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Northern California's Best-Kept Secret: Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument in Pictures

Goldfields against a verdant hillside backdrop at Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument | Photo: Gary Ford, some rights reserved
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Leafless tree in a field of larkspur at Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument | Photo: Gary Ford, some rights reserved
Leafless tree in a field of larkspur at Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument | Photo: Gary Ford, some rights reserved

California wasn't always shaped the way it is today. For millions of years it was open ocean. Then, a chain of islands, large ones and small ones, slammed head-on (though painfully slowly) into the continent, adding themselves to the west coast of North America. 

The result: California is a patchwork of geology from different times and places, which drifted up onto the coast piece by piece to make the state we know today. And nowhere in Northern California is that patchwork more wonderfully expressed than in Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument.

The 330,780-acre Berryessa Snow Mountain, established in July 2015 by President Barack Obama under the Antiquities Act of 1908, stretches across parts of seven different counties north of San Francisco Bay. It's the closest large patch of protected land to millions of people in the Bay Area, and might as well be in Sacramento's backyard. And yet, oddly in a state where pilgrimages to Yosemite and other parks are almost a sacred obligation, the majority of Northern Californians haven't even heard of Berryessa Snow Mountain, let alone been anywhere near the place.

Shifting light accentuates long coastal ridges at Berryessa Snow Mountain | Photo: Tami A. Heilemann, Department of the Interior
Shifting light accentuates long coastal ridges at Berryessa Snow Mountain | Photo: Tami A. Heilemann, Department of the Interior

Despite its proximity to some of California's oldest cities, however, this swatch of landscape in the inner coast ranges bears remarkably few traces of modern society. Though roads provide ready access to many parts of the Monument, and ranchers' fences still limit access in other places, much of Berryessa Snow Mountain is largely as it was when the area's eight different Native nations shaped the landscape — though a century of fire suppression has made its mark.

A stream in Milk Ranch Meadow | Photo: Greg Veen, some rights reserved
A stream in Milk Ranch Meadow | Photo: Greg Veen, some rights reserved

Given the Monument's location at the edges of several distinct regions and the area's abundant microclimates, landscapes there range from verdant conifer woodlands interspersed with wet meadows, to the region's emblematic open oak savannas:

Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument | Photo: Bob Wick/BLM
Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument | Photo: Bob Wick/BLM

... to one of the habitats that makes Berryessa Snow Mountain the botanical hotspot it is: serpentine "barrens."

Serpentine barrens are anything but. Formed from minerals scraped off the Earth's mantle by tectonic activity when they come into contact with water, serpentine — California's state mineral — forms soils that are loaded with toxic amounts of nickel, cobalt, chromium, and iron, but deficient in important plant nutrients like phosphorus and potassium. 

That makes serpentine soils inhospitable to many plants.

Forest with serpentine barren | Photo: Natividad Chavez, BLM
Forest with serpentine barren | Photo: Natividad Chavez, BLM

But some plants, which have evolved tolerance for serpentine's load of heavy metals, thrive there in the absence of competition. They make serpentine barrens not all that barren.

Collomia diversifolia grows only on serpentine soils with steady water | Photo: Ken-Ichi Ueda, some rights reserved
Collomia diversifolia grows only on serpentine soils with steady water | Photo: Ken-Ichi Ueda, some rights reserved

Not that Berryessa Snow Mountain-s non-serpentine flowers are particular slouches in the beauty department.

Blow-wives, a.k.a. Achyrachaena mollis | Photo: Gary Ford, some rights reserved
Blow-wives, a.k.a. Achyrachaena mollis | Photo: Gary Ford, some rights reserved
Hikers enjoy a patch of owl's clover | Photo: Bnb Wick, BLM
Hikers enjoy a patch of owl's clover | Photo: Bnb Wick, BLM
Berryessa Snow Mountain gives you all the lupins it's got. | Photo: Bob Wick, BLM
Berryessa Snow Mountain gives you all the lupins it's got. | Photo: Bob Wick, BLM

You won't be the only species there enjoying those wildflowers, incidentally.

Tule Elk in Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument | Photo: Bob Wick, BLM
Tule Elk in Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument | Photo: Bob Wick, BLM

And lest you think sundown means an end to seeing beauty in this Northern California gem, you should know the Monument boasts some of the darkest skies in Northern California.

Night sky over Berryessa Snow Mountain | Photo: Bob Wick, BLM
Night sky over Berryessa Snow Mountain | Photo: Bob Wick, BLM

The Department of the Interior is seeking public comment on the benefits any or all of the national monuments on the chopping block. You can submit comments through http://www.regulations.gov by entering “DOI-2017-0002” in the Search bar and clicking “Search,” or send them by mail to the following address:

Monument Review, MS-1530
U.S. Department of the Interior
1849 C Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20240

The deadline for comments is July 10.

Banner: Goldfields against a verdant hillside backdrop at Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument | Photo: Gary Ford, some rights reserved

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