Bay Nature magazineSpring 2016

Camping and Backpacking

Berryessa Snow Mountain: Northern California’s New National Monument

May 9, 2016
Map illustrations by Obi Kaufmann
Animated by Kaitlyn Kraybill-Voth

t was a fiery birth. On July 10, 2015, President Obama proclaimed the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument along a hundred miles of rugged Inner Coast Range ridges spanning seven counties—Napa, Solano, Yolo, Lake, Colusa, Glenn, and Mendocino. Within a month, large parts of the new area were engulfed in the flames of the Wragg, Rocky, and Jerusalem fires. In their different ways, these events drew eyes north to a landscape that, for many Bay Area residents, seems farther off than the High Sierra, and stranger.

Sacramento Valley dwellers have a clearer view. In Davis or Woodland, Winters or Williams, the land in question forms the western skyline: a long, dark rampart extending northwest from Vacaville on Interstate 80 to the broad-shouldered mass of Snow Mountain above Clear Lake, the first of many greater summits on the way to Oregon.

The southern third of that skyline is the narrow highland called Blue Ridge. This innermost crest of the Coast Range stays above 2,000 feet for 40 miles, broken only where two big east-running streams, Putah Creek and Cache Creek, cut jagged notches through it. When Blue Ridge peters out, the band of high ground continues northwest, changing names as it gains elevation: Cache Creek Ridge, Walker Ridge, Pacific Ridge, and finally Snow Mountain.

Decades ago, friends from Davis lured me to this country, so close yet seemingly so out of reach. I beat my way through clawing buckbrush chaparral to then-pathless high points on Blue Ridge; I took snowshoes to the summit plateau of Snow Mountain, climbing in the process from low-growing valley scrub to subalpine forest. I breathed the special air of places that are not only hard to get to but almost unknown.

Back then these were orphan landscapes. Managers of Mendocino National Forest, in charge of Snow Mountain, wanted to build a logging road over the summit. The Bureau of Land Management, which administered scattered public-land parcels along Blue Ridge, was under pressure from the Reagan White House to sell off the acreage outright. These lands seemed to merit no special care. But the people who thought differently—a few at first, very many today—never stopped pushing for recognition. Now it is here.

In a warming world, conservation biologists tell us, we have to protect habitat connections running from south to north and from lower ground to higher. This monument safeguards one such corridor: a third of a million acres of public lands linking the fringes of the Bay Area metropolises to the Pacific Northwest forests and rising from 200 feet above sea level on Putah Creek to 7,056 at Snow Mountain East.

Scientists of another sort prize this stretch of the Coast Ranges as a rare geologic exhibit, exposing the contents of an ancient oceanic trench or subduction zone. Thirty million years ago along this line, the ocean floor was warping downward under the westward-driving North American landmass. In the abyss, rock masses accumulated from the seafloor (now exposed as the Franciscan formation) along with sediments spilling off the continent to the east (known as the Great Valley Sequence) and still other material torn from deeper layers of the crust (serpentinite and peridotite). When the dance of the tectonic plates shifted into its present phase, the contents of the trench were uplifted and reshuffled to make new mountains. “The kind of boundary that exists underwater everyplace in the Ring of Fire is visible here in a clearer way than practically anywhere else,” says geologist Eldridge Moores.

The sprawling new monument is not that easy to grasp. Someday a trail running the length of the reserve may dramatize its unity. Pending that, let’s imagine a rather adventurous south-to-north road trip that avoids the parallel highways, U.S. 101 and Interstate 5, and follows the spine of the area as closely as possible.

Cold Canyon & Berryessa


he monument’s outline somewhat resembles a long, lumpy Christmas stocking. Its toe is on Highway 128, at the gap where Putah Creek, flowing out of Lake Berryessa, cuts the Rocky Ridge wall. Paths climbing southward from 128 overlook arms of the lake on one side and wild little Cold Canyon, a University of California botanical preserve, on the other. This is a well-watered spot for the Inner Coast Ranges, supporting a mixture of inland and coastal species (you might even find a banana slug). When I visited a year ago, the area had the bristly lushness of an oak and brush community that had not burned for a hundred years. Last summer’s Wragg Fire, though, pushed a reset button. When the trails reopen in mid-May 2016, you can expect to see a lot of black trunks—and a memorable explosion of “fire-follower” wildflowers. “We don’t know even what’s in the seed bank there,” says botanist Glen Holstein of the California Native Plant Society.

Continue west on 128 and turn north on the Berryessa-Knoxville Road. Soon Lake Berryessa opens to the right. The “Berryessa” in the monument name doesn’t refer to this reservoir, though, but rather to the striking summit you see across it, the high point of Blue Ridge: 3,057-foot Berryessa Peak. The views from up there must be views indeed.

