Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Berryessa Peak

Mount St. Helena, Cobb Mountain, and Lake Berryessa from the summit
14.5 miles round trip, 3500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous due to steep, precarious, and brushy trail
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

Oft-overlooked Berryessa Peak rises in the remote reaches of the California Coast Ranges between the Napa Wine Country and the Central Valley and offers astounding views of the northern part of the state that belie the peak’s modest height. The peak lies within the boundaries of the recently established Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument in land operated by the Bureau of Land Management; however, the patchwork of private and public lands here makes getting to the summit an odyssey. The 14.5 mile round trip hike is one of the more challenging hikes in this part of the state: the trail is precarious, narrow, and just barely clinging to the hillside in spots and choked with thick brush in other areas, not to mention the extremely steep grades and the hike’s sheer length. This is not a hike for everyone: it is substantially more difficult than hiking any of the better-known Bay Area peaks and far more treacherous and tiring than the fire road walks up Mount St. Helena or Mount Konocti. The consistently excellent scenery makes up for it, though, making this a prized off-the-beaten-path destination for experienced hikers.

The hike can be excessively hot in summer; there’s minimal shade along the trail and there’s usually no water in summer. In winter, the trail can get muddy after rains, making the already-narrow trails even more treacherous. Snow and ice are also possible during the colder months. Carry plenty of water and bring hiking poles. While I did frequently have cell service from Verizon on the hike, it’s important to remember that this hike is remote and infrequently traveled and that you need to be self sufficient to get in and out. Ticks are a concern year-round due to the grassy and brushy trail; snakes can be a concern in warmer months. In winter, daylight hours are short, so hikers should plan to start around sunrise to be able to finish the hike while it’s still light out.

I hiked Berryessa Peak on one of the first days of a new year, a cold mid-winter day when the trails were still muddy due to heavy rains in the previous week. The hike can be accessed from either Napa or the Davis/Winters area in Central Valley; coming from Winters, I followed Highway 128 east into the mountains past Monticello Dam and the junction with Highway 121 to the junction with Berryessa-Knoxville Road. Turning right onto Berryessa-Knoxville Road, I followed it north for 20 miles past the northern end of Lake Berryessa; after passing the lake, the two-lane paved road narrowed to a single lane with some potholes. About 1.3 miles after Knoxville Road narrowed to a single lane, I came to the barely marked and non-obvious trailhead. Cattle gates lined either side of the road here and there was room along the side of the road to pull-off and park; a laminated sheet of paper here next to the gate on the right side of the road informed me that I had arrived at the Berryessa Peak Trailhead.

The 7.25 miles from the trailhead on Knoxville Road to the summit can be split into five distinct sections:
  1. A 1.6 mile section of flat hiking from the trailhead along an unnamed creek.
  2. A 1.5 mile section of uphill hiking along well-established trails to a cattle fence, which includes a steep climb on the last half mile
  3. A 1.5 mile section of hiking on a narrow trail along the grassy and precarious slopes beneath the palisades of Blue Ridge, ending at the bottom of Green Canyon
  4. A 1.5 mile section of sustained ascent through brushy and rocky terrain from Green Canyon up and along the crest of Blue Ridge to a junction with the service road
  5. A 1.2 mile section of mild ascent along a nice gravel road to the summit and its wide views.
The second section has some extremely steep stretches, but the third and fourth sections deal with the most difficult terrain and are the most challenging stretches of trail; hikers looking for a more chill hike can turn around at the fence at the end of the second section. This is an odd trail with some unusual routing choices, but that can be largely explained by the need to stay on public lands in an area where public and private property is interspersed.

To start the hike, I crossed through the cattle gate next to Knoxville Road and followed the Berryessa Peak Trail across a field and then into a canyon of a small, unnamed creek. The trail here is a wide, grassy road trace and was easy to follow, especially since the nearly flat trail just followed the creek up the canyon for the next 1.6 miles. There was substantial flow in the creek at the time of my visit but hikers coming at drier times of year are likely to encounter an entirely dry creek bed. The trail crossed the creek 8 times in the first 1.6 miles; none of the crossings were particularly difficult at the time of my hike but could be more challenging in high water. The scenery here was pretty if not particularly remarkable, the combination of oaks, green grasses, and a shallow canyon being quite common in this part of California.

Pre-sunrise frost on the hills around the unnamed creek
At 1.6 miles, a metal pole marked a sharp turn in the trail to the right, away from the creek. The trail continued to maintain the width of a road trace over the next mile as it entered the second section of the hike, climbing gently but steadily from the creek into the grassy hills that lay below the higher crest of the Blue Ridge. Metal pole markers guided me along the trail whenever there was any confusion, bringing me past a small pond to a junction atop a ridge at 2.5 miles. Here, the last of the metal pole markers pointed me to the left along a trail that went straight up a ridge leading up towards Blue Ridge.

