As we enjoy driving deserted roads in the middle of no place my husband and I have a list. We call it the “One of these days we ought to drive down that road and see where it goes…” list. After 47 years in Comptche we crossed lots of roads off the list with Sunday drives and mini-expeditions but a dozen still remain.
Take the Berryessa Knoxville Road in eastern Lake County…where does it go?…why is it there?…and what’s out there? Even better yet, the map said it’s paved, and that’s nothing short of miraculous given some of the places we’ve explored. So on a bright sunny day between November rainstorms we took off in out trusty Subaru.
The road begins on the south-east corner of Clear Lake in Lower Lake. Starting as Morgan Valley Road population thins out but the road remains good to the now vanished former mining area called Knoxville. This site later became the Homestead Gold Mine in the mid-1980’s. More on that mine in a moment, but let’s say that the road goes to hell beyond the Mine almost all the way to Lake Berryessa. Yes, it is one lane and paved, but with hillocks, slip-outs, pot holes with traffic cones stuck in them and cracks, it is worthy of the road signs saying “Low Cars Not Recommended” and “Impassable During High Water.”
A feature of the Berryessa Knoxville Road I hadn’t seen in years were concrete fords, not culverts and bridges, along the road. This allowed creek waters to gush over the road surface and cascade down into the creekbeds, and they must work because there were lots of them. Even in a 4-WD pick-up crossing these fords must be challenging in rain storms.
So why have this road at all? Well, the first half was to service the mine. Beyond that hunters, ranchers, folks on their way to the lake, and backroads explorers can be grateful it is still there with its woebegone pavement.
Now, about that gold mine. Before there was a gold mine there were quicksilver mercury mines. In northern Napa County there is recorded history pdf 50 of them. Turns out Knoxville had the third biggest mercury deposit in the state behind New Idria in San Benito County and New Almaden in Santa Clara County. Quicksilver cinnabar ore was processed into liquid mercury to process gold ore and in great demand during the Gold Rush and afterwards.
When Homestake Mine started mining microscopic gold flakes here the ore was invisible to the human eye. In the mid-1980’s Knoxville entered a new phase of resource extraction with modern science behind it. For once this rural area lucked out as Homestake wanted to demonstrate new improved mining processes for the 20th century.
The surface workings of this mine covered 8,900 acres with an open pit a mile long and 750’ deep. It was reported 3.4 million ounces of gold was unearthed with a value over $4 billion. The mine owners knew there were limited resources and the mine would be short-lived and by 2002 it was closing.
Planning on doing an exemplary job the mine won national awards in the late 1990’s for its operations and by 1993 had research and teaching facilities on site and was working with universities on reclamation plans.
Today it is impossible to see any remains of the Homestake Mine from the road. You might catch a quick glimpse of stair stepped groomed hills of orange colored rock, or ponds, but what you do see are very smooth contoured hills with sparse vegetation, which I assume is the mine waste tailings covering thousands of acres remediated into protected lands.
The Donald and Sylvia McLaughlin Nature Reserve now occupies the mine lands along with the Knoxville State Wildlife area. The access to the Reserve is by advance contact. Deer hunting is not permitted judging by signs.
“Exploring the Berryessa Region-A Geology, Nature and History Tour” by Eldridge and Judith Moores and others, is a great guide to the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument. Efforts are under way to link public lands from the Snow Mountain Wilderness in northern Lake County to Lake Berryessa in Napa County. I found this little jewel of at book at Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino and it inspired this back road exploration.
The book provides a road tour with designated stops marked and information about the geology, nature and history of that spot. There are tons of maps and photos and all the great road cuts and their geology is explained. It covers the area from the top of the lake to the Central Valley.
Probably the most notable feature to the non-scientific viewer is the effects of repeated wildfires scorching the land as far as the eye can see. Sometimes there were tree skeletons, sometimes trees making admirable efforts at regeneration, and sometimes sprouting stumps. Charred black tree trunks minus limbs looked like licorice sticks stuck in the ground. In another area every standing dead tree was cut off 10’ from the ground and it looked like a forest of popsicle sticks.
Along the scenic road one thing I’d never seen before were “Wing Barrels.” Seems quail hunting is permissible and the state biologists were asking for donations of a wing from a bird killed. Seems they can glean valuable scientific information from that item. There was a form to fill out and a secure place to put it and the barrel was critter proof and sunk in concrete to protect it.
The closer we got to the lake the more settled the landscape became. A one lane concrete bridge built in 1920 had a historic plaque and telephone lines began to appear. We knew we were back in civilization when the yellow line appeared in the middle of the road. In the two hours of wandering and exploring on this road we only passed four cars. That was great. We drove the west shore of the lake, then looped through Chiles and Pope Valley and took Butts Canyon Road back to Middletown.
The day ended with a great steak dinner at Broiler Steak House In Redwood Valley. If a good solid meal for carnivores fits your personal diet this is the place to go. Portions were so large the leftovers taken home provided another entire dinner. Highly recommended.