Springtime photography opportunities at the Stebbins Cold Canyon preserve (California, USA)

Keeping up with my series of posts about photography destinations in the greater Sacramento area, I want to introduce my followers to the UC Davis Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve. I consider it another hidden gem for (springtime) photography because it offers a lot of options for wildflowers, and I seldom see photographers there. Hikers, on the other hand, know about the place, so get there early to get a space in the limited parking lot! I went there last on the 22nd of January, when I took the featured photo. I was the first car in the parking lot at 7:45 am, but when I came back to the car, around 10:45, there were not parking spots left.


The entrance to the preserve is on state highway 128. Pass the town of Winters in Yolo County and go in the direction of Rutheford. Past Markley Cove Resort, and right when the road starts winding uphill, look for the parking lot on the right-hand side of the road. It is about 20 minutes past Winters. Parking is free but there is a donation booth. 


The Cold Canyon is an inland canyon of the California Coast Range. The approximately 6-mile loop trail, known as the Blue Ridge Trail, has two distinct portions that may be of photographic interest: a lower, relatively flat area along a temporary creek, and the ridge above.

On the lower portion of the trail, and beginning right at the parking lot, a plethora of wildflowers can be seen in the Spring. Worth of notice are the patches of Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon hendersonii), Foothill mule-ears (Wyethia helenioides), Blue Dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum), Tufted Poppy(Eschscholzia caespitosa), and Fiddleneck (Amsinckia intermedia) (see those above in the SLIDESHOW below. Photos taken in the spring of 2021).

There are many other wildflowers there. A complete list of the vascular plants of the reserve can be found here.

On the upper portion of the trail, the most common flower is the Indian Paintbrush (genus Castilleja, there are four species in the preserve), a member of the parasitic Broomrape family (Orobancaceae). These plants are hemiparasites, meaning that they derive energy from photosynthesis and also by sequestering nutrients from other plants. Despite being parasites for part of their lives, Castilleja plants rely on pollinators (usually hummingbirds) for reproduction. 

Indian Paintbrush, Castilleja sp.

The main attraction on the ridge, and a prize for those who can make it up there, is the view of Lake Berryessa (featured image).  Ever since a humungous wildfire burned the entire reserve in the summer of 2015, the many views of the lake from the ridge are unobstructed.

A photography tip for those who want to photograph the landscape: Lake Berryessa is many, many miles distant. Additionally, to photograph the view, you must tilt your camera down. If you focus somewhere on the lake, most of the image will still be soft. A better approach is to find an object of interest in the foreground and focus on it. This will give you a sharp foreground, and the lake and the mountains behind will be only “acceptably” sharp. To make the featured picture, I focused on the foreground and used the narrowest aperture of my 24 mm lens, f/16. The photo was taken handheld since there was a lot of light, giving me a shutter speed of 1/350 with ISO 400. (Some wildflowers in the foreground and a line of clouds in the background would have helped, but this is what I had when I was up there last.)

Both landscape and wildflower photography benefit from a partly cloudy day and more diffused light. This is also true for the Stebbins Cold location

A word of caution

Only photographers in good physical shape should attempt going up the ridge. The trail is very steep, and rocky, making it especially hard on the knees, hips, and ankles. If you do attempt the hike up, make sure you take plenty of water and a snack, a hat, and sunblock. The trail is completely exposed to the sun. If you are not in good shape or if you have problems in your joints, there is nothing wrong with staying on the lower portions of the trail photographing the beautiful wildflowers and enjoying the cool and quiet of the creek’s bed.  I don’t recommend taking a tripod up to the ridge, but if you take a monopod, you can also use it as a hiking pole when you walk over the rocky path. For a casual photo of the lake from above, for personal use or social media upload, an iPhone will be perfectly fine. 

The Stebbins Cold Canyon is an interesting place for local photography, mostly in the spring. Photographers can get the double benefit of endurance training and photographic opportunities when they chose to do the loop trail and climb up the steep ridge. It’s best to go on an overcast or partly cloudy day.


Wall Art Botanical Images

Wall Art Photography projects

Wall Art landscapes and miscellaneous


15 thoughts on “Springtime photography opportunities at the Stebbins Cold Canyon preserve (California, USA)

  1. Steve Schwartzman says:

    Your opening paragraph reminded me that near the end of our 2017 visit to New Zealand we had to hang around in the parking lot of a scenic coastal place waiting for someone to leave so we could het a parking space.

    Like your area, Central Texas claims several native Indian paintbrushes. Your Dodecatheon is also scientifically named for a person; ours is meadia, for British physician Richard Mead.

    Focusing closer than the subject of primary interest is a good photographic practice when a small aperture is feasible.


    1. Alessandra Chaves says:

      Here in California you need to get everywhere insanely early, or late, for a space in parking lots. Too many people! And I typically avoid the most iconic destinations! Funny that I only found out that the Indian paintbrush is parasitic when I was writing this post!


    1. Alessandra Chaves says:

      I never really took interest in learning why the place is called Stebbins, although I understand the “cold canyon” part, since it’s often very cold there. The place used to belong to a homesteader, maybe his name was Stebbins? I am curious now, will investigate.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Steve Gingold says:

        Our Stebbins was named after the founder of a local bird club that was instrumental in protecting the land which is now part of a larger refuge (the Silvio Conte Refuge) that stretches along the Connecticut River from Vermont down through Massachusetts and Connecticut to the Atlantic Ocean.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. shoreacres says:

    I was caught by the name of your pretty poppy. I wondered if it was the same as the famed California Poppy, because I’d never heard of the Tufted Poppy. I found that they are different species; I never would have imagined that.

    I liked seeing your paintbrush, too. I didn’t realize they’re in the broomrape family. I have a few photos of an actual broomrape (genus Orobanche) but I haven’t identified the species yet. They’re interesting plants; I didn’t realize until recently that our mistletoe is hemiparasitic.

    It took me a good while to appreciate those partly cloudy — or even cloudy — days. A nice blue sky can make a wonderful background, but a more diffused light can be helpful. Beyond that, circumstances often lead to my ‘outdoor time’ being right at midday, and that’s rarely optimal. Longer days will help, and the good news is that nature will provide those in another few weeks!


    1. Alessandra Chaves says:

      That’s right, a different species. Most people don’t know and when they cover the hills, they do so just like the California poppy.

      I don’t think I have seen a species of Orobanche.

      Unfortunately here in California, clouds in the sky are very rare. And when they appear, it’s often on my work days.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. jodifrye says:

    I love seeing your Spring blooms. I remember seeing the paintbrush blooms as a child while growing up in Quebec but I have yet to see any here. I know they are around but I guess it requires certain types of dirt. As you know I enjoy photographing the Indian Pipes that begin to sprout in July. It
    has no chlorophyll and doesn’t depend on photosynthesis. It is another parasite type plant. Oddly enough it is in the blueberry family. I did have a patch of them growing under one of my wild blueberry bushes last year which was weird. Never seen them there before. Anyways I’m still surrounded by frozen earth and lots of ice now. The colors of Spring won’t be here til May. Thanks for sharing your beautiful surroundings.


    1. Alessandra Chaves says:

      I have never seen Indian Pipes! They look awesome for photography! A common parasite in the Sierra Nevada is the Snow Plant, Sarcodes sanguinea. Its family, the Monotropaceae, is apparently closely related to the Ericaceae (which contain the manzanita, madrone, laurel, and azalea). Go figure! I am glad you like the spring photos, everything here is blooming and soon I have to retreat to inside the house because I am so allergic! Thanks for stopping by and commenting.


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