Grassy hills on the early stretches of the Berryessa Peak Trail
The next half mile featured the steepest ascent of the hike, with the trail climbing nearly 650 feet in that short distance. The trail ascended directly along the ridge, utilizing no switchbacks; this meant that some grades along the trail were exceptionally steep. However, as the trail made its way up the grassy ridge dotted with oaks, my physical efforts were rewarded with increasingly broad views to the west and north. Lake Berryessa soon came into view below, with Mount St. Helena rising beyond it and Cobb Mountain sporting a winter coat of snow in the distance. The palisades of Blue Ridge continued to north, an impressive wall of rocky cliffs. Snow Mountain, a high Coast Range peak that was true to its name in mid-winter began to come into view farther to the north. Grassy hills below me had an almost fluorescent shine under low-angle sunlight. This all combined for an exceedingly scenic experience, one that was even more lovely under evening lighting on my return.

Ascending through oak-dotted grasslands
Palisades of Blue Ridge
At just over 3 miles from the trailhead, the second section ended as I arrived at a barbed wire fence running across the ridge. Here, the trail had to thread the needle of public lands: the plots to the northeast and southwest of this point are private, while the northwest and southeast quadrants are public. A stepladder helped me across the fence and onto the third section of the hike; the three miles following this fence were the most difficult stretch of the hike in my opinion. The views from here were already quite good, so this is a decent turnaround spot for hikers who don’t want to commit to the tough terrain ahead to reach Berryessa Peak.

Fence crossing along the Berryessa Peak Trail
Widening views along the ascent up the ridge
The third section of the hike was less steep than the aggressive ascent of the second section, but the more secure ground of the trail up to this point evaporated as the trail turned into a narrow single track less than a foot wide in places, set into a steep grassy hillside at the base of the rocky cliffs of Blue Ridge. During my January visit, the trail was quite muddy here, which became truly hazardous at times: I didn’t feel particularly secure walking on such a narrow, precarious trail when the trail tread was so slippery as well.
Narrow, slope-hugging Berryessa Peak Trail featuring views of Mount St. Helena
The trail hugged the contours of the mountain, ascending gently through the grassy slopes as the frequency of oaks faded. The views from this stretch of trail were astounding, with better views of Lake Berryessa and some teaser views of Berryessa Peak ahead, its great summit cliffs topped with a small collection of communications towers.

Lake Berryessa
At 3.8 miles, the trail reached a local high point, which was marked by a rock with a plaque carrying a quote by Sir Robert Baden Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts movement. After passing the plaque, the trail began to descend gradually as it continued traveling beneath the cliffs of Blue Ridge. Over the next half mile, the trail passed through an easement on private land; it’s trespassing if you leave the trail here, although the slopes of the mountain are so steep there’s no reason you’d want to, anyway. Turning a corner around a ridge, the brushy terrain around Green Canyon ahead came into view; the grassy slopes the trail had traveled on thus far turned into drier chaparral, although much of the brush here had been burnt in recent wildfires, including the massive 2020 LNU Lightning Complex Fire. The trail began a steeper descent as it traveled down into Green Canyon, with an extremely steep drop at the end to the creek at the bottom of the canyon. Mud made this final descent extremely slippery; hopefully future trail work can give us a friendlier route.

Descent into Green Canyon
The creek at the bottom of Green Canyon at 4.6 miles from the trailhead marked the end of the third section and the start of the fourth. There was low flow in the creek during my hike, but in summer hikers are unlikely to find any water in the creek. After crossing the creek, I ascended the muddy trail up the other side, traveling through high, thick brush. After a short ascent, the trail crossed another small gulch, which also had low flow at the time of my visit. Across the second stream, the trail began a steep ascent through thick brush towards the crest of Blue Ridge. The trail frequently crossed sections of steep-angled rock here that were made even more challenging by wet and icy conditions on the cold morning of my hike.

Brushy trail along the fourth section of the hike
At 5 miles from the trailhead, the Berryessa Peak Trail reached the ridgeline of Blue Ridge. The trail ascended steadily and sometimes steeply through brush along the ridge for the next mile. As I climbed ever higher along the ridge, progressively wider views to the north and west opened up. These lovely views compensated for the often overgrown trail corridor- I found myself pushing aside brush and branches the entire way- and the extremely muddy trail tread, which made slippery terrain even more challenging to travel through.

Blue Ridge and Snow Mountain
I reached a false summit at just under 6 miles into the hike: from here, views were sweeping in all directions and Berryessa Peak’s cliff-lined summit no longer looked so far away. The trail descended to the left (east) side of the ridge as it left the false summit, cutting through thick brush as it headed downhill until the single track trail ended at a junction with a wide gravel service road at 6.1 miles, marking the end of the fourth section of the hike.

