Photo: Stuart Allen's Lake Berryessa Line

The Putah-Cache Bioregion Project:

Putah - Cache Circumdrive:

Putah Creek, Davis to Lake Berryessa

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1:   UC Davis Lot #10

Standing on the abandoned bridge across the "north fork" of Putah Creek by Parking Lot #10 on the UCD campus, you are in the midst of what was once a substantial native settlement. To your northwest, by Voorhies Hall and across the street at the corner of First and A, and to the south in the midst of Solano Park Apartments, lie the bones of Southeastern Patwin people, or "Puta-toi". Graves and archaeological remains uncovered during modern building construction reveal a people who, at this very site, probably fished for salmon and sturgeon, gathered acorns, lived in semi-subterranean houses. Prior to the late 1890's, the main flow of Putah Creek passed under your feet en route to the great seasonal wetlands just to the east that occurred annually and offered the opportunity for the harvest of fish and waterfowl. Close your eyes and imagine the rush of creek waters, the smell of wood smoke, the feel of their earthen homes and the sounds of families preparing food, laughing and conversing in daily life.

No markers of any kind acknowledge these people, but their bones grace this site beyond our sight. We know little of their language—a few words here and there. To acknowledge these people, we may assemble a few of what we believe to be their words as a grateful introduction to our tour, which, in some ways, is a tour of their lands which we now occupy. Try saying these three words a few times: "Saltu K'ewe Puta-toi"—Spirit Home of the Putah People. Saltu K'ewe Puta-toi. Saltu K'ewe Puta-toi. It is a small way to honor the spirit of the place and set the stage for our tour.

• As you enter your vehicle to proceed with this tour, set the trip meter to zero. Mileage from now on will be indicated cumulatively from this spot, although allow some for odometer error; everyone's car is a little different.

• The mapped route to the next stop takes you through the UC Davis campus, home of a world-class university with considerable strengths in the sciences, humanities, engineering, law, and medicine. You will drive between the arboretum to your left and the School of Veterinary Medicine Teaching Hospital to your right.

• As you cross Route 113, the sunken freeway, notice to your left the gentle swale in the land. This is all that remains of the original channel of Putah Creek, now occupied by cattle and sheep pens. Just a little further, after we cross back over the original channel, you'll notice the remnant riparian vegetation behind chain link fence, now an experimental ecosystem for research.

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2:   Putah Creek Campus Reserve

Our second stop brings us back to the edge of the creek at the Putah Creek Campus reserve. Behind us is the Aquatic Weed Center, and it was just about at this spot that farmers in the late 1890's rerouted the flow of Putah Creek away from the "north fork," which we have been following, and into its present channel location southward. Many folks still think the UCD Arboretum is Putah Creek, but the current channel now takes the water far south of Davis, lessening the chances for flooding of the city and campus.

UC Davis manages a large acreage of land along the north side of Putah Creek here and upstream for several miles. The Putah Creek Campus Reserve is a location for research, education, and recreation. Here one finds remnants of the great former riparian forests of Valley Oak, Cottonwood, Foothill Ash, and Willow which prevailed in this region prior to reclamation of most of the land for farming in the 19th century. For hundreds of thousands of years, Putah Creek, Cache Creek, and other drainages like it periodically spilled their banks, leaving sediment brought down from the foothills in deep, rich deposits of alluvium which characterize the Sacramento Valley bioregion's world class agricultural soils.

In spite of its homely and somewhat vestigial nature, there is a rich biodiversity in this stretch of the creek—rich enough to prompt the formation of a local volunteer group, the Putah Creek Council, to seek ways of restoring and protecting the creek. One main thrust of the council is to seek adequate flow levels downstream from Berryessa Reservoir and the Solano diversion dam to protect the ecosystems and public trust resources of the creek.