Until very recently, you couldn’t see them. Fifteen square miles of BLM land around this peak were inaccessible to the public, sealed off behind ranch gates. “That’s the closest BLM land to me, and I can’t get to it!” fumed Davis hiker Andrew Fulks, now president of the regional nonprofit conservation organization Tuleyome. Tuleyome applauded in 2005 when a big ranch east of the peak was placed under conservation easement, but the access problem remained.

For the solution, keep driving. Crossing a last northern arm of the lake, enter the hidden valley of Eticuera Creek. Seven miles from the bridge, at milepost 20, look for an inconspicuously signed trailhead on the right. At almost 15 miles round trip, with 3,500 feet of elevation change, the Berryessa Peak Trail is no stroll. It starts deceptively, climbing gently on grassy old roads among blue oaks. Then it spurts up a steep nose to a stile marking the edge of private land. Here a plaque acknowledges ranchers John and Judy Ahmann, who in 2007 donated the easement that opens the way to the peak. Fulks and his Tuleyome colleagues spent three years building the trail.

Inscribed rather lightly on the mountain flank, the new route works its way southward among oaks, across scree, under sandstone cliff bands of the Great Valley Sequence, and through brush fields of scrub oak and chamise. Except for the vivid blue sheet of the lake, the westward view looks aboriginal. Mount St. Helena and the Mayacamas range fill the horizon. Nearer at hand rises the plateau called the Cedar Roughs, public land that is both a designated wilderness and now a disjunct unit of the national monument. Reaching the ridgeline, you gain grand new views as far north as Mount Lassen but lose some of the out-there feeling: The peak you sweated for has a crown of communication towers. Trail extensions into more primitive parts are planned.

Eticuera Creek


riving on north in the slot of the Eticuera Creek valley, you seem to have slipped back a century. For 10 miles the road is one lane wide; instead of bridging streams, it fords them. These oak-strewn meadows suggest the word “pastoral,” but the cows in fact are gone, removed in recent years to let the trees regenerate. (Notice the planted oak saplings in protective wire cages.)

Though inside the federal monument boundaries, this landscape is managed by the state and the University of California, for reasons worth telling.
In 1980, at the head of this valley, the Homestake Mining Company struck gold. This largest find in California since the 1800s was named the McLaughlin Deposit, after Donald McLaughlin, a Homestake executive who was also a professor at UC Berkeley—and the husband of Sylvia McLaughlin, co-leader in the fight to halt the filling of San Francisco Bay.

It’s tempting to see Sylvia’s hand in what happened next. The company hired Santa Rosa–based environmental specialist (and McLaughlin family friend) Ray Krauss to co-manage its operations, laboring to limit bad effects and offset them with good ones, like the cleanup of leaky old mercury mines. He did his job so well that even the Sierra Club declared itself satisfied.

But Krauss had his eye on the other treasure contained in this land. You can see it, paradoxically, in the hardscrabble look of the region the road now enters: the reddish soil, the patchy underbrush, the widely spaced gray pines. The substrate here is serpentine, old mantle rock churned up in the oceanic trench. Serpentine serves up a spartan mineral menu, good for adapted endemic species like the serpentine sunflower, bad for the weedy exotics so prevalent on friendlier soils. To the botanist, serpentine “barrens” are opulent gardens.

As the mine played out at century’s end, Krauss carried through a bold plan to repurpose Homestake’s domain. Most of it is now the 7,000-acre Don and Sylvia McLaughlin Natural Reserve, affiliated with UC Davis. Near the Napa–Lake County line, you’ll pass a utilitarian building that houses scientists like Catherine Koehler, resident co-director. When I stopped by, the doctor was in, seeming to vibrate with enthusiasm for this extraordinary place. I challenge her a little: Does the area really stand out so much in a state that constitutes one big “biodiversity hot spot”? “Yes,” she says. “There are even hotter spots, and this is one of them.”

Not content with saving the Homestake acreage, Krauss and Koehler helped pull together a consortium of public agencies and private owners called the Berryessa–Blue Ridge Partnership. Lacking any formal powers, it enjoyed the best of connections. State money flowed, and in 2000 the rest of the Eticuera Creek valley, purchased from willing sellers, became the Knoxville State Wildlife Area. Several large conservation easements along adjoining Blue Ridge also date to this time.

With the rise of the monument campaign, led by Tuleyome, some of the energy seems to have gone out of this partnership. Krauss is a little grumpy about that. “But,” he acknowledges, “the branding of the area is valuable.”

Cache Creek


ur tour resumes at the point where Highway 20 crosses the North Fork of Cache Creek. Here is the start of the Redbud Trail and the entry to the Cache Creek Wilderness. On its way east from its source at Clear Lake, Cache Creek cuts through ridge after ridge, carving crumbling palisades in soft clays derived from volcanic ash.

