ContentsPutah and Cache: Cold Canyon

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The Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve

Peter B. Moyle

The dry, chaparral-lined Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve offers a great introduction to the natural environment of the Vaca Mountains. A 2-mile hike from Route 128 up to the old Vlahos homestead and back takes approximately 2 hours. Wear long pants, hiking boots, and a good hat, and hike with companions. The trail is rough and steep in places as a result of landslides. Poison oak is everywhere. Mountain lions and rattlesnakes are present, though you are unlikely to see them.

As most of the vegetation in the reserve is deciduous, the best time to visit Cold Canyon is in the spring, summer or early fall. Fall is the migration time for several bird species, especially songbirds. In the spring, the hills are green, the flowers are blooming, and the stream is flowing. Summer visits are best in the cooler early morning hours.

Humans have occupied the area around Cold Canyon for at least 4,000 years, when members of the Southwestern Patwin tribe lived here. The Patwin used the native flora and fauna for all of their food, clothing, and shelter needs. But by 1877 they were gone, forced out by Mexican and Spanish settlers during the period of land grant rancheros.

In 1938 John Vlahos obtained a patent for lands including what is now Cold Canyon Reserve. The remains of his homestead—two foundations, some rock walls, and a well—are in the upper portion of the reserve. The smaller structure, is in a cool, shady glade, served as a cold room in which to store cheese that Vlahos made from the milk of his goats. It is how Cold Canyon got its name.

The plant and animal communities of Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve have changed little since the first Native Americans arrived in the area. The reserve covers only 576 acres, and yet it supports over 350 plant species, 44 mammal species, 114 bird species, 26 species of reptiles and amphibians, and, occasionally, a fish or two.

Still, recent human activity has left a mark on the landscape. The trail itself is the remains of a road built by John Vlahos. The hills above it are ribbed with more trails, many created by several hundred years of livestock grazing, others by recent recreational use. Natural fires were suppressed for years until there was so much dead wood that major fires, such as one that swept through the reserve in 1988, became inevitable. Grizzlies, once the major predator and earth mover in the area, are now locally extinct.

The entrance to the reserve is three-tenths of a mile up Route 128 after it crosses Putah Creek, across from a vehicle pull-out. The entrance is marked by a sagging pipe gate The Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve sign and sign-in book are about 200 meters past the gate.

Around the first bend of the trail is evidence of the first major landslide that resulted from the heavy rains of the winter of 1995. The debris flowed out of the dry canyon on the left, eliminating much of the riparian vegetation in the creek below. Such landslides are natural events in a steep, geologically active landscape.

Soaring raptors often surround the rocky peak across to the right. These are most often turkey vultures, but redtailed hawks are also common. Golden eagles and peregrine falcons are (rarely) spotted here as well. When stairs appear on the trail, it crosses a 1982 land "slump," where a chunk of the hillside slid downwards with much of the vegetation still on it.

The trail you are walking on is a freeway for the area's wildlife, and you are likely to see scats of gray fox and coyotes. These scats are recognizable by the remains of manzanita berries, insect parts, and animal hair. Fox scats are small and black, and often carefully placed—by the foxes—in the middle of a rock as a territorial marker.

Dead limbs, barely visible in the thick growth remain from the fire that burned throughout the canyon in 1988. After the fire, the hillsides were black and bare, the remains of fallen trees outlined in white ash. The devastation was quickly hidden as chaparral plants, adapted to fire, sprouted new foliage from the old rootstocks.

In wet years water may flow down to the point where the trail crosses Cold Creek into late summer. But usually it is dry until November, when , the renewed creek is quickly colonized by aquatic insects and algae. Winter rains bring out California newts to breed in the stream. When the stream stops flowing, usually around May, it leaves pools of water in the canyons, important for California quail, blacktail deer, mountain lions and other wildlife.

After crossing the stream, the trail climbs through a tunnel of dense chaparral. When it emerges from the chaparral, Cold Canyon is visible in the foreground and Wildhorse Canyon in the distance.

A short distance further the trail crosses the Vlahos homestead. The open area was probably cleared by Vlahos and the soil became compacted by livestock, mainly goats. One indication of this compaction is the prickly yellow star-thistle (Centaurea solstitialis), a native of Eurasia, which thrives on poor, overgrazed soils. It is a major pest in California.

The trail ends beyond the homestead in the shady glen containing the old cold storage shed. This area is delightfully cool and moist all summer long. The fragrant trees providing the shade include California bay laurel and spicebush. The cold storage glen is one of the areas of the reserve not burned by the 1988 fire.

Note: For a detailed trail guide with illustrations and background information on all aspects of natural history, see C. Greene and M. Huntzinger, eds. 2001. The Natural History of Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve, UCNRS.

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