Bike Rides & Hikes

Great hikes: Cool fog ephermeral, trails endure at Lynch Canyon

Triple digits loomed, so I opted to do what many wise Sacramentans do every summer weekend – flee to the cooler, often fog-shrouded Bay Area.

A nice yet challenging trail run in the Bay Area is ridiculously easy to find. Marin County is like one big interlinked trail. The Oakland hills offer an abundance of verdant routes. Ditto for the peninsula foothills. Around Mount Diablo, the choices abound.

But on this day, I was seeking the coolest, meteorologically speaking, trail to run – as close to home as possible. It would have to be somewhere west of Fairfield, where Delta breezes are frequent in summer.

I settled on Lynch Canyon Open Space, a little-known gem tucked into the modest hills near American Canyon. It has everything the more prominent Bay Area trail stops have, plus: It's freeway-close.

You know American Canyon, right? It's near that stretch of nothing you pass on Interstate 80 westbound between the dregs of Cordelia and the outskirts of Vallejo.

So this seemed the perfect run if the goal was to tackle some challenging climbs – not to mention commune with cows – yet avoid overheating. The two previous times I'd traversed Lynch Canyon this season, I was greeted by a misty overcast, quite a change from the clear, sun-baked sky when I left home and continued on through Fairfield. The microclimate was a sign: "Welcome to the Bay Area."

Nice, but one downside of tackling Lynch Canyon in the morning is that you can miss out on views from the heights. Word is, you can see Mount Tamalpais on your right and Mount Diablo on your left, or gaze straight ahead at Napa and San Pablo Bay. All I saw both times was gray. Presumably, the clouds burn off come afternoon, but I like to get my exercise in early.

On this trip to Lynch Canyon, I was actually looked forward to the gloom and goose bumps. It was 64 degrees at 6 a.m. in Davis. By Vacaville, it was 73. Nary a cloud in the sky. Closer to the trail, I grew concerned. Where was that patch of clouds draped over American Canyon like a bad toupee? Burned off, apparently.

Oh, well. At least this time I'd enjoy the view.

Before we take off, a word about Lynch Canyon: At slightly more than 1,000 acres, it features nine miles of multiuse (equestrian, hiking, mountain biking) trails. It opened to the public several years ago after having once been set to become a landfill for the city of San Francisco. Environmentalists and community activists put a stop to that, and the property is safely in the hands of the Solano County Land Trust.

Unfortunately, the area is open only on weekends this summer and fall. Then again, I'm sure the cows like it that way. Lynch Canyon is dotted with grazing bovines, which seem benignly put out by the hikers and runners disturbing their peace. More on slightly comical cow encounters in a bit.

Run counterclockwise, the course is a hilly but not overly gasp-inducing 6.6 miles (according to my GPS watch). The first half-mile gives no warning of the vertical adventures to come. It's a flat, tree-shaded gravel road – perfect for warming up those achy hamstrings.

After you veer left onto the Tower Trail (which leads to the North Ridge Trail), the hills begin. The first major switchback takes you from an elevation of 300 feet to 600 feet in less than a half-mile.

A little farther on, you might be tempted to stay on the Tower Trail to the left because you see a downhill section ahead. That's fine if you want a shorter jaunt. It'll connect you to the Middle Valley Trail and lead you on a four-mile loop back to the trailhead.

What you'll miss, though, is the hills and the views. (Yes, some people do welcome climbs. Go figure.) So I turned right, put my head down and slogged on up another riser. By the 2.5-mile mark, I reached a plateau and, while my heart rate tried to calm, I enjoyed a nice view of Mare Island and Mount Tam in the distance.

On the descent, I encountered my first mini-herd blocking the path.

When I first tried this run in early June, the cows freaked me a little. I'm a suburban kid, reared where they named streets for denuded trees, so my idea of exotic wildlife was a squirrel. As I approached, I slowed and wondered if this behemoth with flies orbiting would charge or gallop after me. I was sure I could outrun a cow. OK, fairly sure.

I remembered what the Solano Land Trust wrote about the cattle at Lynch on its website: "Cows are not aggressive by nature. If you encounter cattle, keep your distance and walk around groups of cows. Never approach a calf and its mother. Cows are protective of their young."

Yeah, and I'm protective of my aging carcass. But I found, on my first visit, that the cows will move from the path at least 20 feet before you pass. But this time, a stubborn beast apparently felt unmoved and unafraid. We made cow eyes at each other for, oh, five seconds. She chewed some weeds, I (figuratively) chewed my fingernails. Finally, she moved and I moved on.

