This hike in Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve, one of the only University of California Natural Reserves that allows public access, leads to the ruins of the Vlahos homestead and cold storage building on Cold Creek. The hike is best in spring and fall, as the area is subject to mudslides in winter and heat in summer.
Just inside the gate the trail forks to the left for Pleasants Ridge Trail. Stay right. Look for small trail signs starting with the number 01 after you pass the gate. The Homestead Trail stays on the east side of Cold Creek for the first 1/2 mile. Quickly you come to an eastern tributary. Although its watershed is small, the floodwaters of 1995 raised havoc here. Most of the riparian vegetation in the creek below was stripped away along with a great deal of soil that, combined with the raging waters, nearly took out the highway, too. Since then tons of debris have been removed from the trail, and the streambed is rebounding with plant life. You may see shooting stars and the shocking magenta flowers of redbud around March and April. To the right is the Blue Ridge Loop trail junction.
At 1/5 mile you enter the Reserve proper and pass through a new gate to a new display case packed with great information. Staff at the UC Reserve system is very active here at Stebbins, leading guided hikes and training hike leaders. It is an active ecological study area for students and teachers at UC Davis. Please leave study areas undisturbed. Pass a tall, classic-looking gray pine (Pinus sabiniana), and then the trail negotiates a short hill with sturdy water bars. At 1/3 mile you cross over another small hillock that came down as a land slump with many plants intact. In February, shiny brown seeds of the buckeye litter the ground, sending out pale white roots. All along the trail later in spring are wildflowers like brodiaea, monkeyflower, Indian paintbrush, white flowered yarrow and yerba santa, western wallflower, and golden fairy lantern. To the west is a prominent rocky peak on Blue Ridge that often hosts hawks circling overhead, and its sheltered ledges are ideal nesting sites for the turkey vulture.
Before the crossing of Cold Creek, look for a side trail to the right marked by a scrub oak. The creek here is a good place to see the Pacific tree frogs or yellow-legged frogs whose calls you may have been hearing. A large boulder at trail’s end has a rounded hole or mortar made by Patwin Native Americans for grinding acorns to flour. Back on the main trail at 1/2 mile you come to Cold Creek. If it is moderately high you may find a dry rock-hop crossing fifty feet upstream on the left, or enjoy the plunge on a warm day. Start the ascent to the homestead now and at 3/4 mile cross over a serpentine spring on a miniature wooden bridge.
The trail climbs steadily above the creek through dense chaparral species like ceanothus and mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus). The trail veers south to follow what looks like a tributary of Cold Creek, but a glance at the map shows you are still on Cold Creek. What I believe is going on is a nomenclature anomaly. The larger Wild Horse Creek, which joins Cold Creek below, has been given tributary status by mistake. According to standards set by the Geographic Board, the waters running into Putah Creek should be called Wild Horse Creek. But local usage and custom are strong, and to correct it would only cause further confusion.
Walk steeply through a brushy section that can be a virtual tunnel if left unpruned. On my hike the tunnel was cleared back and regularly spaced water bars installed to prevent erosion. Just beyond, a sign stating “no entry please” requests hikers to stay off a fragile hillside. On these soils even a small informal trail can lead to a major landslide. Soon, on the left side of the trail is the Vlahos homestead near some meadow (probably cleared for goat grazing) and an enormous, many-branched gray pine. All that’s left of the home is a low stone wall, an old well, and some rusted junk.
At 1-1/4 miles is the turnoff for the loop hike. But first, don’t miss the cold house that has given Cold Creek its name. Continue by crossing a small tributary, go down and cross Cold Creek to see the slightly better-preserved stone walls of the cold storage building used by Vlahos to store his goat cheese. Big oaks, maples, and bays make sure this delightful place is always cool and shady. You may follow the creek a short distance to a waterfall and pool for wading or observing aquatic life.
Follow the trail directions in reverse back to the trailhead.
From: Great Day Hikes in and Around Napa Valley, by Ken Stanton, Bored Feet Press, 2008.