead for the trip to the summit. Instead, it begins in the Valley of the Moon and parallels Pythian Road all the way to the trailhead. For the purposes of a description of the route to the summit of Hood Mountain, the lower section of the Lower Johnson Ridge Trail is omitted.
The trailhead for the Johnson Ridge Trail is located at the end of Pythian Road. Upon leaving the parking lot, the path leads east, oddly switchbacking through private property, only a few feet from a couple of private residences. Please respect the privacy of these homes, despite the fact that one can hardly help looking through the windows only a few feet away. Compounding the unusual beginning to the trail, it soon intersects a paved service road just beyond the homes. Though a narrow trail exists immediately adjacent to the road, it is easier to simply walk along the pavement as the road climbs steeply. During winter and spring, Hood Mountain Creek can be heard crashing though the canyon below the road.
A little over 0.5 miles from the trailhead, the road passes a final private residence perched on hillside above the Valley of the Moon. The pavement ends at this point. The signs indicate that the route continues along a dirt service road. Shortly after passing through a gate, a footpath deviates from the road to the right. Though it parallel s the road, it is distinct enough that it is more pleasant to follow the path rather than the road, in contrast to the prior roadside trail. Eventually however the trail rejoins the road in time to cross Hood Mountain Creek, which is probably quite small during summer and non-existent in the fall. When the creek is full, a thick plank is supplied to cross the creek with dry feet.
Once across the creek the road rounds a bend and once again the trail veers off into single track. The trail switchbacks through mixed oak woodland for another 0.4 miles before reaching another junction with the road. At this junction the road veers northeasterly and is dubbed the Panorama Ranch Trail. This route connects to the Summit Trail, which originates at the Los Alamos trailhead on the north side of the park. Following this route is one option for reaching the summit. Beyond the junction the Johnson Ridge Trail straightens out and crosses a footbridge. Beyond the bridge the trail splits. The most direct route to the summit is to the left, which connects to the Pond Trail. This marks the end of the Lower Johnson Ridge Trail. By staying to the right, the trail continues a short distance to a 4-way junction. Turning left at the junction puts one on the Pond Trail same as the previous junction, though now at a lower elevation with more climbing ahead. Turning right at the junction deposits one at the edge of Merganser Pond after only a short distance. Continuing straight through the junction, the trail switchbacks down the hill and ends on the backside of Merganser Pond, adjacent to the backcountry camping site. This is the prettiest route to Merganser Pond. On the far side of the pond is the Valley View Trail, which leads to an excellent vista of the Valley of the Moon. The Valley View Trail can be followed beyond the viewpoint to reconnect back to the Pond Trail, just above the junction with the Lower Johnson Ridge Trail. Although this detour from the direct route to the summit adds distance and elevation to the trip, the scenery and views are great and makes a fine addition to a hike to the summit of Hood Mountain, though it is more convenient at the end of the trip, on the way down, rather than during the trip up.
Back at the first junction with the Lower Johnson Ridge Trail and the Pond Trail, the route to the summit continues on the latter. Only a 0.1 miles beyond the junction the Valley View Trail from Merganser Pond rejoins the route. The Pond Trail at this point is an old road, through seldom used. The trail soon passes Blue Heron Pond, which seems to be a natural, spring fed pond (though it is possible that this is not the case). Past the pond, the trail crosses Hood Mountain Creek again and enters Orchard Meadow. The meadow is predictably open and scraggly old fruit trees lend credence to the areas name. In the midst of the meadow the Pond Trail reaches another junction. Approaching from the left is a spur off of the aforementioned Panorama Ranch Trail. To the right is the Upper Johnson Ridge Trail, which is the final leg of the hike to the summit.
The Upper Johnson Ridge Trail starts out fairly straight and level, passing the upper portions of Orchard Meadow. Above the trail to the left are the remnants of an old homestead. After 0.25 miles the Knight’s Retreat Trail splits off to the right, leading to an overlook of Orchard Meadow. From here the Upper Johnson Ridge Trail steepens and begins making broad switchbacks through the forest. Over 0.5 miles later the trail finally reaches the top of the ridge. Up to this point the route passed through mixed oak woodland. Upon reaching the top of the ridge it suddenly enters into the upper most reaches of the pygmy forest that covers much of the northern side of Hood Mountain. From this point the trail continues in a direct, steep line up to the summit. However, the trail is in reality another old road, is quite steep and has thick tree cover (having reentered the oak woodland). Unless time is short, the better option is to cut over to the Summit Trail, which is only a stone’s throw from the Johnson Ridge Trail once it has reached the pygmy forest. To find it, once having reached the top of the ridge, heads towards the summit, looking to the left. Only 30-40 yards away from where the trail hits the ridge, a sign on the summit trail is visible. A short footpath leads down to it. Rather than climbing a steep, viewless road, this section of the summit trail, which is single track, is routed through open forest and along interesting rock formations. The grade is much easier as well. Both lead to the same place: the summit of Hood Mountain.
The summit is a bit anti-climatic, since it is just a large clearing amidst dense manzanita. The views are extremely limited. All is not lost, however. On the west side of the clearing, the trail continues to Gunsight Rock. At descends steeply at first, passing through a tunnel cut into the thick manzanita. Eventually the trail levels out a bit and goes over several rock formations. It soon intersects the Goodspeed-Nattkemper Trail, which is one of the three routes to the summit of Hood Mountain. This one originates in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. Just beyond the junction the trail finally reaches Gunsight Rock. From here, one has what is possibly the best view in Sonoma County, reaching from the northern Maycamas Mountains all the way down to the Mission Peak area in San Jose.