The palisades of Blue Ridge lead to the summit of Berryessa Peak
The final section of the hike was a 1.2 mile stretch following the well-kept, wide, and well-graded gravel road to the summit. This exceptionally easy hiking was almost anticlimactic after the intensity of the trail over the previous three miles. It is important to make note of where the single track trail joined the road, as there’s no trail marker here and the junction can be easy to miss on the return trip.

I had lovely views from the gravel road to the east of the Cache Creek Valley, the Central Valley, and the snowy Sierra Nevada beyond that. The large Chicken Ranch Casino was an obvious landmark in Cache Creek Valley below, while the Sierra Buttes and the peaks of the Desolation Wilderness were prominent snowy forms on the horizon. Lassen Peak is supposed to be visible to the northeast on clear days, but unfortunately some cloud cover over the northern part of the Central Valley obscured my views of Lassen Peak and of Sutter Buttes in the Valley itself.

Sierra Nevada rising across the Central Valley
Sierra Buttes and Central Valley
A steady and gentle ascent on the gravel road along the eastern side of the Blue Ridge crest brought me to the 3059-foot summit of Berryessa Peak at 7.2 miles, ending at a high point along the peak’s palisades, just uphill from the base of a collection of telecommunications towers. The towers were not too distracting, as they lay just east of the summit while the primary points of the interest in the view were more to the west, north, and south.

Lake Berryessa’s elongated north-south form was spread out below the peak to the west, the grassy ridges below Berryessa Peak falling to its blue waters. Ridge beyond ridge of the Coast Range rose beyond the lake, including the Mayacamas Mountains and the numerous ranges of the Wine Country region. Mount St. Helena, Cobb Mountain, and Mount Konocti were easily recognizable summits to the west and northwest, with both St. Helena and Cobb Mountain sporting snowy crowns from recent winter storms. The distinct profile of Mount Tamalpais was visible beyond the Wine Country Ranges. To the south, the mighty palisades of Blue Ridge led from Berryessa Peak towards the sharp jumble of peaks around Putah Creek Canyon; Mount Vaca and the distinctive twin summits of Mount Diablo were visible in the distance. I caught a glimpse of water near Mount Diablo- perhaps it was San Pablo Bay or the Carquinez Strait- and beyond the water I could see all the way to the San Francisco Peninsula, with Black Mountain in the Santa Cruz Mountains forming the southernmost anchor to this view. Central Valley and Sierra views lay to the east. It was a spectacular view, one of the very best summit panoramas in the greater San Francisco Bay Area.

Lake Berryessa
Blue Ridge
Mount Tam rising beyond Lake Berryessa
Mount Diablo and Mount Vaca
To the north, I could see along length of Blue Ridge which I had followed to get to Berryessa Peak; Snow Mountain’s white summit rose beyond that. Berryessa Peak and Snow Mountain are the two central landmarks of Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, established by President Barack Obama in 2015 to protect a stretch of the Interior Coast Ranges between the two peaks. 

Snow Mountain and the cliffs of Blue Ridge
I saw a single other hiker on a clear and lovely (albeit cold) January day; I spent nine hours out enjoying this hike and had my complete solitude interrupted for fewer than five minutes of that time. The views on this hike are undoubtedly great; but the trek out is undoubtedly a challenge. Experienced hikers willing to take on this trail’s less pleasant aspects will find the scenery en route to the summit to be undeniably rewarding.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Stebbins Cold Canyon Blue Ridge Loop

Cobb Mountain and Mount Konocti rise beyond Lake Berryessa
5 miles loop, 1500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required (donation encouraged)

The panoramic views of Lake Berryessa and the California Coast Ranges from the trail along the crest of the Blue Ridge are a key reason this loop hike in UC Davis’s Stebbins Cold Canyon Natural Reserve is so popular. In five miles, this trail combines the Blue Ridge and Homestead Trails, climbing from the bottom of Putah Creek Canyon to a lofty ridge with expansive views, then completes a spectacular ridgeline walk before returning with a descent through the canyon of a lovely seasonal stream. The proximity of the Stebbins Cold Canyon Natural Reserve to Davis, Sacramento, and the North Bay suburbs of San Francisco make this easily accessible hike quite crowded on weekends, but I recommend this hike regardless as it is such a thoroughly pleasant outdoor outing. The trail can be rocky and steep at times; winter and spring will provide the best hiking experience here, as the Inner Coast Ranges can be swelteringly hot and dry in the summer.

