Spenceville Wildlife Refuge – April 1997 | TheUnion.com

Spenceville Wildlife Refuge – April 1997


Length: 6-7 miles round trip

Difficulty: Easy

Map: California State Automobile Association “Bay and Mountain Regions”

I never watch a large waterfall without thinking of this breathtaking description by the master nature writer. In our own back yard we have a wildlife refuge known for its impressive falls, with a springtime floral extravaganza as a bonus.

Years ago I took Marcia Braga’s Sierra College wildflower ID class. She took us to Spenceville Wildlife Refuge near Beale Air Force Base with a plant list of a staggering 60 species for its oak woodlands habitat. Spenceville offers a flat, easy hike, horse ride or bike ride that is ideal for children; my stalwart young friend Sean, then 7, walked its 6-plus miles with ease.

The Union’s city editorJudy Brill and I did the hike on March 15, a little early for the flowers. However, you, Dear Reader, will hit the wildflower nail on the head this month.

Take Highway 20 to the Beale AFB sign and Smartville Road on the left, just before the California Division of Forestry office. Go 1 mile to where it splits to the left at the large Spenceville Wildlife Refuge sign. Go 4 miles then left on dirt Waldo Road. Pass the shooting and cross picturesque Waldo Creek Bridge.

The Yuba County Water Agency is pushing to dam Waldo Creek to create a huge shallow lake, inundating a good portion of the refuge (all the way up to the falls), to provide water to Valley farmers. Local conservation groups are fighting the project – see Spenceville first-hand then tell me which side of the issue you’ll support.

Go left after the bridge for 3 miles to the intersection of Waldo and Long Ravine roads. Veer left there at another refuge area sign. Cross a small bridge and pass a horse staging area. The parking lot is 100 yards further with a foot-traffic-only bridge. Head right after crossing the bridge to start the trail.

The path parallels a pretty creek. Judy and I saw dove’s foot geranium, ookow or snake lily, vetch and butter-and-eggs here. After 3/4 of a mile there is a stile opposite a pond then the trail veers right at a white gate. We had to climb over the gate in the morning – scaring some goofy-looking cows and their cute calves – but it was open when we returned in the afternoon.

Go up an incline and veer left at a cattle gate with fake stripes under it. Here you begin to see the classic California meadow species: buttercups, popcorn flower, vetch, grass pinks and brodiaea. You can go straight on the clear main path or, after a quarter a mile or so, head up the hill to the left for a little oak woodlands detour for about a half-mile.

In March the oaks sported new, lacy growth and yellowish flowers. The baby leaves had a reddish cast. The band of the light spectrum that we call “red” is a warning color in nature, even to color-blind animals. Red berries, insects, reptiles and amphibians have evolved to flash this bright color to predators. And vulnerable new growth in plants is often red to ward off browsers.

The oaks shaded edible miner’s lettuce, iris, white Mariposa lilies, shooting stars, larkspur, Indian pinks – and tons of juicy poison oak. The detour comes out on a hillside above the main path studded with lupine and California poppies.

Back on the main trail, look for redbud, white ceanothus, , fiddleneck, lace pod and buckeye trees being worked by swallow-tailed butterflies. The stream alongside has curious, long-haired clumps of grass beside its bluish rocks. This is bunch grass, one of the few California natives not pushed out by aggressive, alien grass species planted by ranchers.

The trail heads uphill to the left. After about 100 yards it splits; go to the right above the creek, and you’ll hear the falls before you see them.

Shingle Falls crashes down some 80 to 100 feet of rock cliff marked by fiery orange dudleya. The falls form a deep pool, the edge of which I’ve seen swimmers plying in summer. A cyclone fence shaded by gray (digger) pines keeps your kids safe while you picnic on lichen-encrusted rocks. Above the falls are rusty remains of mining or hydraulic equipment on cement footings.

At this point you can retrace your steps back or make a loop. (Note: Bikes are not allowed on this route.) Go upstream and take the trail parallel above the creek. When it ends in a fence after a quarter mile, go uphill along the fence then left on the faint footpath through the meadow onto a gentle ridge.

Clouds cast shadows on the bucolic cows, ponds and drifts of buttercups below for Judy and I. The faint trail heads uphill for a quarter mile then enters more oaks; you’d have to work to get lost, because you’re right above the main trail, which the loop rejoins shortly.

Back at the stile we decided to do a couple more miles, climbed the stile, and headed out a path across a meadow I’d once taken with the Nevada County Hiking Club. On that trip we noticed a large rattlesnake in the reeds of a pond, leisurely hunting for blackbird fledglings. It was a rare opportunity to study this dreaded species on its own terms for as long as we liked.

Judy and I saw large yellow violets with purple on the backs of their upper petals then I bent to examine something strange: an albino shooting star. My field guide says white shooting stars only grow in the Cascade Range, so it was a bona fide mutant. We eventually became “misplaced” ( I never get flat-out lost on a hike, just kinda misplaced sometimes) on myriad horse trails that crossed and recrossed streams. But we figured the horses would eventually all go home and – surprise! – we popped out exactly opposite the first footbridge and my Jeep.

This article was originally published on 10/13/1999.

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