Napa Valley’s Living Landscapes: Hiking around Lake Hennessey | Travel


What makes a hike at Lake Hennessey so special? Is it the spring greenery or the draw of the water?

Science backs up the benefits of both types of landscapes. In his book “Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do,” Wallace J. Nichols, a marine biologist, cites evidence from neuroscience that reveals how we benefit by being near water.

Benefits from being in proximity to a body of water include decreased stress, improved creativity and a sense of happiness.

Concurrently, there is a growing body of research in the field of ecopsychology, as reported by the Yale School of the Environment, which informs us of a variety of benefits from being in the natural environment, be it forest, park or water.

As little as two hours a week spent in nature can produce feelings of well-being, feeling healthy, and can lower your blood pressure. Studies show that other surprising benefits include lower stress hormone levels, enhanced immune system function, reduced anxiety and all-around improvement in mood.

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Lake Hennessey, technically a reservoir, is east of St. Helena in the Vaca Mountains. The lake takes its moniker from Edwin R. Hennessey, a past local civic leader.

The lake was formed when Conn Creek Dam was constructed in 1948. The Conn Creek Dam, a 125-foot high earthen dam, belongs to the city of Napa. The reservoir is capable of holding 31,000 acre-feet of water, while its tributary watershed, the Napa River, is around 35,000 acres.

In his highly engrossing book “Napa Valley Historical Ecology Atlas – Exploring a Hidden Landscape of Transformation and Resilience,” Robin Grossinger, who is also a senior adviser to the San Francisco Estuary Institute, explained that the need for this source of water, which Lake Hennessey provided, was made evident after World War II when the area’s population increased due to the proliferation of workers at nearby Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo.

The 5.5-mile hiking loop around Lake Hennessey follows the contours of the lake and is rife with calming scenery. The water’s range of color tones alters throughout the day, reminding one of an impressionist painting.

Tall tule reeds paint their rippling colors on the water-shine along the banks. There is also the reassuring shushing sound of water lapping at the lake’s edge. You can lose yourself momentarily by watching the clouds’ reflections as they play over the lake. Depending on where you are on the loop, you will enjoy the sight of prolific wildflowers and rewarding bird sightings.

On the day I hiked, I spotted an impressive list of avian species, including cormorants, quail, coots, crows, grebes, vultures and seagulls. Other birds you may expect to find are song sparrows, egrets, herons, various swallows, bald eagles, American kestrel, western tanager, black-headed grosbeak and even osprey.

Once you reach the uphill section of the trail, you will find lichen-encrusted oaks with lake views, and the ever-present Mayacamas Mountains that create a dramatic backdrop to the scenery.

Along with hiking and bird watching, a visit to Lake Hennessey offers mountain biking along its trails, and fishing for small bass, bluegill and sunfish. Many anglers prefer fishing from kayaks at the upper end of the lake in its fruitful coves.

The city of Napa’s Lake Hennessey website has a few guidelines for those who want to enjoy the lake. The Lake Hennessey boat dock is open for day use, but the water remains more shallow than its typical levels. It is advisable for boaters to watch for surface debris, which may have been obscured in the deeper waters of the past. No bodily contact in the lake, such as swimming, is allowed, as it is the major water source for the city of Napa. During those times when the reservoir reaches its capacity, the outflow connects to San Pablo Bay through Conn Creek to the Napa River.

The sky’s solid hue of blue mirrors Lake Hennessey as I wind up my nature walk along the lush lake path. Psychologists in several online publications state that the color blue enhances feelings of calmness, and blue brings to mind a sense of stability and reliability. Color psychology, or the study of hues that determine human behavior, explains that color is widely used in branding and marketing since color has such a great influence on emotions and perceptions!

It is safe to say that on our water planet, playing near or on water delivers a beneficial blueprint to greater health and well-being. Just by spending more time in the proximity of water, be it a stream, swimming pool, ocean or lake, these pleasurable activities in nature produce myriad positive benefits.

Kathleen Scavone, M.A., is a retired educator. She is a potter, freelance writer and author of “Anderson Marsh State Historic Park: A Walking History, Prehistory, Flora, and Fauna Tour of a California State Park” , “People of the Water” and “Native Americans of Lake County.”

She can be reached through her website: KathleenScavone.com.



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