I hiked the Blue Ridge-Homestead Loop at Stebbins Cold Canyon Natural Reserve on a clear day that was the first day of the New Year. The reserve, administered by the nearby University of California at Davis, is just a short drive from Davis or from I-580. From the Bay Area, I took I-80 and then I-580 north to Winters, exiting I-580 onto Highway 128 and following 128 west through Winters and into the mountains. Highway 128 followed Putah Creek along its canyon; immediately after passing Canyon Creek Resort and crossing a bridge over Putah Creek, I turned right into a parking lot for the trailhead. The parking lot was not well signed from the road, only marked by a small sign with a hiking symbol, but once I turned into the lot it was clear that I was at the Stebbins Cold Canyon Natural Reserve. There was parking here for about 25 cars; the lot was completely full when I arrived at midday, but turnover was fast and I nabbed a spot within five minutes. There’s additional parking that’s just farther up the road and closer to the true trailhead, but space there is limited. There was a port-a-potty at the trailhead but no established toilet.

From the parking lot, I followed the main trail south along Cold Creek. After 100 meters of hiking along the creek, the trail split: the right fork led along the creek, providing low water access to the Blue Ridge and Homestead trails, while the left fork headed uphill, meeting Highway 128 at the second parking area. Both paths can lead you to the Blue Ridge and Homestead Trails: while park signage advises taking the lower trail along the creek, I advise visitors during winter and spring to take the top route instead. The lower route passes through a set of tunnels under Highway 128: however, these tunnels also carry Cold Creek underneath Highway 128 and can be flooded and inaccessible when the creek is flowing. Thus, during periods when Cold Creek is flowing, it is safer to hike up to Highway 128 and to follow the trail on the right side of the road up to the bend in the road at the crossing over Cold Creek: here, I crossed the highway (be careful and watch for cars!) and connected with the beginning of the Homestead Trail, which started on the left (west) side of the creek. I followed the trail for an initially flat hundred meters, connecting back up with the trail that traveled through the tunnels beneath the highway, and arrived at the junction between the Blue Ridge and Homestead Trails at 0.3 miles into the hike.

At the junction, I took the right fork for the Blue Ridge Trail: I would later complete the loop by returning along the Homestead Trail. The Blue Ridge Trail started by dropping downhill to Cold Creek and crossing the creek; on the other side of Cold Creek, the trail used an initially steep ascent to connect to a road trace with a gentler grade. After passing a signboard with a map of the hike a box for donations, the trail began a moderate ascent with many switchbacks up the side of Blue Ridge. The cliffs of Blue Ridge rose above the trail, which traveled through open, brushy terrain and had constantly improving views of the grassy but rugged mountains surrounding Cold Canyon.

Blue Ridge Trail
View up Cold Canyon from the ascent to Blue Ridge
The entire length of the hike passed through a landscape that is frequently swept by wildfires; most recently, the LNU Lightning Complex in 2020 burned through the grasses and brush in the area. The result of these fires was a landscape littered with the burnt, skeletal frames of many bushes and with new brush growing from the remains of the dead vegetation.

The Blue Ridge Trail ascended steadily throughout its opening chapter, but the switchbacks gradually began to shift north as the trail headed towards a rocky outcrop facing north over Putah Creek Canyon. At this point, the first views of the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada through the mouth of Putah Creek Canyon began to appear.

Rocky outcrop above the trail
At 1.5 miles, the trail arrived at the rocky, north-facing outcrop; a social path here led out towards the end of the outcrop. Although this is not a high point along the ridge, the views from here were quite noteworthy: I caught my first glimpse of Lake Berryessa below, held back by the concrete arc of the Monticello Dam. A rugged and rocky ridge that was actually a continuation of Blue Ridge on the other side of Putah Creek Canyon rose on the other side of the dam.

Blue Ridge rises above Monticello Dam and Lake Berryessa
The completion of Monticello Dam in 1957 led to the flooding of Berryessa Valley and formation of Lake Berryessa. The town of Monticello once lay upstream along Putah Creek in the valley, which is now flooded by the main body of the lake; residents were forced to leave and the town was abandoned to the rising waters of the newly formed lake. While not the largest hydroelectric and water storage project in California, where such projects are commonplace, this is perhaps the largest such project near the San Francisco Bay Area; Lake Berryessa provides both water and the electricity to much of the Solano County suburbs, including Vallejo, Fairfield, and Vacaville.

Leaving the outcrop, the trail resumed its switchback ascent up to Blue Ridge, reaching the crest of the ridge at 1.7 miles. Sweeping views opened up as soon as I reached the ridgetop and a bench provided a nice spot to rest and enjoy the view. Lake Berryessa lay below to the west, although the visible water from here is just an arm and not the main body of the lake. Cobb Mountain and Mount Konocti stood prominently to the northwest, beyond Lake Berryessa; Cobb Mountain was coated in a layer of snow deposited by a recent winter storm. To the east, I gazed out the mouth of Putah Creek Canyon to the farms of the Central Valley, the Sacramento skyline, and the distant Sierra peaks of the Desolation Wilderness near Lake Tahoe. The skies were clear enough on this day that I could identify Pyramid Peak and Round Top over a hundred miles away.

