Rancho Seco Vernal Pools: Howard RanchTrail

If you are familiar with the Sacramento region you may have heard of Rancho Seco Park, located 25 miles southeast of Sacramento.  If you don’t know it by the name then you might remember it as the place that reminds you of the Simpson’s hometown, with the towering nuclear silos being the most prominent feature in the grassy landscape.


The park centers on a 160 acre lake surrounded by trees. The lake is open for boating, swimming and fishing (don’t worry, those nuclear towers were decommissioned 25 years ago, so I wouldn’t worry too much about three-eyed fish).  Open daily from 7am to 6pm the park also offers campgrounds, picnic beach areas and day use facilities. 

The lake is also a great place for bird watching. Earlier this month I spotted a bald eagle soaring over the lake!








What many visitors might miss is that the park is surrounded by vernal pool grasslands!  The best kept secret of Rancho Seco Park is the Howard Ranch Trail, a 7- mile lollipop loop trail that winds through 5000 acres of beautiful vernal pool grasslands.

If you have never before visited Rancho Seco, perhaps the image conjured by nuclear tower silos at a SMUD-owned park doesn’t exactly say “beautiful natural landscape.” But if you enjoy wide open grasslands, rolling hills, views of the Sierra and vernal pool flowers, you’ll definitely want to check out this trail! 



The Howard Ranch trail provides one of the best opportunities to observe and appreciate one of California’s unique vernal pool landscapes. Even if you just enjoy hiking, this is a great local trail to take advantage of. 


The trail-head starts at the North dam parking lot.  Immediately following the entrance station to the park there will be a Howard Ranch sign pointing to the left.  Take this short gravel road to the end where you will reach the parking lot.  You will find a trail-head marker there as well as a Howard Ranch Trail information sign post. 




April is the best time of year to see the vernal pool flowers carpeting the basins of the pools.  The entire loop takes about 3 hours to complete when walking at an average pace.  The trail is best hiked starting in the morning; it can get pretty hot there in the afternoons. You will want to have a bottle of water with you if you plan on doing the entire loop.  Keep in mind that the trail is through open prairie, so I would recommend wearing sun block or a hat.   



On weekends throughout the month of April and into early May the Cosumnes River Preserve provides free, guided vernal pool hikes on the Howard Ranch Trail.  This tour is a great opportunity to talk with vernal pool experts while experiencing the grasslands first hand.  Don’t miss out on this chance to take in some beautiful stretches of open nature during the peak of the vernal pool flower phase! 


For more information on Rancho Seco Park click on the following link:


For more information on the Howard Ranch Trail follow this link:


To find out how to join a Cosumnes River Preserve guided vernal pool tour, click on the following link: