It’s hard to go half-a-mile in Napa Valley without passing a vineyard or winery — not that we’re complaining — but there is one beautiful and uncharted destination that’s worth a day trip during your California Wine Country vacation. Lake Berryessa is 26 miles long, but just 3 miles wide, with a myriad of quiet coves and 165 miles of shoreline to explore by car, bike, boat, or foot. In the summer, the water temps reach up to 75 degrees, making it the ideal destination for camping and boating with friends.
It even has a glory hole; a spillway at the Monticello Dam. A decade-long dry spell ended in 2017 following heavy rains and turned this little-known glory hole into a tourist destination for a few wet weeks.
Lake Berryessa is roughly a 45-minute drive from Napa along the rural, switchback CA 121-North. If you’re visiting Napa Valley and are staying Upvalley, you can also reach Lake Berryessa from Rutherford along CA-128 E. Any vehicle will do, but a scenic drive like this, with few cars and a warm California day, is best done with the wind in your hair, à la motorcycle or convertible.
Insider Tip: Type your final destination into your maps app ahead of time, for you’ll likely lose cell service along the way.
Choose from three marinas — Pleasure Cove, Markley Cove, and Lake Berryessa Boat & Jet Ski Rentals— from which they can rent a plethora of water crafts, like kayaks, jet skis, fishing boats (there’s a variety of fish to catch, including catfish, brown and rainbow trout, largemouth bass, and kokanee salmon), pontoons, and party barges equipped with slides. You can even spend a whole week on a houseboat. Oak Shores Park is the most popular day use area among visitors; it’s a free place to hang, sunbathe, and swim, plus it has a boat launch.
There are also plenty of year-round hiking opportunities at the lake too, like Smittle Creek, an easy, 2.6-mile jaunt that leads to Oak Shores Park. The four-mile, strenuous Stebbins Cold Canyon Trail loop will have you climbing a total of 1500 ft., resulting in stunning views of the lake from above. The North End Trail is a moderate and especially scenic hike along the north shore of the lake with the chance to spot bald eagles, pelicans, and osprey. If you put together several sections of this trail, you can hike over eight miles round trip. The windy roads of Lake Berryessa are also a favorite of cyclists; they are safest in the offseason, when the summer crowds have dispersed.
No fancy Napa Valley hotels or resorts here. If you’re planning to stay the night, your going to have to pitch a tent. There are several options with lakeside campsites: check out Spanish Flat Resort, Putah Canyon, Steele Canyon Campground, and Pleasure Cove Campground and Marina, which is a convenient option if you’re going to be renting a boat. There are two exceptions to camping at Lake Berryessa; sleep on the water by renting a houseboat or reserve a cozy cabin at Markley Cove.
There aren’t too many wineries out by the lake, but there are a handful you can stop in at for a tasting along the drive. You’ll pass Nichelini Family Winery for instance; at 128 years old, it’s the oldest family owned and operated winery in Napa Valley. You can also make an appointment to visit Somerston Estate, which sits on more than 1,600 scenic acres at 1,600 ft. in elevation.
If you drive around the lake, past the dam, and head towards the town of Winters, pull over for a pint or two from Berryessa Brewing Company. This place may seem like it’s in the middle of nowhere, but it’s positively hopping (pun intended) at Happy Hour and on weekends. The vibe here is super casual, family and dog-friendly, and has ample outdoor space. They also have food trucks and live music almost daily.
Lake Berryessa is truly a rural area. There aren’t really any restaurants, so you’ll want to go prepared. One option, plan on stopping in at the Silverado Market and Bakery on your way out from Napa. But, your best bet at stocking up on drinks and snacks around Lake Berryessa is Turtle Rock — and truly, no trip to the area is complete without it. Turtle Rock is a local dive bar and small general store, a favorite stop of motorcyclists where dollar bills cloak the ceiling. Here you must complete the Turtle Rock right of passage: downing a few of their world famous egg rolls, made with a secret ingredient (it’s spam; don’t knock it ‘til you try it). It doesn’t get more local than this place.
The one Lake Berryessa restaurant is a hidden gem called Cucina Italiana, located at the Spanish Flat Village Center. It’s a casual, family-owned, and authentic Italian restaurant right off the lake. They serve up giant plates of pasta, the perfect medicine after an active day on the water. Note: Bring cash, and they’re closed Monday-Wednesday.
Cover image courtesy of Facebook: Lake Berryessa News