Sierra Nevada rises beyond Sacramento and the Central Valley
Lake Berryessa
Many hikers simply came up to this viewpoint on the ridge and returned down the Blue Ridge Trail, but I chose to continue south along the crest of the Blue Ridge to complete the loop with the Homestead Trail and I’m glad I did so. From the first viewpoint, the trail followed a brief flat stretch of the ridge before a short ascent up a hundred feet brought me to a summit along Blue Ridge at 1.9 miles from the trailhead. The views here were enjoyable but quite similar to the earlier views along the ridge; however, far fewer hikers stop at this summit compared to the bench that is a little farther back along the ridge.

Putah Creek Canyon and the Central Valley
Following the spine of the ridge, the trail made a short descent and ascent in quick succession to arrive at a secondary peak; from this peak, I had a spectacular view of the ridge ahead of me. Blue Ridge is a remarkably sharp and well-defined ridge, although the walk along the top of the ridge is never particularly hazardous; the openness of the ridge provided constant and spectacular views of the nearby mountains rising over Cold Canyon on one side and Lake Berryessa on the other side.

View along Blue Ridge from the first summit
A short but steep descent from the second peak brought me to a long, flat stretch of Blue Ridge. This was a sheer pleasure to hike: each step took me further along the terrain of this remarkable ridge and delivered lovely views on both sides of the ridge.

Looking north along Blue Ridge
At 2.4 miles, the trail began to climb again as it approached a more southerly summit along the ridge; after passing some false summits, the trail arrived atop the highest point of the hike at 2.7 miles. The view from atop this second summit, although generally similar to the view from the first, included a few more points of interest: from here, the window on the Central Valley had shifted, with the Desolation Wilderness peaks no longer visible but with the Sierra Buttes appearing in the viewshed instead. To the north, Blue Ridge extended from the shores of Lake Berryessa up to its communications tower-crowned high point at Berryessa Peak. Beyond Berryessa Peak, I caught a glimpse of the white winter coat covering Snow Mountain, a 7000+ foot peak in the Coast Range that marks the start of a more rugged stretch of the range. Berryessa Peak and Snow Mountain are together the key features of the new Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, a protected area composed of over 300000 acres of Bureau of Land Management and US Forest Service land that was established in 2015; the national monument includes lands here on the south side of Putah Creek but the hike described here sticks primarily to land administered by UC Davis.

Lake Berryessa from the southernmost summit on the Blue Ridge Trail
Sierra Buttes visible across Central Valley
Snow Mountain and Berryessa Peak rise over Lake Berryessa
Leaving the second summit, I descended along the Blue Ridge Trail to a saddle and a junction with Annie’s Trail and the connector to the Homestead Trail at 3 miles. Along the descent, I enjoyed some last views of Lake Berryessa as well as the dramatic profile of the stretch of Blue Ridge which I had hiked.

Blue Ridge and the Interior Coast Ranges
At the junction with Annie’s Trail, I took the left fork to take the connector trail towards the Homestead Trail. The connector trail left the ridge and began a switchbacking descent to the east. The trail passed through remnants of a former forest here: the impacts of the 2015 Wragg Fire and 2020 LNU Lightning Complex Fire were especially apparent here, where trees were just burnt-out husks of their former selves. I continued to have nice views over Cold Canyon during the initial part of the descent, but as I lost elevation rapidly the views began to shrink to the mountains in my immediate surroundings. At 3.4 miles, the switchback descent ended as the trail arrived at the bottom of the canyon; the trail continued its descent by following the creek northwards.

Descending into Cold Canyon
I arrived at the junction with the Homestead Trail at 3.7 miles. The main Homestead Trail led to the left from this junction back to the parking lot, but I chose to first head right to explore the homestead site itself. The Southern Patwin people lived in and around Cold Canyon prior to the arrival of European American settlers. In the early 1900s, the Vlahos family homesteaded in the canyon, using these hills as grazing land. The stone foundations of their house are still visible on the banks of Cold Creek, even though the house itself is long gone; a short walk upstream from the house foundations led to a view of the foundations of a cold storage unit across the creek that was used to store goat cheese made from the milk of their grazing livestock. The canyon’s current name stems from that cold storage unit. It seemed possible to cross the creek to reach the cold storage unit, but the trail to reach it was not in great shape during my visit so I was content to view it from afar.

