Sometimes people will ask me for recommendations on where to go hiking that’s close to Solano County but still moderately challenging with some great views. Almost always, I tell them to head over to Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve, located near Lake Berryessa about 9 miles west of the town of Winters. This park, owned and maintained by UC Davis, encompasses a steep canyon and a portion on the Blue Ridge, a long ridge that extends much of the length of the Coast Range in Solano and Yolo Counties. The elevation gain on this loop hike is significant enough to be a challenge, but not enough to be overwhelming. Plus the views of the lake and surrounding mountains are sublime!
I’ve been waiting to hike this trail for quite some time. I hiked it a few years ago with my wife and since I’ve been getting back into hiking I’ve been wanting to do it again. Unfortunately, that was not possible until recently. Last summer the Wragg Fire burned much of the preserve and as such it was closed until this past May. I finally had a free Saturday where the weather was tolerably cool enough, so I called up a friend of mine to see if he wanted to tag along and he obliged. We hopped in the car, drove to the trailhead and parked before beginning our hike. Follow the signs to the trailhead as the trail configuration has changed since the preserve reopened (this more applies for people who have done this hike before.)
The loop hike that most people do at Cold Canyon is a 5.5 mile loop called the Homestead-Blue Ridge Trail that follows the canyon floor for part of it, and climbs up onto the ridge for the other half. There are two ways to do the hike. You can either follow the mostly flat canyon floor and climb up the ridge slightly more gradually with stairs, or climb up the ridge immediately and then the rest is mostly downhill. We opted for the second one. Immediately we started climbing up the ridge, following the tight switchbacks in some places. What struck me almost immediately was how much vegetation had already started to grow back from the fire the previous year. Most of the trees were burned but a lot of the grasses had filled in already. As we climbed we admired the increasingly good views that were forming behind us of the nearby mountains, and eventually the Central Valley beyond.
After about 1.8 miles, you’ll finally reach the top of the ridge and your first views of Lake Berryessa appear. Take a break, eat a snack, and soak it all in. These views will stay with you the entire time you’re on the ridge. As you hike farther south you’ll have to do some rock scrambling but nothing too difficult. Notice all of the vegetation that was burned out during the Wragg Fire. The last time I hiked this trail it was lined with chaparral type plants and manzanita bushes. Now, most of these are gone and the trail is very exposed. I hope you brought your sunscreen!
As you hike farther south you’ll also notice that on your left, the trail is bare but on your right vegetation exists and has been cut in some places. It looks like this trail was used as a fire line in the efforts to fight the fire. This will also be evident if you look out along the ridge; the left side is burned but the right (towards Berryessa) still remains intact. Around the 3 mile point, you’ll reach the trail’s highest point, around 1500 feet. At this point it will begin to descend and eventually meet up with the Homestead Trail and Tuleyome Trail.
Follow the Homestead Trail and you’ll start to descend steeply down stair after stair. At this point you might be glad you climbed the ridge first and now don’t have to climb these stairs. Near the 4 mile point you’ll reach the bottom of the canyon. Here the trail looks much more different than the ridge line; it’s shady and has a nice creek running along it (dry at the time we hiked). You’ll also pass by the old Vlahos homestead, though all that remains is a few stone foundations. They are worth a look though. You can see the foundations, an old retaining wall, and the cold storage. Among all this we saw an abandoned fire hose, no doubt left over from the fire the previous year. From here we hiked the last 1.5 miles along the canyon floor, admiring some of the plants both burned and not. We returned to our car and drove down to Winters where we had a great lunch at a local coffee shop downtown (highly recommend the Turkey Pesto sandwich at Steady Eddys!)
Distance: 5.48 miles
Time: 2-3 hours
Elevation gain: 1260 feet
Fees: Parking and entrance are free, though a $2 donation is accepted, self pay at the entrance.
Directions: From the town of Winters, take CA-128 West towards Lake Berryessa. Pass by the Canyon Creek Resort and cross the bridge over Putah Creek and you’ll see a sign indicating you’re entering Solano County. Start looking to your right for the parking area as it comes up quickly. Park here and follow the signs to the trailhead.
Trail map from UC Davis can be found here.
– Bring lots of water. There is no shade for most of this hike and temperatures can be very warm here. Learn lessons from me; I ran out of water my first time hiking here.
– Wear sunscreen. As I said before there is little shade and now even less since the Wragg Fire burned out a lot of vegetation.
– Try not to go when it’s hot. You’ll hate yourself for it!