During the late 1980's drought years, mountain lions were sighted here, and evidence of their predatory kills included deer taken from the UCD Experimental Ecosystem just west of here; even fox and horse carcasses were found. This stretch of creek is also home to a significant population of Swainson's hawks, who nest in the riparian trees and forage in surrounding field crop areas. When sufficient water flows in the creek here, a small kayak or canoe offers the paddler a rare opportunity to share in the creek's multitude of plant and animal species, as one encounters beaver, muskrat, herons, wood ducks, various amphibians, and at least fifteen species of fish.

• As we leave the Campus Reserve, you'll see several very large Valley Oak trees with their broad, spreading crowns and distinct branching patterns silhouetted against the foothills. Valley Oaks were once prolific before fields were cleared for agriculture. More than any tree, the Valley Oak characterizes the lower plains region of Putah and Cache Creeks, and was an important food source for native peoples living here.

• Heading upstream and westward, we pass the Primate Research Center, one of four similar centers nationwide conducting research on the biology and behavior of humankind's closest living relatives.

• At about mile 12 you will see the Glide Ranch off to your left. Notice the rather undulating landforms and drainage swales. This, not the laser-planed agricultural fields, is closer to the original topography of the Valley prior to the arrival of white people.

• The recently acquired Russell Ranch is on the north side of Putah Creek just west of the Glide Ranch. Here, long-term experiments in low-input (i.e., no synthetic chemical pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers), sustainable farming methods will be conducted for periods as long as one hundred years. The LTSA (Long Term Sustainable Agriculture) facility will serve as a baseline for comparison of soil structure and fertility as well as costs and benefits of low input, sustainable farming.

• Continuing westward and upstream takes us through typical farm and orchard country enroute to our next stop at the city of Winters. As we approach the city on Route 128, note the picturesque sign of Winters just beyond the gas station, which captures the sense of place quite well: the orchards, historic water tank, foothills, and dam in the background.

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3:   Winters-Main St.

Here we park near the corner of Railroad Avenue and Main Street in Winters. Originally home to the "Liwai-toi", or "people of the stream", Liwai (Winters) was one of the more substantial settlements of Patwin people. One of the earliest white settlers was Jacob Wolfskill, who negotiated a grant of land from Commandante Mariano Vallejo in 1842. His land grant, entitled "Rio de los Putos", extended a great distance eastward and westward along both sides of the stream. Wolfskill began to experiment with varieties of vines and fruit trees, giving rise to Winters' reputation as a center for tree crops now known worldwide. The highway we just traveled followed the boundaries of Wolfskill's Mexican land grant.

Wagon roads, then railroads connected Winters to Benecia and the San Francisco Bay, and as the area's fruit and crop production grew, rail lines offered a means to connect local crops to eastern U.S. and southern California markets. Winters prospered and Main Street developed in a pattern still recognizable today. The old Winters Hotel, seen across the street diagonally from our stop, suffered some damage in the Winters Earthquake of 1892, and cracks in the facade can still be seen today. Across the street to the north is the favorite breakfast and lunch spot of many locals, the Putah Creek Cafe. A wide variety of customers, including ranchers, cyclists, business people, farm hands, retirees, politicians, and professors, can all agree that the Putah Creek Cafe's friendly service, great food, and local flavor create a unique sense of place representing the best our humble watershed can offer. When you have time, go inside and have a great slice of pie, buy a heron-emblazoned Cafe T-shirt, and look at the original art and local photographs of Putah Creek and the huge color portrait of just about the entire population of Winters gathered in Main Street celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the earthquake.

The old railroad bridge visible to the south is now unsafe for travel, but instead marks the site of volunteer creek clean-ups and, eventually, a new public park. Winters is on the cusp between valley and low foothill ecosystems, and is the gateway to the recreation area of Lake Berryessa. It's the best kept secret in the county.

• The drive across Putah Creek and along the road upstream follows the boundaries of Wolfskill's original land grant, past the University's deciduous fruit field station. Westward views soon bring the foothills into clearer focus.

