Morgan Valley Rd
That inexplicable need for escapism can only be satiated with a break-away ride on the motorcycle. No obligations, work, kids... it would be that kind of day. I was going to get away. And I was headed for Lake Berryessa.
Berryessa Knoxville Road is an anomaly within a region northeast of Napa. And let's first clarify, this road may not appeal to all riders. You might think of this road as three very different motorcycle rides all glued together into one road.
Overall, Berryessa Knoxville Rd is a long ride, try 50 miles of remote countryside without people, towns, or civilization. The length makes this road somewhat unusual for this region. Few rides in the area offer such an uninterrupted thrill ride in this mountainous region of the Vaca Range. With Napa Valley and Clear Lake only moments away, its proximity to the Bay Area makes it a well-known ride for many Bay Area riders. Berryessa Knoxville Rd begins from Highway 128 starting at the Turtle Rock Bar & Café. The interior of the café is covered in dollar bills, and you are invited to leave a dollar bill attached somewhere if you can find a clear space. Boat trailers and other bikers are often found here taking in a beverage. Walking into the store is worth it, just to see all the dollar bills.
The road clings to the western edge of Lake Berryessa for the first 18 miles. Berryessa Knoxville Rd follows along Capell Creek at first. Seasonally flowing, and dry in summer, this creek eventually becomes the lake itself. Water levels vary dramatically from year to year, and early-spring will always be the best time to ride this road. By May, the rains are long gone and summer heat arrives. The green grass fades to brown and the water recedes as daily temps are easily 100 degrees. If you need to ride this road in summer, our plan is always to ride it first thing in the morning and be headed towards the ocean by midday.
The burn scar from the LNU Lightning Complex fire in August 2020 will be evident along the western side of Lake Berryessa from Highway 128 to the north end of the lake. Now considered one of the largest wildfires in California history, within a 72-hour period, 10,849 lightning strikes in August 2020 sparked 376 known fires across much of the state.
Numerous lightning strikes caused small fires which merged with other nearby wildfires burning in late summer 2020. This wildfire eventually burned 363,000 acres in the Vaca Mountains reaching the edges of major cities like Fairfield, Napa, and Vacaville. This region is a wine producing area of the state surrounded by low mountainous ridges and hillsides of dry scrub brush.
LNU Lightning Complex Fire in August 2020 along the shores of Lake Berryessa
The northern edges of the fire pushed north along the base of Lake Berryessa burning to the water’s edge and on both sides of Knoxville Berryessa Rd. While the hillsides recover quickly and spring rains bring the green grass back, the burnt foundations of homes may remain for years. Mobile home parks like the one at Spanish Flat were razed, and the community was a total loss. In other small hillside neighborhoods like the one on Mulford Drive, a single house survived the conflagration.
Wide-open pavement introduces the ride, heading downhill in lazy curves signed at 40 mph. Spanish Flat is the first of a series of campgrounds, small resorts, and boat landings that pass by as you head north along the lake, which is visible for the duration of this Chapter I portion of the ride. You may also notice very large bird nests atop power poles, there are several of those along this ride. The Bureau of Reclamation HQ & Visitor Center appears when you reach the lake. The Visitor Center offers both natural and cultural information on Lake Berryessa and the surrounding area, along with a variety of free brochures and maps.
Berryessa Knoxville Rd rides through a large portion of the LNU Lightning Complex Fire burn scar.
Building a Reservoir…
Lake Berryessa was created by the construction of the Monticello Dam during the 1950s. Plans to flood the valley began as far back as the early 1900s. Various ideas were proposed that might spare the inhabitants along Putah Creek, including a series of several small reservoirs in succession along the creek.
Only one small town was embedded in the valley. Monticello was a small farming community, dated to 1867 and founded by Ezra Peacock. Monticello was said to have grown to a population of 250 by the 1950s. Debate raged over the impending plans to flood the valley, and the residents attempted to fight back.
Monticello Dam was completed in 1957
House Being Moved from the series Death of a Valley, Pirkle Jones, 1956, printed 1960
“We object to the Monticello Dam because it is a project…that will destroy our homes, our land, our business enterprises, and our way of making a living” read the opposing statements during the California Water Conference of 1945. “We cannot see any economy in a project that will destroy forever a large part of one county attempting to benefit a part of another when we know that by careful planning the project can be set up to benefit all concerned.” However, the big picture prevailed.