Cold storage at the homestead
Leaving the homestead site, I followed the Homestead Trail along Cold Creek for the last mile back to the trailhead. For most of the year, Cold Creek is dry; but after rains commence each winter, the creek flows for a few happy months until the arid summer heat parches it again. When I came in midwinter, shortly after two weeks of heavy rains, the creek was burbling and cascading its way down the canyon to Putah Creek, making verdant everything that it touched. The trail crossed the creek along its path back to the trailhead, which was actually somewhat difficult considering the volume of water in the creek at the time; however, most hikers will find lower waters when they come so this would not be an obstacle.

Cold Creek
Cold Creek
The University of California system has acquired land through many different ecosystems throughout the state to create a network of natural reserves that each preserves a unique California ecological area. The Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve is meant to preserve the terrain and biodiversity of a section of the Inner Coast Ranges for both academic study and public enjoyment. This reserve was named after G. Ledyard Stebbins, a professor at UC Berkeley and UC Davis and the founder of UC Davis’s Department of Genetics who authored Variation and Evolution in Plants, a seminal work in establishing the field of botanical evolutionary biology.

At 4.7 miles into the hike, I reconnected with the Blue Ridge Trail near the mouth of the canyon. I followed the main trail back to Highway 128 and the lower parking lot to end my hike.

The Blue Ridge-Homestead Loop at Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve was a very enjoyable hike- the sweeping views, the dramatic trail along Blue Ridge, the lovely hike along Cold Creek all combined to make this a complete and satisfying hiking experience. This hike’s many charms and its proximity to Davis meant that I saw over a hundred other hikers over the course of the day, but it is well worth dealing with the problems that come with crowds to enjoy this hike in the Inner Coast Range.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Glen Eden Trail

Mount Konocti rising above Clear Lake from the Glen Eden Trail
5 miles round trip, 1700 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

The hike up the sides of Little Cow Mountain on the Glen Eden Trail provide good views of Northern California’s Clear Lake region. The Glen Eden Trail is the primary access trail to the Bureau of Land Management’s Cow Mountain Recreation Area and is one of the few official hiking trails in this part of the Mayacama Mountains. There are far more spectacular trails throughout Northern California, but this is still a decent hike option in the Ukiah-Clear Lake area due to the dearth of other good hiking options in the area. The full trail extends deep into Cow Mountain Recreation Area, but here I will just describe a round trip hike along the trail’s easternmost 2.5 mile stretch. The trail passes through an easement on private land for the entirety of this hike, so be sure to stay on the trail to avoid trespassing. Like many inland hikes in this part of California, this trail can get very hot midday, especially during the summer, so start early to avoid the heat; ticks are also common in the brushier areas along the trail.

I hiked the Glen Eden Trail during a September visit to the Ukiah-Clear Lake area. The trailhead is a 2.5 hour drive from San Francisco; the fastest way to reach it from the Bay Area is to follow Highway 101 north past Ukiah and take Exit 555B for Highway 20 heading east towards Lakeport. I followed Highway 20 for 14 miles into the Mayacamas and then turned right onto Scotts Valley Road, which I followed through a pretty valley for 2.5 miles to the Glen Eden trailhead. There was a large gravel parking lot for the hike on the left (east) side of the road, but the Glen Eden Trail itself started across the road, heading west and up the steep slopes of the Mayacama Mountains.

From the parking lot, I crossed Scotts Valley Road and started up the Glen Eden Trail, which was initially a steep and narrow single-track trail that ascended through the oak forests that covered the Mayacama Mountains. As foliage was not particularly dense here, partial views started opening up soon afterwards as I worked my way through switchbacks up the mountain. Southerly switchback corners provided nice views of farms and houses below in Scott Valley with three-peaked Mount Konocti, a stratovolcano at the center of the Clear Lake region, in the distance. 

Mount Konocti rises over Scotts Valley
When the switchbacks ended and the trail began heading west and working its way up to the ridge, I was treated to nice views of farms in Scotts Valley with the forested Mayacama Mountains rising above. Having started the hike early in the morning to avoid the heat, I was lucky to see some remnant morning fog hanging onto some of the hillsides here.

Fog in the Mayacamas
The trail gained the crest of the ridge at 0.4 miles into the hike, where it joined an old road trace, which made the trail wider and the hiking a bit easier; the oak forest around the trail was replaced by brush and chaparral. The road trace continued climbing along the ridge until flattening out at 0.8 miles after about 600 feet of ascent. This flatter stretch of the ridge featured nice views of the crest of the Mayacama Mountains ahead.

Glen Eden Trail
The trail resumed its steady ascent after the flat part of the ridge until flattening out again in a wooded area where the road trace skirted some fenced-off private property. Here, the Glen Eden Trail left the road trace and temporarily became a single-track trail again, which climbed uphill through some chaparral and joined a well-maintained dirt road slightly above the private lot (be sure to watch for signs for the Glen Eden Trail on your return to avoid wandering onto someone’s property here!).

