5 Must Do Hikes in Solano County

Solano County isn’t known for being a hot bed for hiking. When there’s world class scenery right in our own backyard in the Bay Area and Sierra Nevada, it’s often easy to see why hikers might overlook Solano. Don’t, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Solano County boasts a variety of terrain that ranges from sweeping mountain vistas, to gently rolling hills and flat tidal marshes. Without further ado, should you make Solano County your adventure destination, here are a few hikes to try out.

1. Green Valley Falls

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When one thinks of Solano County, I doubt the image of lush green canyons and waterfalls would come to mind. Yet that is exactly what exists here in this small little canyon located in the hills between Fairfield and Napa. I’ve been hiking a lot of places in California but this one is one of my favorite hikes simply because of how unusual it is for the location. It’s an easy 2.2 mile hike with a little bit of elevation gain. At one point there’s a flight of stairs to climb. Along the way you’re treated to a rushing creek and a smaller falls flowing off a small dam. Once you approach the falls, you’ll see that the canyon surrounding it is lined with moss, ferns, and dripping with water. Suddenly, you’ll feel as if you’ve been transported to Hawaii! It’s a pretty amazing place. The hardest part about the hike is gaining access. The property is owned by the City of Vallejo Lakes System and is only opened to hikers four times a year with a guide. Generally the four hikes are on Saturdays in April, May, and June and are limited to the first 30 people. Plus there is a fee is $25 and you must pre-register a week in advance and bring a photo ID with you to the hike. However, if you’re willing to jump through all the hoops I promise the hike is well worth the effort.

Register online through the Bay Area Ridge Trail council. Signups usually begin in mid to late winter.


 

Mt. Vaca

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If you’ve spent any time around Vacaville or Fairfield, you’ve probably seen Mt. Vaca but not realized it. It sits high on the ridge of the coast range to the west of Vacaville but is only an inundation above the rest of the ridge. Look for the communication towers and you’ll find it. Nonetheless, this little inundation is Solano County’s highest point at 2,819 feet in elevation. I hesitate to even call this a hike because technically, you can drive all the way to the top. However, you can also park farther down the road and make it a short 1 mile round trip from the top of Mix Canyon, or a slightly longer 3.5 miles round trip from the top of Gates Canyon. However you get here, you will be rewarded with million dollar views on all sides of the Sacramento Valley, Coast Range, Sutter Buttes, Mt. Diablo, Sierra snow caps (in the winter and spring), most of the North Bay and parts of the East Bay. I’ve even seen the tops of the Golden Gate Bridge and some San Francisco skyscrapers on clear days. On exceptionally clear days, I’ve even seen Mt. Lassen, 150 miles away. It’s truly a feast for the eyes, and all within a 30 minute drive from Vacaville. I assure you that after your first time you’ll be back for more.

Directions: From I-80 East, take the Cherry Glen exit, make a left. Turn left onto Pleasants Valley Road and follow it for about 5 miles. Turn left onto Mix Canyon Road and follow it all the way to the top where the pavement ends. Begin your hike through the gate to your left (always open when I’ve been up). It’s about .5 miles to the top from here. For a longer hike, turn left onto Gates Canyon Road from Pleasants Valley and follow it all the way until you reach the top of the ridge and pavement ends where the road turns to the right. It’s about 5 miles to the parking area in either case. From the top of Gates Canyon Road it’s about a 3.5 mile round trip hike with about 500 feet in elevation gain. In both cases, stay on the road as the land on either side is private property. As I understand it there is a public easement on the road though, just not on the adjoining property.

Of course you could forgo the hiking and just drive up the gravel road to the top, but what fun would that be?


Stebbins/Cold Canyon Reserve

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If you’re looking for a challenging hike with great ridge line views and cool, shaded canyons with a good flowing stream, look no further than the Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve, located off of Highway 128 west of Winters. You might be thinking that this is in Yolo County, and while you do have to cross through Yolo to get here, most of the reserve is in Solano County (along the ridge line you’ll actually walk along the Napa/Solano border). While there are a couple of trails here, the most popular is the Blue Ridge Loop. You can either start by hiking up the Blue Ridge Trail up the ridge and following it, or following the Homestead Trail up the canyon before climbing the ridge to the Blue Ridge Trail. You can also extend your hike by doing the Annie’s Rock loop, and I’ve heard the views are amazing from there (though I haven’t personally done this part). Along the Blue Ridge you’ll get great views of Lake Berryessa and the surrounding mountains. Even better if it’s spring and everything is green! Avoid doing this in the dog days of summer though, because temperatures can be extreme here. Bring lots of water, you’ll need it!

