The sideways dawn light as it winks across the vineyards from the east: It was the first thing I noticed as I pulled off a California freeway.
As I drove, the vineyards gave way to wheat-gold foothills, black cows in fields.
The fields gave way to darkly arching oaks, tree tunnels shading a narrow country road outside Winters, Calif. The early-hour brightness indicated the nearness of summer.
Here, an hour and a half northeast of San Francisco, the dense press of civilization lifts, and the open wilderness weaves itself into the landscape. The light is somehow ventilated, given more space. I watched a cloud bank slowly roll over a cliff, rearranging itself like a gauzy muslin scarf.
In the six o’clock glow of the last days of May, I entered the southern boundary of Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, one of our country’s newest national monuments. The knobby fullness of the surrounding hills resembles rising bread. Named for the craggy 7,056-foot peak at its northern end, the monument runs along a ridgeline that stretches south through seven counties to Blue Ridge, where I would start my hike. One writer called Berryessa’s outline a long, lumpy Christmas stocking. This is the toe, and I’m dipping in.
What do we want from our wildlife areas? Something so remote we’ll never see it? Or something close enough, braided into our tangle of civilization, to remind us of all that exists alongside us in this world?
When Theodore Roosevelt signed the 1906 Antiquities Act into law, he gave presidents the power to protect cultural, historic and natural resources under threat with the national monument designation. More than a century later, millions of acres of public lands have been protected, many across the American West. They include the Pacific Remote Islands, the largest marine reserve in the world, which was proclaimed by George W. Bush and expanded by Barack Obama, and the Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, an astounding, alien landscape of plateaus and cliff faces created by sedimentary erosion, chock-full of fossils.
This year, 27 national monuments were made newly vulnerable to oil, gas and other resource extraction, placed under review by President Trump for what he deems as presidential overreach amounting to a “massive federal land grab.” But it’s important to note that these places were never meant to be walled off or untouchable. They’re meant to be explored.
Designated by Mr. Obama two years ago, Berryessa Snow Mountain was a complicated puzzle of orphaned lands managed by a host of government agencies. But looking at the pieces together now, you’ll see they make up a rich wildlife corridor amounting to a third of a million acres, with densely forested slopes and some of the rarest plants on earth.
Because the monument is situated north of Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay, all of it intersects with human activity. Its landscape reveals more than 10,000 years of Native American artifacts and cultural sites, and is flush with places to hike, camp, fish, hunt, bike and go boating. Locals advocated protection for the region for years. On the editorial pages of California newspapers, the outcry against Mr. Trump’s order has been fierce; along with Berryessa Snow Mountain, seven other national monuments in the state were covered by the order.
In these contentious times, it seems fitting that Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument was birthed in flames. Days after Mr. Obama’s July 2015 designation, wildfires raged across Napa and Lake counties, eventually engulfing 100,000 acres by the end of the summer, including much of the landscape earmarked for the monument. The trails in the area reopened to the public just one year ago.
I came to Berryessa Snow Mountain to see about the possibility of rebirth — indeed, to remind myself how to imagine what that could look like. One thing rebirth looks like is an explosion of wildflowers. As I ascended the Blue Ridge Trail, it was hard to ignore the vibrant, in-your-face display of fire-follower blooms: white Stebbins’ morning-glory and delicate yellow whispering bell, for instance, whose seeds lie dormant in the soil until heat and smoke trigger germination. At every step, a new floral arrangement seemed to present itself: woolly sunflower, fire-red Indian paintbrush and pale pink splendid Mariposa lily, all taking advantage of the extra sunlight and soil moisture freed up by the recent fires.
The trail I chose, the Homestead-Blue Ridge Loop, is considered the gateway to the national monument. It’s a terrific — and tough — five-mile loop that starts and ends along Putah Creek, with a steep elevation gain of 1,300 feet over two and a half miles to the highest point. What you get for the effort, along with sore legs, are those thick blankets of wildflowers, a panorama of the Sacramento Valley and glorious ridgeline views of Lake Berryessa from the very top.
The trail crosses into Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve, which the University of California, Davis, maintains as an outdoor classroom, a place for biologists to study vegetation changes after a fire, say, or for geologists to model landslides. Jeffrey Clary, the director of the reserve, spends a lot of time in the field. ‘‘If you were to design a trail that squeezes the maximum into five miles, this is it,” he said. “It’s really special.”