Now a thousand feet in elevation above the trailhead and 1.5 miles into the hike, I continued following the dirt road uphill and to the west, ascending through chaparral-covered slopes with increasingly impressive views. Clear Lake was now visible at the foot of distant Mount Konocti and the views along the crest of the Mayacama Mountains were improving as well. At an unsigned junction of dirt roads, I took the left fork to continue heading towards the main ridge.

Glen Eden Trail views of Clear Lake
The dirt road passed beneath the summit of Little Cow Mountain; the peak was a little over 300 feet above the road here but is inaccessible to the public. Instead, the Glen Eden Trail swung to the south, opening up lovely views of the Mayacamas and Clear Lake. Cobb Mountain- the high point of the Mayacama Mountains- rose slightly above the surrounding peaks to the southeast. Much of the landscape here was still charred and bore other scars of the 2018 River Fire, which swept through the Cow Mountain area and burned the entire Glen Eden Trail. The River Fire was the smaller portion of the larger Mendocino Complex Fire, which was the largest recorded fire in California history when it swept through in 2018 but has since been relegated to third after the conflagrations of the 2020 and 2021 fire seasons.

At 2 miles, the trail departed the road trace to the right: here, signs along the road indicated private property ahead and redirected hikers onto a single-track trail. For many hikers, this may be an appropriate turnaround point, as the best views of Clear Lake are to be had here. However, hikers who continue just another half mile further can also catch some views into the Cow Mountain Recreation Area deep in the Mayacamas.

Mayacama Mountains
The single-track entered a forest of madrones and then descended briefly into a small ravine before ascending out the other side into chaparral. As the trail climbed onto a ridge covered with low brush, nice views of Little Cow Mountain and Clear Lake opened up. 

Little Cow Mountain
At 2.4 miles, I came to a five-way junction atop a ridge crest: three private gravel roads met here, while the Glen Eden Trail crossed to the right hand side of the junction. I followed the Glen Eden Trail for another 50 meters through a stand of oaks on the grassy ridge until coming to a view to the west of Cow Ridge and the valley of Scotts Creek. While not particularly inspiring, this viewpoint was quiet and peaceful and was a good spot for a brief rest before backtracking to the trailhead.

Oaks in the grasslands
View west into Cow Mountain Recreation Area
The Glen Eden Trail continues from the point where I stopped, traveling deep into Cow Mountain Recreation Area for another 4 miles. The trail ends at a road that’s accessible from the Ukiah side, but I wasn’t terribly interested in a longer hike here under the hot sun.

This first 2.5 mile stretch of the Glen Eden Trail has some pretty views and few visitors, despite being one of the few formal publicly accessible hiking trails in its area. I saw just a single other hiker on a nice Sunday morning in September. It’s not clear to me that this hike alone would be worth a trip from the Bay Area- but if you’re a local or happen to be in the area with some free time, this is a decent Clear Lake area hike if you’ve already hiked Mount Konocti. Weakly recommended, but still an enjoyable hike; come early in the day to avoid the heat on this exposed trail.

Monday, February 7, 2022

Montgomery Grove

Redwoods of Montgomery Flat
1.8 miles loop, 250 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved but narrow road to trailhead, no fee required

A strip of towering coast redwoods- once thought to include the world’s tallest tree- grows on either side of Montgomery Creek in remote Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve, nestled in the mountains of Mendocino County in Northern California. A short and fairly easy hike visits the heart of the forest in Montgomery Flat, home of the 368-foot tall Mendocino Tree that was the world’s recorded arboreal height champion from 1995 to 2006 and remains the eleventh tallest known tree on our planet. This redwood forest is small but enjoyable and has some truly impressive giants, although it cannot match the lusher forests of Humboldt Redwoods and Redwood National Park farther to the north. The grove’s remote location prevents overcrowding, although you’re still bound to see a handful of other hikers here on a nice weekend.

I hiked to Montgomery Grove on a late September day at the end of one of the driest California summers on record. I visited Montgomery Flat far later than the other major redwood regions of the Northern California Coast, in part because of the difficulty in planning a trip around it: it was difficult to justify the long drive from the Bay for such a day hike, there were few other nearby hikes to couple it with for a full weekend outing (besides heading to the Mendocino Coast afterwards), and the windy drive from Ukiah made it an impractically long side trip on my drives up or down from Humboldt County’s more expansive forests. But on a weekend when the intense flames of the KNP Complex Fire were engulfing Sequoia National Park’s Muir Grove on the other side of the state, I remembered the fragility of California’s giant trees and recalled the damage wrought the previous year by the CZU Lightning Complex in Big Basin and decided that I should see Montgomery Woods without delay.