The story of California has always been one of thirst. “Every month 30,000 people are coming to California,” California Governor Earl Warren said in 1953, “and not one of them brings a gallon of water.” Plans to build a reservoir over Putah Creek advanced in the mid-1940s, and plans for Lake Berryessa began to take shape.
In turn, the plan for Lake Berryessa involved razing the valley, sanitizing the valley floor, removing trees, stumps, and buildings, everything. As plans for the reservoir became imminent, the town of Monticello was dismantled board by board, and those buildings that were not removed were burned. In the end, the valley resembled an empty bathtub.
Dorothea Lange was a documentary photographer and photojournalist, best known for her photographic depictions of the 1930s Great Depression in America. Lange was one of the first of a new breed of photographers, who documented what they saw, a documentary photographer. Beginning in the 1930s, Lange traveled as far as the Midwest from her home in the Bay Area to document the migration of those seeking work. Her photograph, Migrant Mother, is one of the most iconic photographs ever taken during The Great Depression. Lange also photographed the Japanese Internment during WWII at internment camps such as Manzanar War Internment Camp for Japanese-Americans in the Eastern Sierra Range.
By the mid-1950s, Life Magazine commissioned Lange and Pirkle Jones to document the removal of the town of Monticello. Both photographers shot a series of photos as the town was slowly dismantled and the valley sanitized. The town cemetery was dug up and moved to higher ground. The new cemetery remains to this day and is located 8 miles north of Highway 128. When Life Magazine decided not to run the story, Lange published the photo series in Aperture, the photography magazine she had co-founded in 1960. The photos survived, the town did not, and the original 1960 issue of Aperture can still be found via rare booksellers for about $500.
Migrant Mother became one of the most iconic photographs of The Great Depression, photographed by Dorothea Lange in 1936
A 304-foot dam was planned, and the project was also proposed to be expanded to a 600-foot-high dam at Devils Gate along present-day Highway 128 which would expand the water storage capacity 10 times and make the lake 3 times larger. The 600-foot dam was never built, and Montecito Dam is what remains today.
Rocky Ridge dominates the skyline to the east while riding up the west side of the lake. On the right day, you can see the radio tower atop 3057’ Berryessa Peak. The peak can be reached via dirt ranch roads from Eastside Rd at the north end of the lake. Road 78A provides access to Berryessa Peak for hikers from the eastern side, beginning the hike near Cache Creek Casino.
Lake Berryessa seen looking southwest from 3057’ Berryessa Peak
Putah Creek drains a 576-square-mile region of the Mayacamas Mountains, better known locally as the Coast Range, with its headwaters near Cobb Mountain along present day Highway 175. Putah Creek by no means gains the title of river. Despite its vast drainage, it resembles a creek and may even go completely dry in summer. The water in Putah & Eticuero Creeks eventually flows into the Sacramento River Delta and into San Francisco Bay.
Berryessa Knoxville Rd splits away from Putah Creek at the north end of the lake at Putah Canyon Recreational Area and joins with Eticuera Creek. Eticuera is shown on a design of the Las Putas Grant from about 1843. The origin of the word is likely transferred from Michoacán, Mexico, where etucuero is Tarascan for ‘salt place’. Eticuera Creek is also generally dry during summer months.
Present-day Lake Berryessa is 25 miles long, a mere 3 miles wide, and has over 165 miles of shoreline. Once the reservoir was completed and full by April 1963, it was realized sanitizing the lake bottom created a poor environment for fish which struggled to survive. When the lake was first stocked with bass, the fish all died having no place to lay their eggs. Local bass fisherman took Christmas trees set in buckets of concrete and dropped the whole trees into the lake to create habitats for fish.
As the reservoir was built, only the gently arcing Knoxville Berryessa Rd was carved into the hillsides along the west side of the lake. No paved roads were ever built on the east side of the lake, and most hillsides remain virgin & undeveloped, mostly covered in scrub. There is one dirt road along the east side of the lake, Eastside Rd, but this private ranch road leads to a homestead. In spring, Berryessa Knoxville Rd becomes famous with local riders because no bridges were ever built over Eticuera creek, instead, Berryessa Knoxville Rd goes through the creek rather than over.
