As I mentioned in my I-5 Short Course Blitz, I pretty much had a free afternoon by myself on Thursday after we finished at Wilcox Oaks. I went ahead and knocked out Glenn and Arbuckle because they made sense, but then I still had plenty of daylight before I headed to Napa that night. That left me with some choices.
From Arbuckle, I could have continued south and hit something along that way to Napa, or I could head up and around through Lake County. The drive time was about the same overall either way. A couple of other short courses I really wanted to try and squeeze in this trip were Mount St. Helena and Vintner’s, so I decided to take the northern route and planned to knock both of those out before rolling into Napa.
However, this route happened to take me right past Hidden Valley Lake, which is the course I’ve always wanted to play most in this remote region north of Napa. It’s the only 18-hole course amongst a handful of random 9-holers around these parts and I’ve always heard good things about it. A few holes of the course are right along the highway I was driving on once I started heading south. I could see it was wide open and would likely be a super quick round, so I just had to stop and take a closer look!
The guy in the pro shop said there was hardly anyone on the course, so I paid my $38 twilight rate (cart included) and was on my merry way. I played through a couple groups and otherwise finished in well under two hours. I figured I could finish here quickly and still get Mount St. Helena in later, leaving Vintner’s for Friday morning (which was the original plan anyway). Heck, with the second-longest day of the year, there was a chance I could still do both that evening if I had the energy.
Sorry to ramble on a bit. Let’s get to the point of this article, which is the review of Hidden Valley Lake. This course was built in 1965 and designed by William F. Bell. It is part of a residential community of the same name and it is considered semi-private with certain morning times reserved for members only. They also have a partnership with the nearby Twin Pine Hotel & Casino for stay and play packages.
Certainly the “Hidden Valley” name is warranted because it is pretty well in the middle of nowhere. I suppose there is a “Lake” there, too, but it’s not along the golf course at all. Either way, some golfers might consider this a “Hidden Gem” in Northern California.
Hidden Valley Lake is really a tale of two nines. The front nine is fairly flat and mostly pretty wide open as you go out and back through the residential areas. There isn’t anything too captivating on this side, though holes like the 5th, 6th, 8th and 9th are interesting with water hazards and tricky dogleg angles in play.
Where this course really comes alive is on the back nine, particularly the signature stretch of holes 12-15. The 12th and 13th are similarly great par-4s that play in a beautiful little canyon area lined with oak trees and golden grassy hillsides.
After these holes, you cross a street and zig-zag your way up a very steep hillside to the 14th tee. Imagine an uphill version of Lombard Street in San Francisco as the cart path right here. I knew from the scorecard that this was a short par-3 coming up and I had heard vague legends of a severely elevated tee box on this course, so I was holding my breath and waiting for a spectacular view.
I got to the top and found a short, but slightly uphill par-3. It is a fun and excellent little hole, but it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. After this hole, you cross another street and then there it is! The 15th tee is your “top of the world” view of the entire valley below. This is one of those elevated tee boxes that might even give you a little sense of vertigo.
The only quirk is that you can barely see any fairway from up here and the green of this 401-yard hole (from the blue tees—389 from the whites) is nowhere in sight. The hole map shows a dogleg right, and the sign by the tee box tells you the safe direction to aim and the ideal placement shot is only 200 yards. In a way, that’s a bit disappointing because you really want to just rip a driver from the top of this hill. However, if you do that you are definitely in someone’s yard (or living room). Someone who can really control a big fade and hit far might be able to go at the green if they know precisely where they are aiming. Otherwise, it’s kind of a disappointing forced lay-up. As cool as the tee box view is, the hole design is questionable.
When you read my next review of Napa Valley Country Club, you will see an example of a severely elevated tee box done right.
After that, the course flattens back out again and finishes similarly to the way it starts (though a little less wide open in design). It’s enjoyable, but again nothing that dramatic compared to the signature stretch of 12-15.
The course conditions at Hidden Valley Lake were pretty good overall. The fairways, tees and rough were all pretty lush and in nice shape throughout. The greens were receptive and rolling well at medium speeds. The bunkers were also in pretty solid shape.
To me, I would say Hidden Valley Lake falls a tiny bit short of earning hidden gem status. It gets extra points for being a good full-sized course in a rural region where there aren’t any courses that can come close to comparing in terms of quality, length or character. And, that middle stretch of the back nine is certainly unique and memorable. In other words, it’s not one that you need to go so far out of the way for just to play it. However, it is probably a must-play if you happen to be traveling through this obscure part of Northern California.
Some pictures from Hidden Valley Lake Golf Course (6/20/19):
(Click on any picture below to pull up a gallery slideshow.)
In case you are wondering how the rest of the evening went, it didn’t quite work out as I hoped. I stopped at Mount St. Helena a little after 6:00 to find out that they closed the course at 6:00. A note on the pro shop door noted their shorter summer hours despite there being almost three hours of daylight left this time of year. I probably should have called ahead, but my route into Napa had me going through Calistoga anyway. Plus, it just didn’t occur to me that the course would close so early in the summertime.
I might have been able to still play Vintner’s that evening, but getting denied at Mount St. Helena kind of sapped what little energy I had left after an already long day of golf and driving. I did get to play there Friday morning as you may have already seen in my North Bay Short Course Blitz that was already posted.
Oh well. Mount St. Helena will go on the dreaded “I know I have to get back there someday” list. It looked like a pretty plain little course, but I still have a handful of 9-holers up this way and it’ll make a good Short Course Blitz in the future when I eventually knock them all out.
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