Five years ago, Napa resident Eric Barnett was strolling around the Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve near Winters when he started gazing with longing at the Blue Ridge up above.
“I looked up at the ridge and said, ‘I want to hike up there,’ ” he said. “But I couldn’t because it was privately owned in different places and you had to trespass.”
That didn’t stop Barnett, an engineer by trade and now a fearless crew leader for the local volunteer trail-building corps Tuleyome. With his help, the organization completed the 14.5-mile Berryessa Peak Trail, now open to the public and a favorite among locals. The steep but well-marked trail brings hikers to a breathtaking summit over Lake Berryessa without putting them at risk of a trespassing citation or a broken ankle.
“About five of us went up there, at a steep grade with 60-pound packs in the rain,” he said. “It was tough and hard and we were exhausted and wet and I thought it was just the greatest thing in the world.”
Barnett is one of about 100 Tuleyome volunteers who devote their sweat, blood and weekend time to hashing out new hiking trails throughout Northern California while maintaining existing trails that make nature accessible to all.
Tuleyome, meaning “deep home place” in Miwok, opened its nonprofit headquarters in Woodland in 2002 and has since designed and constructed dozens of trails in Yolo, Lake, Napa and Mendocino counties. Its staff and volunteers also hold classes teaching people how to properly care for the environment, distribute maps and handbooks for trail users and work with national and state land management groups to designate protected areas.
This fall the organization is looking for new worker bees as it maps out the Berryessa Snow Mountain region, a 330,000-acre expanse that, with help from Tuleyome, recently was designated a national monument. Encompassing parts of the Cache Creek and Cedar Roughs wilderness areas, the now-protected region contains what the Bureau of Land Management describes as “some of the most scenic and biologically diverse landscapes in Northern California,” featuring “rolling, oak-studded hillsides to steep creek canyons and ridgelines with expansive views.”
It will be up to Tuleyome volunteers, alongside park rangers and professional trail builders, to carve out a path to its most scenic offerings while continuing to protect its flora and fauna.
“Right now it’s obvious that there’s a real strong pull conservationally and people are more aware,” Barnett said. “By creating a trail into the wild, you’re creating a situation where anyone can hike that trail and find that beauty. But rather than exploring and destroying, they stay on that one trail.”
By creating a trail into the wild, you’re creating a situation where anyone can hike that trail and find that beauty.
Eric Barnett, trail development coordinator for Tuleyome
Trail building usually starts with Tuleyome identifying a promising area for a trail and approaching anyone who has legal jurisdiction there to get permission to start work. The trails may run into state, national or even private land and Tuleyome must communicate with multiple parties.
Once permission is taken care of, Barnett and other Tuleyome staff members strap on their boots and start hiking over hills and through creeks to mark what they deem to be the ideal path.
“You start looking for land that will sustain itself, the flow and feel of a trail, what’s a comfortable way,” Barnett said. “Keep in mind that you have a goal – sometimes it’s a loop, sometimes it’s to get to a point. So you look for things like trees in areas that would cause problems. Sometimes you’ll find flowers that are endemic to an area and you can’t go through something like that. Animal habitats – are you invading? There are a lot of different elements.”
Melissa Mechill, a 62-year-old accountant from West Sacramento, said volunteering with Tuleyome has made her more knowledgeable about how to trim bushes and lop down trees without causing ecological damage. She uses some of the strategies she has learned there in her own garden, she said.
She has been going out with the crew on weekends for the past four years, sometimes hiking up and back in a day and sometimes camping on the trail. Last Saturday she was helping to extend a new trail on the northwest end of Lake Berryessa, a full hour-and-45-minute drive from her house.
“It’s very hard work,” she said. “There’s never been a time when I didn’t go home with a scratch, or a bruise or a bump. … It’s so worth it.”
It’s very hard work. There’s never been a time when I didn’t go home with a scratch, or a bruise or a bump.
Melissa Mechill, Tuleyome volunteer
The need for well-maintained trails has become evident in recent years as more people find ways to get outdoors, said Nate Lillge, a Tuleyome employee who organizes volunteers. He said anyone can be a volunteer, as long as they are physically fit and willing to get their hands dirty.
“Trails always need maintenance, because nature always wins,” he said, referring to natural trail woes such as persistent overgrowth or erosion. The Stebbins Cold Canyon reserve recently needed help from Tuleyome volunteers after the Wragg Fire of summer 2015 burned it to a crisp.
The trails also can suffer from human wear and tear that comes from too many booted feet romping around the same area.
“It’s a good thing that people are getting out and hiking,” Lillge said. “That’s obviously going to have some impact on the trails and in the surrounding area. But that’s never a bad thing, as long as people are respectful.”
For more information on trail-building opportunities, call Tuleyome at 530-350-2599