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4:   Solano Diversion Dam

Sometimes in the present state of California and around the arid Western U.S., it is hard to determine just what is the true extent of any impounded stream. Here, at this stop by the Solano Diversion Dam, the Solano County Water Agency and Solano Irrigation District divert the majority of Putah Creek's summer flow into the Putah South Canal, which provides irrigation for Solano County's agriculture and urban development. Notice the flood control weirs and gates, and the smooth, concrete channel which diverts the water southward, typical of hundreds of other similar engineering structures in the foothills of California. One might say, then, that the "watershed" of Putah Creek extends well into Solano County. Although disputes and litigation have been ongoing for some time over sufficient water releases from this diversion dam into the main stem of the creek to protect natural and public trust values downstream, both sides hope for an amicable resolution to the controversy. At this very spot there is considerable potential to demonstrate for the rest of the state just how to operate water impoundments and diversions for the most sustainable, long term benefit for all parties involved, human and otherwise (including those animals and plants who can not speak on their own behalf).

• Just beyond the dam is Solano "Lake," the small reservoir backed up by the diversion dam. Birders and others who appreciate wildlife concede that although artificially created, this is among the region's best spots for observing waterfowl. Take a moment to scan the area with field glasses, and you might see cormorants, herons, osprey, numerous ducks, egrets, grebes, and even eagles on rare occasions. A local park rents human-powered paddle boats, and the local fly fisherman help steward the populations of rainbow and brown trout plying the lake's waters. You might also notice the obvious aquatic weeds (Hydrilla) which have begun to choke the waters in the absence of the creek's normal flushing flows.

• At the intersection of Putah Creek and Pleasants Valley Road, note the Ostrich ranch. Ostrich and Emu ranches are becoming more prevalent in our watershed as peoples discover the benefits of the nearly-fat free meat. One of the authors attests to the quality and tastiness of such in salads and burgers, but it will no doubt be a while before "Fowl Ranches" displace our foothill beef cattle industry.

• Winding upstream still, our path on Route 128 follows the creek past several fishing and recreational creek access points favored by trout fisherman from near and far. Cold water, released from the bottom of the dam forming Lake Berryessa upstream, makes this stretch of creek, among low-elevation coastal streams, uniquely favorable to trout species. You will probably see a few cars pulled over while their drivers fly-fish for the elusive trout beyond the stream banks. You will also probably notice the changing riparian environment, as the White Alder (Alnus rhombifolia) begins to express itself.

• We are proceeding into Putah Canyon toward the site once known as Devil's Gate, where the Monticello Dam now spans the canyon walls. This canyon, with its steep rocky shoulders, results from geological upheaval of both volcanic and metamorphic origin. Devil's Gate was a dam builder's dream: a narrow notch in the upturned strata of Blue Ridge, layered of Venado formation marine sandstone from the Cretaceous period, originally laid down in the Pacific Ocean far from shore.

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5:   Cold Canyon

A stop below the dam gives one an opportunity to first experience the foothill ecosystem close up. If you live in the Valley, you'll appreciate the change in topography and flora as we cross the road and follow Cold Canyon Trail into a typical ephemeral side stream canyon. We have now reached an area of sufficient annual rainfall (over twenty inches) to begin to support significant populations of trees and patches of true woodland, mixed woodland, chaparral, oak grassland, and corridors of riparian Alder, Cottonwood, Bay Laurel, and Live Oak. Following this trail a mile or two upstream takes you past a long-deserted homestead to a shady stand of Bay trees surrounding a mossy, natural rock garden. This is a favorite spot for hikers from the Valley towns—close enough for an easy day trip and short enough to take the whole family. Look for the low, gray foliage and late summer blooms of the low growing California fuschia (Epilobium canum), the spicy-rum aroma of the elliptical Bay tree leaves, and the bright red winter berries of the native Toyon, also called Christmas Berry for obvious reasons. Golden eagles occasionally cruise this area on their hunting trips, and peregrine falcons have been known to nest high up on the sides of the canyon. Newts (the animal variety) can be found in pools in the stream and sometimes cross the trail, while coyote scats on the trail mark their territorial boundaries.