At the bottom of the hill, North Ridge dead-ends. The left turn to the 0.3-mile Saddle Trail starts the least-enjoyable part of the trek. Though flat, it's not really a trail at all, just pushed-around dirt clods with the sole purpose of getting people to the more spacious, foot-friendly Prairie Ridge Trail.

Prairie Ridge is labeled "difficult" on Lynch's website, and that's no exaggeration. It's about four miles into the run and likely to be your slowest mile split. It certainly was for me. But it also provides that advertised "sweeping view" of the bay and beyond, as well as varying terrain in the form of a section of big boulders in a clump of trees.

Lynch's most-likely-to-sprain-an-ankle section comes when you make the left turn onto the Kestrel Trail. The first 0.4-mile section is a steep downhill on a rutty, plowed path. Your cardiovascular system likes the break that a downhill stretch provides; your joints, not so much.

Ah, but the second half of Kestrel makes the earlier discomfort worthwhile. Suddenly, the trail flattens and turns into a pillowy-soft dirt single-track trail wending through a grove of eucalyptus trees. This part of the trail is to be savored but goes by way too fast.

The vertical extremes are mostly a memory by the time you hit the South Valley Trail. This final rolling two-mile stretch is where runners can crank up the pace and gain some time after all that climbing.

Despite the easy finish, I was knackered and drenched in sweat back at the trailhead. Sign of a good workout, yes, but not the cool and breezy run I anticipated.

I guess some days you just can't escape the heat, not even in the Bay Area.

Trail loop: 6.6 miles

Elevation gain: 1,500 feet

Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends only

Directions: Take Interstate 80 west to Exit 36 (American Canyon Road/Hiddenbrooke Parkway). Turn left over the freeway to McGary Road. Turn left on McGary and follow it east, parallel to eastbound I-80, for 1.5 miles. Turn left at Lynch Road, through the freeway underpass and through the Lynch Canyon gate to the parking lot.

Running/hiking route:

Going counterclockwise, start at the Lynch Road gate. Follow the gravel road for 0.5-mile.

At a fork in the road, go slightly left uphill on the Tower Trail, away from Lynch Reservoir.

At the junction of the Tower and North Ridge trails, turn right and proceed uphill on North Ridge.

After 1.5 miles, the North Ridge Trail dead-ends. Turn left and go on the Saddle Trail for 0.3 mile.

Make a sharp right onto the Prairie Ridge Trail and head uphill for 1.5 miles.

At a fork, turn left on the Kestrel Trail, first downhill and then through a grove of trees.

Make a right at the South Valley Trail and continue over the rolling terrain for about 2 miles to the trailhead.

Want a shorter route?

From Lynch Road, turn left on Middle Valley Trail and follow in a loop to the South Valley Trail. It's less hilly and provides more shade. Approximately four miles.

... or a longer route?

Do the 6.6-mile route, then do a smaller second loop on Middle Valley/ South Valley for slightly more than 10 miles.For an archive of Great Treks, go to sacbee.com/outbound For a gallery of Florence Low's photographs, go to sacbee.com/photos

PLAN YOUR VISIT

Difficulty: North Ridge/ Prairie Ridge: moderate to strenuous; Middle Valley: easy to moderate.

Water and toilets: No water. One well- maintained portable toilet at the trailhead.

Dogs: Not allowed

Parking fee: $5

Poison oak probability: No

Will there be blood? There's a good chance of it during one sharp left turn after a downhill stretch on the Prairie Ridge Trail.

Probability of getting lost: Low (many signs, though some are staked only for viewing from the clockwise direction).

Make a day of it: There are picnic tables at the trailhead and on the North Ridge and Saddle trails. If you have children along, you can stop by the Jelly Belly Factory tour in Fairfield (www.jellybelly.com) on the way home or continue west on I-80 to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo. For brunch, Babs Delta Diner in Suisun City (770 Kellogg St.) draws raves. Yes, it's 3.5 miles off I-80, heading back toward Fairfield (take the Highway 12 East exit), but it's worth it for Babs' oversized pancakes and omelets.

SEND US YOUR IDEAS

Great Treks and its companion, Great Rides, are regular features that invite readers to enjoy the great outdoors on foot and by bicycle. Have a suggestion for a route or another kind of great outdoors experience? Send an e-mail to fitness@sacbee.com

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