The parking area for Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve is about two and a half hours north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Leaving San Francisco, I took US 101 north for about 110 miles to Ukiah, leaving the highway at Exit 551 for State Street, just north of the town itself. I turned right onto State Street to head north and then after a quarter mile, I turned left onto Orr Springs Road. I followed Orr Springs Road up and over a high, scenic, and grassy ridge into the Big River watershed, descending into the forest along the Big River and passing the handful of houses that made up Orr Springs. The Orr Springs Road was very windy and at times narrowed to such a point that there was no lane divider. About 14 miles after turning onto Orr Springs Road, I came to a sign for Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve and turned off into the small parking lot on the left (south) side of the road, arriving at the trailhead. Hikers arriving from Mendocino can follow the Comptche-Ukiah Road east from that town along the Big River until they reach the trailhead.

Orr Springs Road
I started the hike by following the road trace that departs from the parking lot into the forest. The trail briefly skirted Montgomery Creek before crossing the creek on the footbridge; here, I turned left and took the trail that followed Montgomery Creek upstream. The trail ascended about 200 feet over the next third of a mile, which was the only ascent of note on the whole hike. There were a handful of redwoods along this stretch of trail but generally the forest here was unimpressive.

At 0.3 miles into the hike, the trail rounded the top of a small hump and very suddenly arrived at lower Montgomery Flat. The drier, mundane forest through which I hiked initially was replaced with a cool, shady forest of soaring redwoods. The trail descended slightly to enter the grove and came to a junction where the two directions of the loop split. I did the loop through Montgomery Flat counterclockwise, although there wasn’t a particular reason to pick one direction over the other.

Entering Montgomery Flat
As its name suggests, Montgomery Flat is an alluvial flat of a little over a half mile long along Montgomery Creek. The flatter terrain and moist environment here supports this lovely redwood forest. The most impressive trees in the flat are at the lower and upper ends of the flat, at the start and at the far reach of the loop trail. While I found the redwoods quite impressive in September, visitors coming earlier in the year will likely find even more to enjoy here: Montgomery Creek, dry at the time of my visit, burbles through the grove in spring and supports a dense carpet of redwood sorrel, which had mostly wilted by the time of my visit.

Redwoods in lower Montgomery Flat
Over the next two thirds of a mile, I followed the trail along the south side of Montgomery Creek. Numerous giants lined the trail, their grey and maroon trunks lit by patterned sunlight filtering through the lofty canopy. At particularly scenic stretches, carpets of ferns covered the forest floor, providing a lush complement to the majestic trunks.

Sea of ferns along the Montgomery Trail
Montgomery Woods
Montgomery Woods
Montgomery Woods
The trees became ever taller as I hiked further along the creek, crescendoing until they reached their zenith as I approached upper Montgomery Flat, which was at the far end of the loop. Here, many trunks soared out of sight as they reached into the late afternoon sky. The most impressive trunk here was that of Montgomery Giant, a monstrous redwood that rose from the north end of the footbridge crossing Montgomery Creek at the far end of the loop. Montgomery Giant is the largest tree in Montgomery Woods and, at 360 feet tall, the fourth tallest here. There are two other major named trees in the grove, Norman Hendry and Mendocino, but neither is directly next to the trail. Mendocino was though to be the tallest tree in the world for about a decade starting in 1995 after it was measured to be 368 feet tall; Humboldt Redwoods’ Stratosphere Giant later usurped its crown until Hyperion in Redwood National Park claimed and has held the current champion status at just shy of 380 feet tall.

Montgomery Giant
Montgomery Woods was burned by the 2008 Orr Complex Fire, an early season lightning fire that swept through part of the Mendocino County coastal mountains. Luckily, fire intensity was not too strong and even though the understory in the park was incinerated, the large redwoods here generally remained intact. Visiting just 13 years later, the impacts of this fire were no longer obvious- the groundcover had grown back nicely.

The walk back along the northern arc of the loop was most scenic at first, as I skirted those most impressive redwoods in upper Montgomery Flat. The character of the grove became a bit more plain as I continued along the return leg before finally picking up when I returned to lower Montgomery Flat, where the trail passed through lush fern carpets in the vicinity of a second crossing over Montgomery Creek. After I closed the loop on the trail, I followed the access trail that had brought me to Montgomery Flat back downhill to the parking area.

Upper Montgomery Woods
Upper Montgomery Flat
Montgomery Woods
Soaring redwoods
Overall, Montgomery Grove is a worthwhile destination to see soaring coast redwoods. However, visitors in Northern California who have enough time to drive to Humboldt County should skip this grove to head to Humboldt Redwoods and Redwood National Park, while those with brief time in the Bay Area may still find this a bit too far to be a feasible trip. Ultimately, most visitors here will understandably be locals and Bay Area residents who want to experience a lesser known but still majestic forest.