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.

No comments:

Post a Comment