Lake Berryessa seen from the north end along Berryessa Knoxville Rd looking south
The only thing that remains under the water of Lake Berryessa is the largest masonry bridge west of the Rocky Mountains, comprised of three stone sections of 70 feet each. The town of Montecito is said to be visible during dry years and the level of the lake recedes. Lake levels can vary dramatically from year to year. Lake Berryessa was once the second-largest reservoir in California (currently the seventh-largest reservoir) once it was completed, but was soon eclipsed by other dam-building projects in the 1960s.
If you find yourself riding alongside the lake on a weekday, you’ll likely have the ride all to yourself. But on the weekend, be prepared to get stuck behind a boat trailer. Depending on the time of year, the lake may be right up to the edge of the hillside. In winter, it's brilliant green. Although in summer and during drought years, the lake has a dirty brown scar that rings the reservoir.
This area of California has a Mediterranean climate. Ample rain falls in winter, creating a landscape of brilliant green. In between the winter rainstorms, temperatures are dreamy. Brisk days with temps in the 50s and 60s make for perfect riding with the right gear. But in summer, temperatures can soar in these valleys when little rain and daily blue skies allow the sun to bake the hillsides. At the height of summer in July and August, sunny days can bring temps as high as 110 degrees, and the 50 miles will take much longer than 50 minutes.
As for the ride along Lake Berryessa- if you have the road all to yourself, it's a curvaceous love affair. The motorcycle glides along the smooth wide pavement, no hairpins, surprises, or mountainous canyons. It is entirely possible to achieve satisfying lean angles, however, the southern stretch isn't the place. Numerous driveways and private roads mate with the highway, plus all the lake traffic will put a dampener on any hooliganism. Better to kick back and relax, enjoy the ride.
Pope Canyon Road
After riding over one of three long bridges, you'll intersect Pope Canyon Road headed off west. This either heads off to Middleton via Butts Canyon Road or can be used to circle around to Angwin or Chiles Pope Valley Road back to Highway 128. If you choose not to ride the single-lane mid-section, this is your turnoff.
Bridge over Pope Creek at Pope Canyon Rd
After 18 miles and the third bridge, the wide two-lane pavement abruptly ends. Time to shift gears for Chapter II. The pavement pulls away from the lake with a broad vista looking south over the surface of the lake. What lies ahead is a perfect example of what a deserted California back road is like, forgotten, unused, unknown, and full of surprises. The 17-mile-long single-lane middle portion of the road is for the adventurous in the bunch. This is not a road for those who prefer the smooth blacktop and limit their riding to those constraints.
Heading north away from the lake, the pavement deteriorates to single lane goat.
Berryessa Knoxville flows through the Knoxville Wildlife Area which spans 21,500 acres along both sides of the road, and is part of the even larger 300,000-acre Blue Ridge / Berryessa Natural Area in Napa, Lake, Colusa, and Yolo Counties. This region is unusual as it protects unusual serpentine habitats. Serpentine soils are high in toxic metals and have poor plant nutrients. The plants here are specially adapted to tolerating the toxic metals in the soils.
The middle portion through the Knoxville Wildlife Area is riddled with blind potholes - some 6 inches deep, uneven pavement, and no shortage of bumps. Much of the ride was repaved in the early 2000s, however, the road surface has deteriorated dramatically. The surface tosses and turns unpredictably, cut into the hillside, and works its way north.
The single lane mid-section of Berryessa Knoxville is always in poor shape.
Note the ground underneath the road seems fluid and there are several sections of road that are heavily damaged from ground movement, ruts, and lack of general maintenance. In one motorcycle group I was leading, we had a chase car following us and I felt sorry for the car, hoping it wouldn’t bottom out on the ruts and heaves in the pavement.
A few spots only had pavement 2 feet wide, easily managed for a motorcycle, but a difficult journey for the car behind us in the mid-section portion. Portions of the road in some spots are only paved for 3/4 of the width of the road. Be careful on this uneven paving. Take it slow and keep your eyes on the pavement. If you push the envelope, and you hit something, say a pothole, you could easily blow a fork seal or, better yet, bend a rim. If you don't mind roads like this and another backroad winner like Geysers Road doesn't phase you, then this won't either.
