To the top of Napa Valley

The Napa Valley floor as seen from the summit of Mt. St. Helena.

The recent spell of pleasant weather had Christine and myself itching to do a little hiking and so last weekend we were joined by Christine’s sister for a hike to the top of Mt. St. Helena.

This mountain, which is a volcano, is at the northern end of the Napa Valley and towers above Calistoga and the rest of the valley. During the winter it often is dusted with snow and the views from the top are expansive. Trailheads to the summit and the nearby rock formations known as The Palisades are in the Robert Louis Stevenson State Park that is located between Calistoga and Middletown on Highway 29.

The park is named after the famous author because he spent his honeymoon in 1880 camped out on the side of the mountain. There is a small memorial dedicated to the author about a mile up the trail. As we made our way up a switchback trail through oaks and pines, I thought to myself how wonderful it must have been to have stayed in the Napa Valley when it was still a rough and wild place miles inland from the civilization of San Francisco.

Robert Louis Stevenson spent his honeymoon camped out on Mt. St Helena. This stature marks the area where his cabin is believed to have been located. While staying in the Napa Valley, Stevenson wrote Silverado Squatters.

Then the valley teemed with wildlife and was populated with ranchers, farmers and prospectors passing through on their way to the Sierra Nevada. Higher up on the trail, we enjoyed vistas of gorgeous, forrested mountains that gradually gave way to terraced vineyards, large estate houses and then the valley floor covered in a patchwork quilt of roads, homes, vineyards and reservoir ponds. A far cry from what Stevenson must have looked down upon during his stay in Napa.

Aside from the first mile and a half, the trail consists of an access road. It’s not the most wild or rugged trail, but the even terrain allows you to just enjoy the views and let your mind wander.

The real attraction to the hike are the views from the summit. When we made it to the top, we could see the San Francisco Bay as well as the city of the San Francisco. The horizon was ringed with snow-capped peaks, and far off in the distance, we could make out the imposing, jagged peak of Mt. Shasta.

The hike up took us about three hours and we made it back down in about one hour. It’s a 10-mile back-and-forth with about 1,300 feet elevation gain to reach the 4,343 foot summit. We were surprised by how crowded the trail got as we made our way down so it’s best to get an early start. As we made our way down we passed bikers on their way up, several groups of mountain climbers scrambling up the various rock formations, a truck with hang gliding equipment strapped to the top and a couple of teenagers slinking off into the woods to do God know’s what.

There seemed to be a network of lesser known trails that hardcore rock climbers used to access the various rock formations that dotted the mountainside.

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