Cold Canyon is a treat for hikers of all ages and abilities. Combine this hike with lunch at Putah Creek Cafe for a truly bioregional experience!

Map | Upper Watershed | Lower Cache | Entire Drive

6:   Berryessa Dam

Just a half mile up the road, we stop at the Monticello Dam overlook, an increasingly popular place as people begin to learn more about their watershed. Built by the United States Government and Solano County (Napa and Yolo Counties opted out of the agreement) in the mid 1950's, Monticello Dam is operated by Solano County and the resultant reservoir is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. As reservoirs go, Berryessa has a large capacity compared to its annual run-off inflow. At normal annual rainfall, the reservoir would take 4.5 years to fill up if outflow, infiltration and surface evaporation were ignored and "zeroed out." However, the winters of 1994-95, 95-96, and 96-97 were wet enough to fill the reservoir completely and spill water down the large "Glory Hole" spillway drain visible just beyond the dam. Named for the Morning Glory flower whose shape it resembles, this curious engineering feature draws numerous visitors, and its eerie image is captured in many a photograph.

• As you leave the dam heading west on Route 128, you will see only a small fraction of Berryessa's vast water surface until our next stop some seventeen miles later. Berryessa provides year-round power boat recreation and launching, houseboat facilities, and well-known trolling grounds for lake trout, bass, and other game fish. In addition, on hot days, its shoreline offers cool respite from the heat for local residents. The reservoir supports a population of bald eagles and osprey, and its quieter arms can be enjoyed by canoeists and kayakers as well.

• By the Markley Cove Marina lies the bottom of notorious "Cardiac Hill," known to local bicyclists as the first major test of endurance for riders out of the valley. Climbing steadily for 1.7 miles, the hill presents an early aerobic challenge for riders on the famous Davis Double Century bicycle ride, which, incidentally, coincides with the route of our watershed tour almost completely. No one has actually had cardiac arrest on Cardiac Hill, but the name has stuck, and once you've cycled up this landmark, you'll never know it by any other name.

• At the top of Cardiac Hill is a rusted gate to a road leading further up the saddle to the right. This is the entrance to Quail Ridge Conservancy, an excellent example of inner coast range foothill ecosystems and another success story of local initiative and involvement by enthusiast Frank Maurer and others. Now also managed by the University, Quail ridge is open only by prior arrangement with the University. Contact Dan Tolson, the University's land steward, for more details.

• At Moscowite Corners, we arrive at one of the only commercial corners between Clear Lake and the Valley. Steele Canyon Road leads back down to Lake Berryessa to our right after the intersection, and Route 121 curves leftward to Napa. We turn right at the corner, staying on Route 128.

• At approximately mile 43, (depending on your odometer accuracy), our route crosses Capell Creek, and on the far right creek bank are several Douglas Fir trees (Pseudotsuga menziesii). As far as the authors can tell, these are the closest Douglas Firs to the valley—the first of many to be seen on our circumnavigation of the watershed. Their presence is significant in that it marks the southeastern-most extent of the "Northwest" —the trailing-off remnants of the great forests dominated by Douglas Fir which extend from British Columbia well into northern California. Here, as poet Gary Snyder says of the unique vegetational mix of Manzanita and Douglas Fir, is where "Canada meets Mexico."

Here also occurs a fundamental change in the flora of our watershed region, as sufficient annual moisture (approaching 30 or more inches per year, augmented by summer fog) now allows the beginnings of mixed conifer and oak forests to occupy wetter sites. We'll dip back into chaparral (dominated by Chamise, Adenostema fasciculatum), Blue Oak woodland (Quercus douglasi), often occurring in pure stands amid foothill grassland, and Foothill Pine (Pinus sabiniana, the pine with light-gray/green foliage and divergent trunks, seen at lower elevations amid oaks or chaparral) from time to time. But from this point on we will see the familiar Douglas Fir more frequently, and indicator of our approach to the upper watershed.

