Bike Rides & Hikes

Fresh Tracks: Vernal pools at Rancho Seco delight, if the time is right

The Rancho Seco cooling towers, decommissioned years ago, stand tall over the lake next to the Rancho Seco Howard Ranch Trail.
The Rancho Seco cooling towers, decommissioned years ago, stand tall over the lake next to the Rancho Seco Howard Ranch Trail.

At prime viewing season – mid-winter, depending on weather patterns – you can slog along the Howard Ranch Trail at Rancho Seco Recreational Area, bend down and peer into the murky vernal pools, where fascinating aquatic invertebrates dwell. These spineless wonders, whose habitat is rimmed by a multihued flora, may be minute in size (why do you think they call them shrimp?) but they are tough critters who lay low in the hardpan most of the year, patiently waiting out drought days.

Head out to the Howard Ranch Trail now – or, really, any time before the promised El Niño-driven rains hit in earnest – and you’ll see little of that.

You’ll instead eyeball cracked and shriveled hollows, mere depressions in the bland, brown grassland. What you’ll always see, looming and casting long shadows along the 6.9-mile loop trail, are the twin silos of the decommissioned Rancho Seco nuclear reactors, which thankfully do not emerge from dormancy every spring like the vernal pools’ inhabitants. So flat and featureless, dusty and desiccated, is the trail that the silos lend almost a post-apocalyptic vibe. It’s peaceful, all right, as peaceful as nuclear winter.

So, consider this a clip-and-save version of “Fresh Tracks.” Come back in a month or two, when the wildflowers are blooming and the fairy shrimp breeding and the Rancho Seco cooling towers lose some of their ominous intent. Not that we don’t recommend the trail at other times of the year. If your goal is solitude, a pleasant jaunt in the grassland after maybe casting about for a few fish (hopefully three-eyed “Simpsons”-like trout) in the 160-acre lake, by all means, make the trip 25 miles southeast of Sacramento.

I, for one, found an off-season excursion in early November kind of depressing. The land seemed denuded, bereft. It doesn’t help that, once you make the turn away from the lake (after the first mile), you leave behind any hint of shade. You are exposed to the sun or wind, or both, as you pass vast swaths of scrub, forced to fill in the vernal pools with your mental color palette. When encountering such landscape monotony, the mind tends to wander and conjure all types of nightmare scenarios.

Such as: What if this four-year drought has gotten so severe that even the famously resilient California vernal pools could not survive? By the time I returned to the trailhead after completing the loop, I had almost convinced myself this was the case. Oh, whither the poor fairy shrimp …

To assuage my fears, I called ecologist Sara Sweet, who works with the Cosumnes River Preserve and studies vernal pools at Rancho Seco, Mather Field and other watery spots in the valley. In answer to my question, “Are the vernal pools gone?” she was classy enough not to laugh in my face and say, “Dude, what part of vernal don’t you understand?”

“They absolutely do come back,” Sweet said, and I noticed a slight slowing of her verbal cadence, as if I needed remedial tutorial to understand. “It’s an extremely seasonable habitat. They deal with extreme conditions, so the plants and animals that have adapted to live in those pools have a multitude of different ways to avoid the tough times. Most of them go dormant in some way or another.”

Part of the allure of the vernal pools is their stark seasonal transformation. So maybe this is the way to approach the Howard Ranch Trail. Do it now, as sort of a baseline. You know, to see what’s not there. Then, come in April and be dazzled. Because, as Sweet enthused, the vernal pools at Rancho Seco are worth one’s time.

“In April the flora is very picturesque,” Sweet said. “In addition to just the lay person’s appreciation of it, it also has a number of less-common species that make it more important scientifically.

“When you get down and look at the water, there’s so much life in it. It’s all healthy life. Sometimes, when people look down at water that has bugs in it, it looks kind of unappetizing. This is just an amazing community of aquatic invertebrates. Many of them are rare species found nowhere else in the world except California’s vernal pools.”

You can take Sweet’s word for it, or you can click onto the California Vernal Pools website,, and gawk at photographs so vivid you might halfway accuse them of Photoshop doctoring. There are lush patches of purples and yellows, meadows of burnt orange swaying in the wind, splashes of white and blue added for effect. It’s Thomas Kinkade meets Jackson Pollock, only real.

Even without such a showy display, it’s a mellow, high-blood-pressure-reducing trek. For one thing, the elevation gain over nearly 7 miles is 66 feet. The (mostly) single-track path is well-marked with posts that also indicate mileage traversed. There are several wood bridges to cross, utterly superfluous in the summer and fall because of the parched terrain, but said to be necessary and welcome in the soggy spring.

You can never really escape the specter of the hovering nuke silos, though. But you can take heart in knowing the mighty fairy shrimp have lasted far longer than SMUD’s attempt to split atoms for power.

Sam McManis: 916-321-1145, @SamMcManis

Howard Ranch Trail – Rancho Seco Recreational Area

Trail length: 6.9 miles

Elevation gain: 66 feet

Directions to trailhead: From Sacramento, take Highway 99 to the Twin Cities Road exit. Go east for 12.2 miles to the Rancho Seco Recreational Area’s entrance. Follow road to the entry kiosk, then follow a sign to the Howard Ranch trailhead. Park in gravel lot.

Route: From the trailhead sign at the northwest section of the parking lot, cross a gate and follow single track around part of the lake. At one mile, veer left at a posted arrow. Follow the trail beyond two cattle gates. After the second gate, turn right and follow the signs for the looped portion of the trek. After completing the loop, retrace steps to the trailhead.

Parking: $10