UC Davis - Stebbins Cold Canyon Natural Reserve - Flatland Photographers

The winter time out here is the wet season. We have already had more rain in two months than were supposed to have for the entire year! Yea, pretty nuts. There has been record setting rainfalls, numerous landslides, and three feet of water standing on farmlands that are bone-dry in the summertime. Even 30 miles to the north of us there was a dam that was at risk of breaking and sending a 100-foot wall of water down into the valley below; which forced the evacuation of roughly 188,000 people. So much for the supposed drought in California, which by the way, ended in Northern California thanks to all these storms. With still at least three or four months left until the dry season arrives, where we won't see a drop of rain for months, we were able to squeeze in one muddy but almost rainless day to do some exploring and get a good five mile hike in.

Part of our New Year's resolution was to get out and explore more of the this area of California we now call home. A short hop away from Davis and out of the Central Valley lies the Northern Coastal Mountain Range. An easy drive along Putah Creek leads you the UC Davis Stebbins Cold Canyon Natural Reserve, which is inside the Putah Creek State Wildlife Area, at the base of the Monticello Dam. The dam in itself is a sight to see and it's worth going to the top to check out the Glory Hole, a water overflow drain, that is pretty trippy to see in action when it's actually in use. The Reserve is used by UC Davis primarily as a site for teaching and research activities. Thankfully it's open to the public to hike their almost ten miles of trails.

There was only a small gap of about four hours on the forecast for no chance of rain, so instead of sitting on our butts inside and binge watch something on Netflix while eating pizza we decided to get out and do something to burn off that pizza. We had planned to go for a short trail run, so we didn't end up packing our nicer cameras; only our phone cameras were with us. Upon arriving some other hikers said the trails were incredibly muddy. Once we heard this news we almost just decided to turn around and go home. The clouds weren’t clearing, looked dark and gloomy, and we felt a drop of rain occasionally. But after some talking, and deciding not to fall on our asses and/or moonwalk down the slippery trails while attempting to run, we chose to brave the elements and take a nice hike on one of the 5-mile loops. Once at the top and we would figure out whether or not to turn back.

The start of the trail was hard to find, we passed signs saying the trails ahead were closed as well as signs that said the trails were open. Eventually we found the trailhead, which starts at underneath the highway through a six-foot tall drainage pipe and a short Class 4 scramble. That drainage pipe had three feet of water gushing through it and the scramble had just given way in a mudslide thanks to the drought-ending rainfall. Great. After some exploring we were able to find the trail that bypassed that mess.

Happy we had not drowned or been buried alive, we started on the trail. At this point it was about a mile and half up hill with lots of switchbacks. Every bit of it was sloppy, slippery, and muddy clay. We never thought we’d get to the top of the ridge in one piece. The footprints on the trail were very zig-zaggy from hikers who had climbed or descended before us. If only we had gotten the chance to see how muddy they had gotten. Finally we made it, even at times down on all fours in order not to slide 1000’ feet downhill. The views at the top were breathtaking and the storm clouds cleared away! To our right was Lake Berryessa, created by the dam down below, and to our left through the valley you could see the cities of Winters, Davis, and even Sacramento; 35 miles away as the crow flies at this point.

The next two miles were Sam’s favorite type of hiking. Ridgeline hiking and scrambling with 360 degree views all around and steep declines/cliffs on either side. It was also completely dry up there, a huge plus after the nasty ascent even though our shoes gained two to three pounds from all the mud clumped on them now. There was a little rain off to the south of us, but it was far enough away that we didn’t have to worry about it for a while. Otherwise it was a mostly clear up top with lots of sun. We probably spent longer than we wanted to up on the ridge, “oohing and ahhing” at the sights and of course taking loads of pictures and selfies.

Before too long, the rain was getting closer and the clouds were beginning to cover up the sun again. Luckily the two miles we had left to hike were all downhill and nowhere near as muddy. The last section was in a forested valley and followed a small stream that met up with Putah Creek. Well, it would have been small if not for the recent deluges. It was roaring! We passed numerous larger waterfalls and surprisingly a huge recent landslide that had to happened just the day before if not within hours. The trees that had toppled over still looked alive and well and the water was still muddy. The slide buried the trail briefly but we quickly found it on the other side of the recent earth movement.

Now the trail stopped at the stream/whitewater river and we had to cross. It took a little searching until we found a small group of rocks that protruded from the waters. For myself it was a few shorter hops and I would be on the other side but for Sam, who is slightly vertically challenged compared to me, it was much larger jumps. It took some coaxing from stone to stone and eventually we made it to the other side dry! From this point it was a relatively flat and easy hike back to the car. Our last challenge was just finding another way back to the parking lot. The trail was a loop and supposed to end at that drainage tunnel under the highway. Now we were on the other side of the creek and couldn’t take our original route back. Once again, no signs telling us where to go or if the trail was closed. Finally, to avoid the rain that was approaching, we just decided to walk through some construction equipment and hop a barbed wire fence; which brought us straight to the parking lot.

As if almost on cue, the second we shut the car door the deluge commenced exactly on the end of that four hour rain free window. Perfect timing. We were happy we took the chance and decided to hike. We would have spent the entire drive back home otherwise cursing and wishing we had just walked up to the top after seeing the weather clear. That was probably our biggest takeaway from the day that we’ll continue to use for the rest of the year. Just start something. You don’t have to continue doing it if the circumstances change and it’s dangerous, but you will be happy in the end knowing you at least tried. You won’t be wondering “what if…” In this case, it worked out for us; we took the chance of going out and hiking even though the weather could have made the initial hike quite impossible and forced us to turn around.