Stark landforms frame the Redbud Trail, but geology is upstaged this season by fire ecology. It’s a world of green and black: charred oak boles and singed manzanita trunks rising from a vivid floor of new grasses and forbs. As you climb a modest ridge, hornet-colored markers warn of soft spots where plastic culverts have melted out beneath the trail: step wide. As you start to descend, take a spur path right for an almost aerial view of the main Cache Creek canyon. On a recent BLM-led walk, I hoped for a glimpse of the bald eagles that patrol the stream, but settled for scoping a white-breasted nuthatch and a western bluebird striving to ingest an enormous grub. Descending past one of those erosive palisades, the trail comes to the creek and a crossing that, depending on flow and sure-footedness, may call for rock-hopping, wading, or turning back. (During the February dry spell, I hopped.) Beyond, the Redbud Trail winds on into the depths of the wilderness. The trail network is sparse and loops hard to come by; for longer trips or backpacks, car shuttles between trailheads will serve you best.

To Snow Mountain


orth of highway 20, the land bulks up to new elevations. Coniferous forests appear and thicken. Roads are all gravel, with four-wheel drive advised and sometimes essential. Even where cell phones work, online guidance is iffy; the Mendocino National Forest map is the basic tool. The map on page 18 shows one scenic way of threading the maze to Snow Mountain.

Snow Mountain, geologists say, is a peak reborn. The rock of which it is built first erupted in an undersea volcano, or seamount. During the long eons of subduction, this summit tipped into the offshore trench and was scraped off, so to speak, onto the base of the overriding continent. Now modern faulting has raised these stones again.

None of this is obvious as you sign the register at the Snow Mountain Wilderness boundary and start the four-mile walk to the peak, now sweating on sunny slopes, now cooling off in groves of Douglas fir and lacy white fir. A little higher, look for the tall, stiff-needled Shasta red fir, here at the southern limit of its coastal range. Meadowy openings hint at old lakes, and the nested leaves of corn lily remind you of higher ranges. The trees thin out near the broad twin summits, opening the latest compass-round of views: over the Eel River country to the west, the Stony Brook drainage to the east, and north along the spine of the Coast Ranges toward the Trinity Alps. A continuous Bigfoot Trail may someday lead that way. To the northeast, Mount Shasta floats ethereally.
Near the final ascent you walk through a silvery grove of recently fire-killed firs. Oddly beautiful, they raise a troubling question: How will these elegant forests, established in a cooler time, fare in the coming warmer world? Forest fires, like brushfires, are nothing new or ecologically deplorable, but they seem to be different, more virulent, in recent years. The monument will appropriately be a focus of wildfire research.

A view north from the saddle between Snow Mountain West and Snow Mountain East. (Photo by Chris Tarp)
A view north from the saddle between Snow Mountain West and Snow Mountain East. (Photo by Chris Tarp)

The new Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument is a hybrid thing. Despite its name, it is meant to be a multiple-use area, not a traditional park. Along with hiking, rafting, and communing with nature, its backers explicitly endorse hunting, mountain biking, off-road vehicle play, grazing, and logging. Like the earlier Blue Ridge–Berryessa Partnership, they are trying to avoid the split into ideological teams. Wilderness areas aside, there can be no question of “purity.”

Nor does the new monument really disturb existing management. The BLM lands are still to be run from the office in Ukiah; Mendocino National Forest remains intact. (A new monument manager will report to both.) Private and state and university acres enclosed within the boundary are affected not at all.
It seems a fair question, then: What is this monument for?

The one-word answer is recognition. The status raises the profile of what have been seen as Cinderella lands. It lets new publics in on hidden treasures. And it will—it is hoped—loosen purse strings. Though monument status comes with no budget, the relabeled area may have a better crack at limited environmental funds.

Beyond that, all the specifics—trail extensions, possible land acquisitions, fire management, geological interpretation, even the location of a visitor center—must wait on a planning process that is just taking form. This will be the full production, with drafts and revisions, comment periods and hearings and environmental impact statements.

During the long campaign for the monument, advocates were at pains to assure some wary citizens that traditional uses would not be curtailed. The opponents voiced fears that the planning process, once begun, could lead in directions they did not like. They had a point. New doors are opening. Nobody knows quite what lies on the other side.

What will the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument be? In the end, it’s up to us.

John Hart of San Rafael, author of fifteen books in the environmental field, is currently tackling Bay and Delta issues for several publications.

About the Author

Marin County freelancer John Hart is the author of many articles and several books on environmental issues in the Bay Area, including Farming on the Edge (UC Press, 1992), San Francisco Bay: Portrait of an Estuary (UC Press, 2003) with photos by David Sanger, and Legacy: Portraits of 50 Bay Area Environmental Elders (UC Press, 2006) with photos by the late Nancy Kittle.