Falling for Yolo
There's still California gold in the mellow space between Napa and the Sierra
CURIOSITY AND A PENCHANT FOR apricot bars led me to Yolo County. While driving to Lake Tahoe on countless weekend getaways from the Bay Area, I’d ogled the empty landscape stretching northwest of I-80 between Vacaville and Davis. In the distance were foothills, cresting at a narrow ridge that I knew sloped down to Napa Valley on the other side. The area is an agricultural hotbed, lauded in San Francisco’s organic-or-starve culinary circles, and I’d heard the locally made apricot bars described as “outright orgasmic.”
I suspected that, in addition to bountiful farming and small vineyards, there might also lurk outdoor fun—surely there was good biking and hiking in those hills—and a funky town or two. So one spring weekend, I strapped my road bike to the roof and, instead of heading for the Sierra, hooked a left off the highway for my inaugural Yolo visit. Though it remains under the recreation radar, this hinterland is stealthily garnering fans—especially San Franciscans, me included—looking for an easy, close escape hatch.
About 80 miles northeast of the city, Yolo spans 660,000 acres along the western edge of the central Sacramento River Valley, running smack into the foothills of the Coast Range. I plotted a two-day, 230-mile route from San Francisco, hopping onto I-505 after exiting I-80 near the town of Elmira. Heading north, I passed fields of alfalfa, rows of fruit trees, and the occasional farmhouse encircled with cypresses. Edible abundance surrounded me: I spotted a cow in a huge orchard, swishing its tail beneath a walnut tree, and gaped at acres of lemon trees bursting with fruit.
I unracked my bike in downtown Winters (population 6,000), with its circa-1850 clapboard houses, brick buildings, and a corner saloon. While the area—with its olive-dappled hills and piercing sun—evokes long-ago Napa, it’s blessedly down to earth: The Chevron sells bags of local nuts and citrus, and gargantuan orange trees grace every lawn.
Pedaling west out of town on Highway 128 (known as Grant Street in Winters), I rolled past cottonwoods and almond- terraced hills. After four miles I reached Lake Solano County Park (530-795-2990), which has canoe rentals and 90 willow-lined summer campsites facing Putah Creek, rich with brown and rainbow trout. (Berryessa Sporting Goods, in town, proffers equipment and angling advice.) From the park, it was 15 rolling miles west to the cusp of Napa, along Lake Berryessa, making for a pretty out-and-back 40-miler.
Back in Winters I found my apricot bars—just-baked and oozing—stacked in a display case at Putah Creek CafëTangy and spongy, the bars were rivaled only by the flavorful fish taco that I procured nearby at Chuy’s Taqueria. I wound down the day at the Abbey House (doubles, $120–$150; 530-795-5870, www.abbeyhouseinn.com). With a wide porch and turn-of-the-century élan, it’s a hideaway just off the main drag.
Come morning, I drove County Road 89 (called Railroad Avenue in town) about ten valley miles north before heading west on Highway 16 near Esparto. The landscape got hillier, with blue oak glens and olive trees tucked into the grassy folds. After I whizzed by the stretch’s one eyesore—a casino, hence the occasional COWS NOT CASINOS bumper sticker—the road meandered alongside Cache Creek.
The creek frothed with more fury north of the one-store town of Rumsey; I’ll return in summer, when the river’s higher, to raft the Class III rapids ($109–$139 per person for a two-day trip with Napa-based Whitewater Adventures; 800-977-4837, www.whitewater-adv.com). I stopped at Cache Canyon Regional Park, a 700-acre parcel of hiking bliss (check out www.yolohiker.org for detailed trail information) that’s also a gateway to 54,000 acres of public land.
My favorite Cache Canyon hike is the Blue Ridge Trail to Fiske Peak, a steep eight-mile out-and-back hoof along the ridge up to views of Cache Creek Canyon, where the creek flows between Cortina Ridge and Blue Ridge as it reaches Yolo County. It was a clear day, and at the top I could see straight across the Sacramento Valley to the snow-streaked Sierra.
In the late afternoon, I retraced my path south on Highway 16, stopped to pick up a bottle of viognier, a local white, and checked in to the Capay Valley Bed & Breakfast (doubles, $79–$155; 530-796-3738, www.capayvalleybedandbreakfast.com). The farmhouse, tinted the color of lemon sherbet, sits on 140 acres of almond orchards. Guests can help harvest the nuts, come late summer.
I hiked to the top of a nearby hill, just before dusk, for a 360-degree view of the valley: Abloom with tiny white flowers, the almond orchard looked like it was dusted with snow. Then I glimpsed the sun as it plunged below the mountains behind Lake Berryessa, a catch almost as good as Yolo itself.