Guest contributor: Bayram O. on the driving roads near Lake Berryessa and its environs

I occasionally spend my evenings poring over Google Maps in search of winding roads nearby, then scouring YouTube and Flickr to get an idea of what they would be like to drive. Despite living in the Bay Area for a good eight years, I haven’t explored the North Bay anywhere near as much as I should have. So when Google Maps showed me some yellow zigzags near Lake Berryessa, I said “#*%^ yes!”

Located in Napa County, Lake Berryessa is one of the largest man-made lakes in California. It was filled after the construction of the Monticello Dam in 1963. The latter provides water and hydroelectricity to cities in the North Bay. The lake has a number of recreational areas, including access to watersports. But despite the sunny 70-degree weather, recreation is not why we’re going there. Actually, it is, but not a normal person’s idea of recreation. No, we’re going driving!

Planning the route wasn’t all that easy. Unlike most drives with one or two “must drive” roads, the Berryessa area has more than you can realistically drive within a day. So here’s what we did.

Coming from the East Bay, we took I-80 to Cordelia to get off at Suisun Valley Road. Suisun Valley Road gently rolls through the fields of the, well, Suisun Valley, surrounded by trees and vineyards on both sides. Well-paved and not too challenging, it’s an ideal road to take in the views and “warm up,” as it were.

Later on the road turns into Wooden Valley Road, which gets twistier and introduces more elevation changes, lanes that are narrower, and even some drop-offs. The road has a nice flow to it and begins to wind you up. It ends at Monticello Road/Route 121, where you take a right. Monticello Road is more of the same, except with slightly degraded surface quality, reminding you that you’re driving in California and not, say, France, as the surrounding scenery may otherwise suggest.

Eventually, you get to Hwy 128, which is the major (but still single lane) road in the area. Taking a left at 128 will get you to Berryessa Knoxville Road, which runs along the western side of the lake. The road is narrow and winding, set deep in the canyons with bare red rock clearly visible as you speed toward the next bend. Most of these are 30-40 mph corners, but your passengers may occasionally object to such classification. Also, be aware that some corners will have loose rocks. Soon enough, Lake Berryessa will appear on your right, starting out as what looks like some kind of creek or pond and becoming progressively larger. Although the views are nothing spectacular on the west shore, there are a number of day-use recreational areas that are ideal for a little picnic. But perhaps you’d rather drive?

Once you get to the Berryessa Bridge you’ll have two options. The first is to stay on Knoxville Road, which after many miles will take you to Clear Lake. The second is to turn left onto Pope Canyon Road. We chose the latter, and we were glad we did! The combination of gentle sweepers, medium and tight turns, elevation changes, and ever-varying scenery (all the more as it’s spring) had me salivating as I was driving. Simply put, this is the nicest road on balance that I’ve sampled to date in the Bay Area. I wanted to stop at every other turn to snap a photo, yet my “Fast” would have none of it. Right about now I wish that when I got to Pope Valley Road, I turned around and retraced Pope Canyon backwards.

Instead, we took a left on Pope Valley for a drive back to 128. Make no mistake, Pope Valley is a route entirely worth driving. Trading elevation changes for flatter terrain and mountains for open spaces, it still packs plenty of turns to keep you working behind the wheel. Keep driving, and you’ll end up by Lake Hennessey. While not as impressive on paper as Berryessa, it has a “closer to nature” feel to it and is worth checking out.

Now we want to get back on 128 eastbound to visit the aforementioned Monticello Dam on the southeastern part of Berryessa. The part of 128 between Pope Valley and Knoxville is another hallmark drive. Flat, open sections surrounded by vineyards flow into narrow, tree-lined mountain curves. You’ll be grinning ear-to-ear, while your passenger will try to rip the door handle out of the door. 128 will eventually get you back to Knoxville Road. If I had all day ahead of me, I may have just taken a left there to retrace the loop one more time. Instead, we stayed on 128 (without regret, mind you) to go past Monticello Road and follow along as 128 turns north. This section is well paved, mostly flat, straight, and relatively open. There is also very little oncoming traffic and surprisingly, no “radar enforced” signs to be seen (just saying). After awhile, the road starts to get windy again, as we get back into the mountains and closer to the lake. Green slopes mixed with bare rock and mountain silhouettes in the distance make the drive very scenic, but you’ll need to pay full attention to the road. Luckily, there are a number of places where you can pull off the serpentine and take in the view. Unlike the western shore, the views over the lake here are picture perfect. Take some time to walk around.

The Monticello Dam is only a few bends ahead and also has a place to park. And while the dam is not huge, how often do you get to see a real dam? Worth checking out, despite chain link fencing all around, so that you “stay alive by staying out.” From here you can also see the Berryessa “glory hole,” a bell-mouth spillway designed to drain water under the dam when the water level in the lake is too high. It wasn’t the case during our visit, so the glory hole was more of a concrete ornament.

Time to get back in the car. Past the dam, 128 crosses the Putah Creek (that’s where the water from the dam goes) and begins to straighten out as we leave the mountains behind. If you stay on 128, you’ll eventually get to Hwy 505 near Winters. 505 will take you back to I-80 and curiously has a 70mph speed limit (so everyone’s doing 80+). An alternative return option is to take a right from 128 onto Pleasants Valley Road, which is another country road that will get you to I-80 west of Vacaville. Unfortunately, my passenger was “sick of country roads” by then, so we made do with 505.

All in all, it was a fun day trip, and I had a blast driving over 80 miles of these first-class roads. And while traffic is light in the area, should you get stuck behind somebody, they will generally let you pass wherever there’s a spot to pull off. Given all of the above, I can’t wait to get back there for more.

Words and images: Bayram O.

~ by velofinds on April 2, 2010.

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