The monument has some of the most ecologically diverse lands in the state; when taken together, Mr. Clary said, they act as a valuable corridor for the migration of species, especially in a changing climate. Part of the importance of a national monument designation is the mandate to create a management plan that takes the whole picture into account, not just its pieces.
As I climbed higher in elevation above Putah Creek, there was an abundance of B-letter wildlife: blue jays, bumblebees, butterflies. At one point, the bushes along the trail rustled, and a brown bunny hopped across my path. (Though I spotted a sign announcing the presence of mountain lions, I didn’t see any.) At 800 feet, I stopped for a long moment, moved to do so by the view of mountains and fog seen through a scrim of rustling wheat-gold grass.
As the switchbacks began piling up, the charred black skeletons of trees below made for a striking overlay on the otherwise blazingly bright native ground vegetation. During warmer months, this is a hike to start in the early morning cool air, since the 2015 fires cleared away much of the tree cover above the valley floor. A handful of mature trees were left standing, a California blue oak here, a manzanita there.
“If you’re a hiker out there, as you’re walking, there are those places you naturally want to stop and rest because it’s cooler; there are trees, some shade,” Mr. Clary said, describing the many microclimates along the hike. “In the same way, you see species moving, not very far, but to microclimates that are a little cooler than where they came from. With a fire, those kinds of shifts can happen overnight. Most climate change models for California suggest more frequent and more intense fires. And that’s happening all over the world.”
As I rounded the northern part of the loop, sprouts of poison oak extended onto the trail to catch my hair and clothes. Lizards skittered across the trail, throwing up puffs of dust. Just as I reached the exposed ridgeline, short of breath, I was rewarded with my first glimpse of Lake Berryessa. Viewed from this vantage point, the water shone a glorious, thirst-quenching blue.
Thirst-quenching in a psychic way, that is; there is no actual potable water on this hike. I paused to swig some of the liter-plus water I’d brought, and to appreciate the breeze, while turkey buzzards the color of char rode the cool updraft over the lake.
Though it was quickly getting hot, the astounding blue of the water below was a balm. Even as I focused on carefully bouldering up a narrow cliffside passage, I kept turning to take sips of that view. At one point, I passed a group of hikers going the other way, clockwise on the loop, exclaiming about the lake as they came up upon it. “Kudos to you for doing this alone,” one young woman chirped as we scrambled past each other. I smiled weakly, blinking back the sweat as it poured over my brow.
In the end, I was happy I’d gone counterclockwise, getting the bulk of elevation gain under my belt early on so that I could circle back on the Homestead Trail section of the loop; it has a more gradual slope, with wooden stairs in sections and some shade. (Still, I admit the descent was murderous on my legs.)
But with the ascent behind me, I wasn’t in a rush. I could meander along, pushing aside plant tendrils that reached for me every which way. The landscape had changed; some flowers that were closed on my climb were now visible. I was reminded of Linnaeus’s flower clock, with every hour indicated by a specific bloom that opened.
What else does this landscape have to tell us? “It’s easy to see the skeletons of trees,” Mr. Clary told me. “But take a closer look: Are those trees resprouting? Or was that fire so intense that you’re not getting any of that regeneration? We are the gateway so researchers can understand this landscape and how it works.”
Back at the creek, I took a short detour to visit the eponymous homestead of this portion of the trail. Here lies the old foundation of a cabin, where its resident raised goats and made cheese circa 1938. On the shady slope from what remains of this homesteader’s claim, I stuck my hands into the cool rushing creek. By the time I reached the end of the loop, the sun was high and fierce in the sky. It was only 10 o’clock.
That afternoon I drove west and north, tracing the outlines of the monument on switchbacked roads, largely empty of cars and people. The tree cover was dense, the towns small, the ranches sprawling. This lumpy stocking is full of leftover lands, sewn into a monument designation. But the fact of their proximity to big-city populations — close enough to be a trapdoor, a way to drop out of the present day and into another, grander scale of time — is one of the best reasons for their existence.
Lying in bed that night, I couldn’t shake one gorgeous, defiant image of the trail from my mind: whole fields of morning glory, fully open in the midmorning heat, drinking in the sun. They bloom for several years, then fade away until the next fire comes along. It’s a reminder of the next day, and the next, to imagine that bigger picture, and to look forward every once in a while, instead of just at what’s at our feet.