Directions: From Winters, take State Highway 128 west until you cross over Putah Creek at the foot of Monticello Dam. Less than a mile later you’ll see a parking area and a trailhead to your left. If you reach the top of the dam, you’ve gone too far. Come early on weekends when the weather is nice because parking fills up fast here. Hike ranges from 5-7 miles depending on what trails you use. Moderate to strenuous

NOTE: At the time of writing the Stebbins/Cold Canyon Reserve is currently closed due to the Wragg Fire that severely burned the park last summer. It is scheduled to reopen on May 15, 2016 so please respect the closure and wait until then to do this hike. I know I’m eagerly awaiting the re-opening!


Rockville Hills Regional Park

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I’ve been coming to Rockville since I was a small little Cub Scout, and I still enjoy coming here years later. It’s a little (not so) hidden gem tucked in the hills north of Cordelia that consists of varied terrain from rolling grasslands to oak forests. In the middle of the park there’s a sizable lake that makes a nice place for a picnic or to stroll around. In other parts of the park you can get great views of Fairfield/Suisun and the valley beyond, explore a small cave, and view the remnants of a small quarry. There’s also parts of the park where evidence of the Green Valley Fault can be viewed, so it’s a pretty geologically rich area. The best time to do this hike is in the spring when the hills are green, but can be done year round. Just watch out for the heat in the summer. Trails criss cross the park so the best way is to just print out a map and wander around the park. It’s pretty hard to get lost and trails are easy to navigate.

Directions: From I-80 West, take the Suisun Valley Road exit and make a left towards Solano College. Turn left onto Rockville Road and the park will be on your left a couple miles up. Parking can be an issue on weekends when the weather is good. $3 per person entry fee, payable at a kiosk next to the entrance.


Lynch Canyon Open Space

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Lynch Canyon, located in the hills between Fairfield and Vallejo, is a great place to go if you want good views of the North Bay and the surrounding area. There are a variety of trails within the park, ranging from hilltop vistas to creekside canyons, but for the best views of Vallejo and surrounds you’ll want the South Valley Trail and Kestrel Trail. The above picture was taken of a lonely little house on top of a hill off the Kestrel Trail (you can’t go in the house, it’s outside park boundaries, but you can admire from afar). Like most area hikes, it’s best done in the spring to take advantage of the green hillsides while still having mostly favorable weather. Watch out for cows (and their droppings) as they roam freely in most parts of the park. Guided hikes are also offered occasionally at this park through the Solano Land Trust if you want to learn more about its flora and fauna.

Directions: From I-80 in either direction, take the Red Top exit (westbound from Fairfield) or the Hiddenbrooke exit (eastbound from Vallejo) and get on McGary Road. You’ll know it because it parallels 80 between these two exits. Follow McGary Road until you see a sign to turn off for Lynch Canyon. Go under the freeway and through the gate to the parking area. Fee is $6 per car. Also note that Lynch Canyon is only open on weekends. For guided hikes, check the events schedule on the Solano Land Trust website. http://www.solanolandtrust.org


 

Of course, there are so many other hikes that I didn’t mention that are great places to hike and explore. Some I have done and others I haven’t but look forward to. Other great trails/parks to check out include:

  • Lagoon Valley Park near Vacaville
  • Hiddenbrooke Trail near Vallejo (great views of Vallejo and the Bay Area)
  • Rockville Trails Preserve (access only through guided hikes with the Solano Land Trust, so check their events calendar. I highly recommend though, it’s a beautiful property)
  • Rush Ranch near Suisun (mostly flat trails through that gives you a taste of the largest brackish water marsh on the west coast. Unique plants and landscape)

I hope this inspires you to get outside and explore, even right in your own backyard! There’s so much to see if all you do is look.

What are your favorite places to hike in Solano County? (or beyond?)