Stream Crossings over Eticuera Creek
One of the attributes that make this ride so unique is the stream crossings. While some of the more remote roads may have one or two, the middle portion of Berryessa Knoxville Road has so many stream crossings, that I lost count after seven. The map shows 14 in all.
What you will find depends on the time of year. In the winter, rainfalls drain into creeks and streams - all of which is collected into Lake Berryessa for storage. Instead of having the water flow underneath the road, the water flows over the road via concrete spillways. The road crisscrosses Eticuera Creek 14 times, there are no bridges.
Berryessa Knoxville Rd crisscrosses Eticuero Creek 14 times, there are no bridges
If this is winter, expect to be riding through several inches of water. How much depends on the amount of rainfall, of course, but each stream crossing is easily traversed as long as this isn't a monsoon year. Take it easy and motor across at a slow but steady speed.
I find this part of back road motorcycling most alluring. Many years ago, while riding Jurgens Road north of Rescue, CA, I set out to ford Weber Creek on Jurgens Rd during a very rainy year. As I idled my Yamaha FJ1200 into the water, I realized the water was up above the footpegs. For whatever reason, I lost my momentum and put my foot down in a moment of panic. The water poured over the top of my Sidi riding boot and filled it with water. They are waterproof, but they didn't mean if you are standing in water deeper than the height of the boot.
Water flowing across spillway on Berryessa Knoxville Rd
The map shows the town of Knoxville somewhere along this road at the far northern edge of Napa County, but there is no actual town of any kind. Knoxville was named after one of the proprietors of the Manhattan Quicksilver Mine. Ranar Knox was the owner of the mine and first postmaster. A post office was established in 1863 and a company town was built around the mine. Quicksilver, also known as mercury, was used in the processing of gold ore to extract the gold from quartz ore after it was crushed. The word Quicksilver comes from the sense of quick that means "alive;" the Latin root is argentum vivum, which is literally "living silver." Knoxville was occupied through the turn of the century, and the post office operated until 1912.
Curvy mid-section of Berryessa Knoxville Rd
At the McLaughlin Natural Reserve, the town of Knoxville is a few stone walls, all that is left from a mining community of 300 people and fifty buildings during its heyday of the 1880s. In present day, the Knoxville Management Area is BLM land that is accessible to OHV enthusiasts, in addition to mountain biking and campers. The Knoxville Wildlife Area is approximately 21,500 acres and is part of the 300,000-acre Blue Ridge / Berryessa Natural Area in Napa, Lake, Colusa, and Yolo Counties.
Aeriel view of McLaughlin Gold Mine at The Tunnel - Road name change to Morgan Valley Rd into Lower Lake from here
Southern view of start of one-lane mid-section of Berryessa Knoxville Rd from McLaughlin Gold Mine
Chapter III - Morgan Valley Rd
The road changes names to Morgan Valley Road at the county line, and the two lane returns for the Lake County portion. This stretch was paved to McLaughlin Mine in 1984. East of Lower Lake 14 miles out is a massive industrial site that will have you wondering what is that?
The McLaughlin Gold Mine was the first major gold discovery in California since the gold rush days of the 1850s. The discovery was first announced in 1980. The county line also went right through the main body of ore, which created many complications in permitting the mine operation. The main body of ore was in both Napa & Yolo counties, and some of this land was BLM land, which involved permitting with the Federal Government. The tailings were all dumped 5 miles away in Lake County where the mill was located, which exponentially made the permitting process even more complex involving three counties and federal land.
The McLaughlin Mine operated between 1985 and 2002, producing 3.4 million ounces of gold over its 17-year life. The McLaughlin Mine also produced Silver, Gold, Mercury, Lead, Iron, Copper, Thallium, Arsenic, Antimony, and Zinc. For the northbound riders, the mine starts at the county line when the road expands into two lanes. A stop at The Tunnel is required for a ride break. You can’t see the mine from the road due to the road cut, however, if you park at the tunnel, you’ll be able to claw up the embankment and peer over the fence.
Piles of rock are still visible and the smell of oil is sometimes in the air. There are reservoirs on both sides of the road. Below in the valley to the south of Morgan Valley Rd is a huge man-made 6000-acre reservoir accessible from the McLaughlin Natural Reserve entrance.
