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.

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