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Lose yourself

I have a long, ignoble history of getting lost, especially going solo on trails. Directionally challenged, you might say.

In two of my last three trail races, I made wrong turns and wound up running miles out of my way. How a dude can get lost on a dirt path with chalk marks – with people handing out water and pointing – I'll never know. My internal GPS needs a tweak.

Yet I love trails. Both to run and to hike. They're wonderful places to shed urban shackles and commune with nature. It's just that sometimes, I commune longer than anticipated.

Which is why I'm anxious as well as excited as I head west of Winters on Highway 128 in rural Solano County to Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve, part of the University of California Natural Reserve System. The trail is a five-mile loop: rocky, steep and replete with geologic and vegetative wonders, as challenging as it is beautiful, with just enough precarious terrain to satisfy adrenaline junkies. Perfect for the debut of Great Treks, a monthly feature in The Bee's Outbound section.

The only problem is finding this hidden gem. Yes, I'm lost before I even hit the trail. Pathetic.

Granted, the directions on UC Davis' otherwise informative Stebbins website lack specifics. Something about crossing a small bridge over Putah Creek five miles past Pleasants Valley Road, then finding a dirt parking lot across the highway from the trailhead.

None of which is marked, it turns out. Up and down winding Highway 128 I drive, all the way to Monticello Dam at Lake Berryessa – no luck. Finally, I backtrack and stop a guy lugging fishing tackle to the creek. I show him my map, ask about Stebbins Reserve. A gutted trout would've been more responsive. All he does is suck deep on his cig and point west.

Eventually, I find the trailhead, about two-tenths of a mile beyond the tiny Putah Creek bridge. It's on the left, and there's a dirt turnout with a rusted iron gate as the only hint of a trail. I park at the turnout, cross the threshold, walk 20 feet and spy – hallelujah – a trailhead sign.

It's a helpful sign, too. Lots of pretty pictures for scatterbrains like me. It appears to be a simple five-mile loop with a few offshoots I'm trying to ignore so I don't get confused. I figure, just keep following the trail and I'll eventually boomerang back, right?

The sign tells me the first mile or so is the Homestead Trail along Cold Creek. Elevation at the start: 200 feet. Then it looks as if it crosses the stream – surely there's a bridge? – and continues on the Blue Ridge Loop Trail, reaching an apex at 1,535 feet about halfway along the trek. Then it's about a 100- foot elevation loss over the next half-mile to another peak, followed by hairy switchbacks on the return to the 200-foot mark. No problem. I don't even bother to leave bread crumbs.

As I start out running, I remind myself to notice the vegetation, such as the manzanita and yerba santa shrubs, the elegant, smooth-barked buckeye trees and the colorful larkspur. But because I never totally shed my stress, I also remind myself of the trailhead sign warning of mountain lions, and I recall the website telling me of the black bears, longtailed weasels and feral hogs that have been spotted. Anything larger than a dusky-footed wood rat, and I'm someone's breakfast.

It is 7 a.m., and not a soul is on the trail – not even a wood rat. I'm serenaded by the soothing creek sounds, the chirping birds. Occasionally, raptors and turkey vultures swoop. The first half-mile is lovely, neither too rocky nor too hilly. For those of you hiking this part of the trail, not running, be sure to stop and check out the creek's small offshoots.

Then the trail abruptly ends. Or so it seems. Great lost already. Then I recall that the trail crosses the stream. Bridge? Ha, no bridge. I skip over the boulders and barely get my shoes wet. And on the other side, just past the steep bank? The trail resumes. Yes! I'm not lost.

Here comes the start of the vertiginous vertical segment I've been seeking yet dreading. The path is rock-strewn from major landslides in 1982 and 1995, and you feel it in your feet.

Somewhere along here, I leave the Homestead Trail and veer right onto the Blue Ridge. Signs? I don't need no stinkin' signs. But you know you're on the right course when you see a small "31" sign – part of a UC Davis nature tour. I just kind of follow the boulders and the wooden stairs.

Yes, stairs. In 2000, a crew from the state Department of Forestry, the Delta Conservation Camp and UC Davis installed more than 200 stairs up the narrow ascent to the ridgetop. At times, it is so steep that I must (shudder the thought) walk. OK, I'm no ultrarunner stud. Never claimed to be.

What I learned from Mile 2 to Mile 3 is that it's good to have some elementary bouldering skills. Thanks to erosion and geologic shift, some of the boulders are the size of Mini Coopers. Big rocks are so numerous in spots that they obscure whatever trail is laid down.

I reach one junction near the 1,500-foot mark, where there seemingly is no place to go. To the right is a precipitous falloff, on the left solid boulder. Ahead is a bramble of what I fear is poison oak. I refuse to turn around and retrace my steps, because I am not lost.

This respite allows my heart rate to return to, oh, under 180. As I peer around, I realize I forgot to look up. There's a thin, 6-inch space cut in a huge boulder. I can see a single-track trail on the other side. I scurry through like a scared dusky-footed wood rat. Thankfully, the resumption of the trail offers a reasonably flat stretch with gorgeous views of Lake Berryessa that lets you catch your breath.

Actually, "breathtaking" is the word for those views. I stand on a boulder and see the lake stretching off into the distance. It is almost too blue, not the Berryessa you see up close. Look down and you see a flock of raptors, maybe six, swooping and gliding in the canyon slipstream as if choreographed by Martha Graham. At the second peak, a half-mile on, I turn and enjoy, framed by hillsides, a sweeping view of the farming plains stitched into the Yolo landscape clear into Davis.

This trek, arduous as it is, pays you off in eye-candy sights. Eventually, I make the trip down and start worrying again about taking the right route. Occasionally, I run across tiny signs – not more than 3 by 3 inches – marking the miles. That's comforting. But I fail to see the marker on the quadriceps-burning descent through switchbacks and worry that I'm swerving toward Napa instead of back to the highway.

I know I'm on the right path when the path widens, flattens and gets less boulder-infested. I sprint the last 0.3 mile to the trailhead gate – a ridiculous ego gesture on my part, in case any hiker might see me. It's not until I finish that I realize I'm not at the same gate.

No worries. The original trailhead is less than 100 yards east on Highway 128.

And guess what: On this Wednesday morning, there's another car pulling in next to mine as I finish. It's a trail runner. "Ray," he says and sticks out his bony hand.

Ray, who doesn't give his last name, opens the back-seat door and two massive dogs spill out. I explain my route, and he says it sounds as if I took the correct course. Ray's a veteran of Cold Creek Canyon, says he runs it every Wednesday.

"It's not great coming out here on weekends," Ray says. "Too crowded."

So maybe Stebbins Reserve is not as out of the way as I presumed. Perhaps a crowd might ease my getting-lost phobia. But, hey, I count myself lucky just to get out of there in one piece. What sticks with me from this trek is not the lingering muscle soreness or the tiny dose of poison oak I received; it is the mind's-eye snapshots of nature, unspoiled.