Interior Foothills: Zem Zem Creek in Napa County

The hills above Zem Zem Creek with Mount Berryessa in the bacground
The hills above Zem Zem Creek with Mount Berryessa in the background

Up in the northeast corner of Napa County is a remote wilderness area known on the maps as Knoxville. Located between Lake Berryessa and Lower Lake in Lake County, the Berryessa-Knoxville Road is informal and prone to flooding. The first time I drove through there, I was by myself in my semi-reliable VW Jetta. I passed a sign that said “Wilderness Area- No Services Next 35 Miles”. That didn’t seem too terribly remote, so I continued on, but when I came to the end of the 35 miles, there was another sign that said, “Wilderness Area- No Services Next 40 Miles”. It was too far to go back, but going forward was not that predictable either.  This 21,000 acre Knoxville State Wildlife Area is administered by the California Department of Fish and Game, so nearly anything goes: dogs allowed, hunting allowed, camping anywhere 1/4 mile past the road, no permits, passes or reservations required.  No campfires or collecting wood, though.

Zem Zem Creek with gray pines on the hill in the background.
Zem Zem Creek with gray pines on the hill in the background.

The hike to Zem Zem falls is remarkably flat for three miles as you walk through a wide river valley with gentle rolling hills on either side. Crossing the creek nine times, there were few plant species in bloom last weekend. Western buttercups (Ranunculus occidentalis) were everywhere, but it was so windy, I couldn’t get a clear photo. Further upvalley the wind died down, and I found these Indian warriors (Pedicularis densiflora) flourishing in the sun, although they are usually more prevalent in shady woodland areas.

Indian Warrior (Pedicularis densiflora)
Indian Warrior (Pedicularis densiflora)

Blue oaks (Quercus keloggii) were just leafing out, and in the last half mile ascent toward the falls, feathery gray pines (Pinus sabiniana) began to appear, a typical xerophytic foothill species whose range surrounds the Central Valley at elevations from sea level up to 4000 feet.

Blue oaks (Q. kelloggii) on a ridgeline leafing out
Blue oaks (Q. kelloggii) on a ridgeline leafing out

The purple and white spires of these silver bush lupines (Lupinus albifrons) were dramatic when contrasted against the scrubby foliage of the plants on the sun-soaked upper ridges. Each plant displayed unique and gorgeous symmetry. First glimpse of the waterfall can be seen in the left photo, center.

  IMG_0316             IMG_0275

The last climb down to the falls was a bit of a scramble; I should have had a stick or poles, but I didn’t.  But here on the last slope was a brilliant orange Castilleja species.

IMG_0298                        IMG_0307

IMG_0302 Coming back down there was a clearer view of the gray pines. . . IMG_0283 . . . and a last late afternoon view of the creek.

IMG_0320 In the interior ranges of California winter is spring, spring is summer and summer is inhospitable. In just three or four months, the creek valleys will be dried up and temperatures of 100 degrees will not be unusual. What a rare opportunity it is to enjoy this dramatic habitat in its brief period of lush greenness.


© Hannah Aclufi and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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