 

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Whitney Butte Trail, Lava Beds National Monument

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Okay, be honest. Have you ever even heard of Lava Beds National Monument? It’s a little known park in perhaps the even lesser known northeast California. Lava Beds straddles the line between Siskiyou and Modoc counties, which have a combined population of less than 60,000. What’s a shame is that Lava Beds should be getting a lot more attention; it’s a fascinating place. It’s most popular activity is spelunking, or cave exploring for those not in the know. Lava flows over thousands of years have created hundreds of caves across this otherwise desolate high desert landscape. Some of the caves are relatively short and have ceilings so high you can stand in them. Others are long and complex where you have to crawl to get around. Spelunking is what brought me to this park with two of my friends, who had signed up to do the Crystal Ice Caves tour (look up more info here on it: http://www.nps.gov/labe/planyourvisit/crystalicecavetours.htm. They highly recommend it!) Alas, I had tagged along on this trip at the last second and thus wasn’t signed up to do the tour. I decided instead to go hiking. Needing something fairly quick to do while my friends were on the tour, I chose the Whitney Butte trail.

IMG_2276The Whitney Butte Trail is an out and back 3.3 mile one way hike that leads you across mostly flat high desert scenery and dead ends at the expansive Callahan Lava Flow. The trail starts out at the parking area for the Merrill Cave and immediately after starting my hike I was surrounded by quiet and calm. Half a mile up I passed a hiker register and shortly after that passed another sign indicating I was entering national park wilderness. As I hiked I was filled with the scent of sagebrush and juniper trees, both music to my nostrils! The weather was drizzly and I was treated to a full rainbow off to the north for almost my entire hike. You’ll also see views of nearby buttes and mountains and I’ve been told that on a clear day, you can also see Mt. Shasta in the distance. Other than that, the trail was mostly uneventful. TIMG_2296he 3.3 miles to the end are mostly flat with slight elevation gains and losses but cover interesting terrain that is not found many other places in California. What struck me the most is that most rocks I found were volcanic pumice. Very light and full of holes. At the end of the trail, I climbed up on top of a nearby hill to get a great view of the Callahan lava flow, which stretched out for miles in front of me.
Everywhere I looked was jagged black rocks, as you can see from the photo included. After viewing this geological marvel, I ascended the hill and returned back to the same trail I came in, then hiked back to the parking area. Before leaving I took a quick look into Merrill Cave, which I would highly recommend. It’s very large so claustrophobia need not apply as much here. The rock formations in the cave were very interesting and worth exploring.

Trip Stats

Distance: 7.05 miles

Time: 2-3 hours

Elevation gain: 500-700 feet (I climbed the hill at the end of the trail which increased my elevation gain; this part is optional)

Fees: $15 entrance fee to the park, good for 7 days.

Map of the park including hiking trails found here.

Lava Beds National Monument is located about a 5 hours drive north of Sacramento and is accessed by taking I-5 North to the town of Weed before heading northeast on US Highway 97. Just before reaching the Oregon border turn right onto State Highway 161, then another right onto Hill Road about 17 miles later. This road will lead right up to the park. Access the Whitney Butte trailhead from the Merrill Cave parking area, just a couple of miles from the visitor’s center.

Abrigo Falls, Briones Regional Park

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When I think of waterfalls, the last place I would have thought to look for one would be the well loved, but otherwise little known Briones Regional Park. Briones is 6,255 acres of oak studded rolling hills located between Lafayette and Martinez in the East Bay hills. It’s a popular place for hiking, trail runners, and horseback riding, but certainly not waterfall chasers (or so I thought). It all started one rainy Sunday when I was in the holy of all holies for outdoor lovers; REI. I was there returning an item but decided I couldn’t resist looking around a bit. While perusing a book on waterfalls in California I came across a place called Abrigo Falls in Briones. Most of the year it’s dry, but with all the rain we’ve (thankfully) had in NorCal recently I figured the falls would be flowing well. Despite the rain I gave it a go.