• Near approximately tour mile 45, we turn on the Berryessa-Knoxville Road toward Spanish Flat on the shores of Lake Berryessa. A few miles down the road brings us to the first convoluted bays of the reservoir near Capell Cove, and we see the hidden resort communities nestled along these arms. Five miles later, we see a sign labeled "Monticello Cemetery" (of which more later).

Map | Upper Watershed | Lower Cache | Entire Drive

7:   Lake Berryessa—Spanish Flat

After a long spell in the car (or even longer in the saddle, if you've been riding a bike and reading this!), we come to the Berryessa Headquarters of the Bureau of Reclamation. Hopefully, their small visitor center and the restrooms are all open. Here, views of the reservoir are serene, even more so upon learning of the submerged history nearby. Not far offshore and underwater from this site is the old town of Monticello, a former farm and ranch community occupying the Berryessa Valley. Prior to its inundation by the filling reservoir in 1956, the culture and character of Monticello were captured in a group of hauntingly beautiful photographs by Dorothea Lange and Pirkle Jones under commission by the U.S. government. Only a small town of less than 300 people, Monticello surfaces again for us in these photographs, available in a book from the Vacaville Museum. Most moving is a shot of the town cemetery after the coffins have been removed to higher ground, leaving gaping holes in neat rows.

During recent litigation over water flows in lower Putah Creek, old timers from the Berryessa Valley testified to the beauty and vitality of the Creek prior to inundation. Former residents attest to the presence of a steelhead trout population which over-wintered in Putah Creek's pools. During the drought years as the level of the reservoir fell substantially, portions of the bridge near the Monticello town site began to emerge. Some of those who could remember the Monticello of thirty years earlier found the thought of the water level dropping further and uncovering their former home too macabre to consider. Fortunately, for the time being, their fears are moot; the reservoir has been completely full for three years running.

• The area near Spanish Flat is said to have been where the brothers, Jose de Jesus Berreyesa, and Sexto Berreyesa lived in the late 1830's. The Berreyesa brothers were two of eleven children of Nasario Berreyesa, the original Spanish settler of the valley which now lies beneath the reservoir. Jose de Jesus and Sexto were the original grantees of Rancho Las Putas. "Lake" Berryessa is named after them, as is the community of Spanish Flat.

• Although difficult to see from the road, just west and uphill from the Berryessa-Knoxville Road you are on now and the turn off toward Pope Valley is the area know as "Cedar Roughs". This is an area of chaparral and relatively rare MacNab and Sargent Cypresses, large shrubs or small trees well suited to the highly alkaline conditions of serpentine soils. Serpentine, a bluish-green, sometimes shiny metamorphic rock frequently seen in inner coast range road cuts, is a magnesium silicate mineral toxic to many plant associations. Serpentine characterizes much of the landscape of upper Putah Creek and the unique associations of Gray Pine, Cypress, Manzanita and other chaparral plants are the only associations which can tolerate the high pH and magnesium levels. Serpentine is a soft, workable rock, and can be shaped into various design forms, although it often crumbles and decomposes easily.

• Near approximately mile 69, we turn left onto Pope Canyon Road and wind our way up from Lake Berryessa to Pope Valley along Pope Creek. Named for an early pioneering family, Pope Valley's former native culture is shrouded with mystery. One of the earliest accounts is given by journalist Thomas Powers, who studied the Patwin people in 1871. Powers reported that a tribe once lived in Pope Valley to whom the Patwin referred as "Tu-lo-kai-di-sel" and the Spaniards referred as the "Rejo", or Re-Ho, after a chief of that name. Even by Powers' time, nothing remained of their people, having been wracked by diseases and abductions to Sonoma Mission in 1838, or of their unique language. Three survived until 1842, then soon perished, leaving only questions remaining of their mode of existence.

• When the sign for "Pope Valley Cross Road" appears on the right, turn right and you will soon T-intersect with Pope Valley Road. Turn right again and head northwest. The next two tour stops will present you with a startling contrast in cultures: a collection of hubcaps registered as an historic landmark, and a world-class winery founded in the 1880's by a wealthy and sophisticated British actress who flirted with royalty.

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