By Jim Golway

(Story reprinted from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, September 2014)

Our quest has begun on Lower Mountain Trail.
With curiosity and your senses, you’re sure to not fail. 
By searching for clues both high and low
Your knowledge of Sugarloaf is bound to grow.

And so goes the first clue of an adventure game that has come to Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. By combining the joy of a nature hike with the intrigue of a treasure hunt, the Quest Hike provides a physical and intellectual challenge for park visitors of all ages.

“It’s a great way to learn about the nature and history of Sugarloaf while enjoying the fun of an outdoor adventure,” said Holland Gistelli, educational intern and co-creator of the hike.

On Labor Day, 18 adventurers undertook the first Quest Hike, setting off from a trailhead with a list of clues. Cleverly written by Gistelli, each is a teaching rhyme that describes a unique park feature that hikers can spot from the trail. By studying the clues and keeping a sharp eye out for the landmarks, hikers learn about Sugarloaf’s flora and fauna, its geology, wildlife and early inhabitants.

“I had never written poetry before, but I grew up reading Dr. Seuss books,” said Gistelli, who holds a degree in education from the University of Connecticut. “That helped me come up with clues that let hikers feel like they’re on a treasure hunt while they learn about the wonders of Sugarloaf.”

Approximately 1.5 miles long, the Quest trail is designed to be an easy to moderate self-guiding hike. But on this initial outing, Gistelli led the way. The group encountered little difficulty. They took their time, learning how Sugarloaf got its name, where the lacy green stuff hanging from the tree came from, and why the rock at the top of the switchback is so colorful. Those questions and more are answered as hikers make their way closer to the reward at the end of the trail.

“We’re always looking for ways to educate park visitors while providing enjoyable outdoor activities,” said Park Manager John Roney. “The Quest Hike achieves both.”

Questing has been going on for 160 years, with the first Quest-like adventure game started on the moors of Scotland at a windswept, barren place called Dartmoor, the setting for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Hound of the Baskervilles.”
Its spookiness didn’t deter the English, who found the moors a delightful place for walking, or hiking, as we call it. In 1854, a guide named James Perrott thought it would be jolly fun to give these walkers something to hunt for, so he wedged a bottle into a cairn that contained his calling card and an invitation to anyone who found the bottle to leave theirs.

At first no one did. So he circulated clues and added a logbook in which finders could add their names or personalized stamps. The game quickly became popular. The bottle was soon replaced with a discarded letterbox (a British term for a mailbox) and letterboxing was born.

Today, letterboxing is played throughout the world. Other outdoor games such as geocaching and orienteering are variations, and other parks have incorporated questing into their programming.

Roney came up with the idea of bringing the adventure game to Sugarloaf, but rather than using a compass to navigate between clues, these clues come with a trail map. If you miss a landmark, just stay on the trail and watch for the next one. There is no fear of getting lost.

“The first group really got into the spirit of the Quest,” said Gistelli. “We had families with young children plus experienced hikers.”

It took them about two hours to complete the loop trail, following the last clue to a strongbox that contains a logbook hikers can sign, a rubber stamp of the Sugarloaf logo and a washable tattoo for kids.

“They all enjoyed the hike while learning about the history and nature of the park,” Gistelli said. “I expect the Quest to become one of our most popular hikes.”

To take the Quest Hike, pick up clues and trail maps at the Sugarloaf Ridge State Park Visitor’s Center and information kiosk at the Lower Bald Mountain Trailhead, 2605 Adobe Canyon Road, Kenwood, 833-5712, sugarloafpark.org.

Sugarloaf is managed by Sonoma Ecology Center in partnership with Team Sugarloaf and California State Parks.