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To reach the trailhead, park at the Bear Creek staging area, located off of Bear Creek Road near the town of Lafayette. More specific directions will be given below. From the parking area follow the Abrigo Valley Trail as it heads north along a canyon. As I hiked I could hear the sound of the creek rushing below me, though the trees were too thick for me to see it most of the time. All of the recent rains had created lots of runoff from the hills so I had to cross a couple small creeks to get to the falls (and being treated to a few miniature falls along the way!) After about a mile you pass the Maud Whalen group campground in a clearing, followed fairly closely by the Wee-Ta-Chi campground. After passing the second campground you should start to hear the falls pretty quickly. The trail follows the canyon to your right and climbs up to give you a decent view of the falls, which at the time of writing (mid March 2016) was roaring beyond anything I could believe. It seemed so out of place in a park like Briones, which is normally bone dry throughout the year. Yet here was this 15-20 foot drop of a waterfall, and it was truly amazing. I climbed down into the canyon to get a better look at the falls, though I would not recommend this if it’s been raining recently. It was very slippery with mud and a couple of times I had to scramble to get my footing. I was rewarded for my efforts with the chance to sit right under the falls in a small little cave. IMG_2358The canyon walls were covered with ferns that made for somewhat of an other worldly experience. Needless to say, I love finding little hidden gems like this.

If you so choose, you can continue to follow the Abrigo Valley Trail and climb up onto the nearby ridge, before turning right onto the Briones Crest Trail, then another right onto the Mott Peak Trail which will circle you back to the Abrigo Valley Trail. I tried doing this but as soon as I climbed up onto the ridge the weather turned on me and became extremely windy and rainy, so much so that I decided to turn back to avoid sliding down a hillside on slick mud with winds gusting in the 20-25 mph range. However, when the weather is nice I imagine that this area has very nice views of the surrounding hills and nearby Mt. Diablo.

Trip Stats

Distance: 5.91 miles (If you’re only hiking to the falls, it’s a little over 4 miles RT)

Time: About 2 hours

Elevation gain: About 500 feet (trail to falls is mostly level with slight uphills)

Fees: $3 day use fee for parking

Trail map of Briones found here.

Parking is located at the Bear Creek Staging Area. From State Route 24, take the Upper Happy Valley Road exit and follow Upper Happy Valley Road north. Turn left when it dead ends into Happy Valley Road. Follow this for several miles before making a right onto Bear Creek Road. The staging area will be on your right after about half a mile.

Welcome!

Anyone who has visited northern California knows that it’s a special place. We have beautiful scenery and world class cities that are visited by tourists from all over the world. Magnificent mountain valleys carved from granite, towering redwood trees, soaring coast lines with crashing waves, and peaks that offer some of the best views anywhere. I’ve been privileged and blessed to grow up and live in such a wonderful place, exploring every nook and cranny of California that I can. One of my passions is hiking so I intend this to be trip reports of places that I hike across northern California and beyond, in hopes of inspiring others to get out and explore the places that they live in. California has a lot of famous parks and scenic spots; Yosemite, Big Sur, Point Reyes, Redwood National Park, Sequoia/Kings Canyon, and pretty much the entire Bay Area just to name a few. I’ve been to all of these places and they are no doubt spectacular. But I also enjoy hiking and exploring lesser known places closer to where I live (Solano County). For example, have you heard of Lagoon Valley? Lynch Canyon? Skyline Park? Green Valley Falls? All beautiful places but certainly not well known. Perhaps it will inspire you to find the not so well known places in your backyard. In addition to writing trip reports, I also intend to occasionally review gear or discuss other hiking/camping/outdoor topics as I wish. I hope that you find this blog entertaining and inspires you to get outside and explore.

But enough jibber jabber, let me take a brief moment to introduce myself. My name is Cory, and as I stated before I’m a native born and raised northern Californian and everything that goes along with it (avid A’s, Giants, Sharks, and Cal Bears fan and hate LA and all of its smog, traffic, and Dodgers). I’ve been hiking and camping since I was small and in the Cub Scouts. My love for it continued through my youth as I ascended the ranks of the Boy Scouts, eventually making it to the rank of Eagle. Along the way I had many nights of camping and countless miles of hiking that instilled a passion that still exists today. My love for the outdoors and all things geography carried me through college at Sacramento State, where I got a bachelor’s degree in what else, geography (my emphasis was on Urban Planning). These days I reside in Vacaville, California with my wife Jordan and two cats, working by day in a warehouse and out on the trails by weekend.

I sincerely hope you enjoy this blog. Please feel free to comment and interact with me and the stories!