The McLaughlin Gold Mine was the largest gold discovery in California since the 1850s.
The Tunnel is a good place to get out of the hot summer sun and then ride the northern leg. The northern portion is motorcycle bliss, as in what motorcycle dreams are made of. That's an odd accolade considering the mid-section of Berryessa Knoxville Rd is single lane goat. However, the reward for enduring the mid-section is Chapter III.
Westward of McLaughlin Mine, the road, originally built for the mine, is wide, smooth, and visibly stretches off into the distance with nary a straight section of road. The ride flows across a mountainous ridge with amazing views to the south. The pavement improves as the road heads downhill to Highway 29 and the poor quality of the mid-section is soon forgotten.
The McLaughlin Gold Mine operated between 1985 and 2002.
Morgan Valley Rd can be a delightfully fast and twisty ride into Lower Lake
Worth mentioning for the dual sport riders, two miles northwest of the Napa/Lake County border is Reif Road (which turns into Rayhouse Road at the Yolo County line) to Davis Creek Reservoir and heading up and over Little Blue Ridge to Highway 16. Reif Road is a one-lane dirt road, but has terrific views of Lake Berryessa. At Morgan Valley Road's western terminus, you'll find yourself in Lower Lake, which is a major crossroads with roads heading in all four directions. It's a tiny town with a three-blinks main street, but there is fuel and snacks here.
If the backroad single-lane pavement isn't your cup-o-tea, you could ride the western portion of the road to McLaughlin Mine, then turn around at The Tunnel at the Napa County line and ride it back the other way. Ridden the opposite way, it's a whole different road.
Overall, Berryessa Knoxville Road is not for all riders. Rides like this appeal to a certain type of motorcyclist. Not everyone enjoys the single lane goat. And the water crossings in spring will either excite you or worry you. Pick a camp.
On the other hand, if you like the sort of ride where you can stop the bike and stand there knowing you've gotten away from it all, this is your road. No people, no civilization, not much of anything, just you and the motorcycle, this is your road.
Other Rider Comments:
I thought I'd relay an interesting experience I had on this road last February. I discovered this road on a solo ride from my home in St. Helena. Not only that, but I especially enjoyed the stream crossings, as I had not experienced this on a motorcycle before. During my ride, there was only an inch or so of water on the spillways, and I rode through carefully and uneventfully on my Kawasaki ZR-7S.
In February, I returned with my riding partner, who rides a Vulcan 800 cruiser. The flow across the road was only slightly higher than it was in the fall, maybe two inches. We proceeded across the first six or so crossings slowly and carefully with no problems. At about the seventh crossing I entered the spillway and, for some reason, I pulled the clutch in and coasted about halfway across. About midway, I realized I didn't have quite enough speed going to make it across, so I carefully (I thought) gave it a little throttle and let out the clutch. My speed was perhaps 5 mph. What I didn't realize is that I had entered a shady patch where the concrete surface was covered in green slime. The rear immediately swung right at about 45 degrees, at which point I counter-steered. Then the rear swung left about 45 degrees and I knew a get-off was imminent. When the sliding rear got past the moss and regained traction, it high-sided, throwing me off.
I was thrown over the handlebars and did a perfect tumble/roll, landing on my feet. I was completely unscathed and unscratched, but the bike did not fare so well. Thankfully, I was able to ride it home, but it ended up needing about $1500 in repairs. Looking back, I realize the accident was completely my fault and resulted from a moment of carelessness and poor judgment. I will return and do the ride again, but believe me, I'll be a hell of a lot more careful crossing those streams!
-Frank Sikes, Kawasaki ZR-7S
Knoxville Berryessa Rd - Bonus Photo Gallery
Berryessa Knoxville Rd
Morgan Valley Rd
50 Miles - - LENGTH
Fair along lake, poor midsection, fast north section - PAVEMENT
Endless curves - CURVES
Highway 128 to Lower Lake - CONNECTS
Napa, Lower Lake, Angwin - GAS
Napa - LODGING
2400 ft - PEAK ELEVATION
Remote ride, 14 stream crossings in spring - HIGHLIGHTS
Pope Valley Rd