CALISTOGA -- We do requests, occasionally, here at “Fresh Tracks.” Don’t ask us to carry your backpack up a mountain pass or hack through overgrown star thistle to clear your path. But if there’s a trail you want detailed, sure, we can accommodate.
Reader Joanne Hufford recently fired off an email espousing the virtues of the Mount St. Helena Trail in Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, replete with photos of sweeping views from the north peak. Her suggestion was intriguing for many reasons. Among them:
• We’d never heard of Mount St. Helena. When you think of the Napa Valley, you think, well, valley – lush, rolling hills stitched with rows of vines.
• We didn’t know that, at 4,339 feet, it is the second-highest peak in the Bay Area (Mount Hamilton is 4,354 feet).
• We knew there was a state park in the north bay named after a literary lion (Jack London), but had no clue that the “Treasure Island” author was so honored as well.
In short, there’s a lot we don’t know, period.
So, we planned a day trip to the Napa Valley, not to get horizontal in the numerous hot springs that dot the area, nor to veer “Sideways” (a wine debauch, à la the movie), but to go vertical. Yup, 5 miles up the mountain, 5 miles down.
The reward, of course, is the aforementioned sweeping view (on clear days) of Mount Tamalpais to the southwest, Mount Lassen and Mount Shasta to the north and even – OK, you’ve got to squint, and Hufford recommends bringing binoculars – Sacramento to the east. You can also reward yourself, post trek, with Napa’s beverage of choice while perhaps soaking in the bubbly, sulfuric waters.
It’s advised to make a day of it because, depending on your fitness and swiftness, it almost takes longer to drive to the trailhead than it does to traverse the 10-mile trail. There’s no easy way to get to Stevenson State Park from Sacramento. Any way you go, you must endure winding country roads with, inevitably, some antsy dude in a white truck tailgating you because you dare to drive the speed limit on the curves.
Once parked (at a dirt pullout off Highway 29, 8.7 miles north of Calistoga) and recovered from motion sickness, you find yourself in a small grassy meadow with a couple of picnic tables and not much else. No portable toilets. No trash cans, even. (Hufford, by the way, suggests stopping at the Model Bakery in St. Helena for a bathroom break and “famous English muffins.”) The only clue, to this point, that you’re on ground once trod upon by the scribbling Scotsman is a chipped, bullet-punctured brown sign denoting “Stevenson Memorial Trail.” Oh, the indignity writers must endure.
You climb a few splintered wooden steps and follow the Memorial Trail slightly less than a mile to the junction with the Mount St. Helena Trail.
For those who like to be fully immersed in nature – and history – this first 0.8 of a mile will be the highlight. It’s a single-track switchback and densely forested with knob cone pine and bay laurel trees. Enjoy it, because it will be the last shade you’ll encounter until the return trip. (If you’re doing this hike in the summer months, bring plenty of water and sunblock.)
The footing here can be treacherous at times, especially after a rainstorm. Exposed roots, like veins on the back of a dowager’s hand, make it so you’re almost playing hopscotch to find level ground. Take it slowly, not only because of the trail’s technical aspects but also because you’ll want to breathe in the perfumed pines and loamy scent of composting leaves underfoot. Stevenson took note of the olfactory splendors in his book “The Silverado Squatters,” writing of this hillside where he found his honeymoon cabin, “At sunrise, and again later at night, the scent of sweet bays filled the canyon.”
Slightly more than a half-mile into the trek, you’ll reach an open, though rocky, clearing. This is the site of Stevenson’s cabin he retreated to with his wife, Fanny, in 1880 after he was unable to afford the $10 to stay at the Hot Springs Hotel in Calistoga. He ended up squatting at this site for two months, long enough to gather material for the Silverado book and to wax poetic about the natural splendors. He wrote that “each fir stands separate against the sky, no bigger than an eyelash,” which lent “a quaint fringed aspect to the hills.”
Thankfully, many of those firs remain even if the cabin is long gone. The only acknowledgment of Stevenson’s stay is a monument with a stone-carved open book. There’s not much else at which to linger, so you must push on with a right-hand turn to arguably the most difficult part of the trail. It’s an eroded slab of rock you must climb. It looks as if generations of hikers have tried to carve out steps, which makes for somewhat easier going.
There are only two more switchbacks until the T-intersection with the Mount St. Helena Trail, where you turn left. Immediately, and startlingly, you go from rocks and roots to a smooth dirt fire road. What follows is a serpentine, 4-mile uphill trek on the wide road to the summit. Yes, it sounds boring. Even the California State Parks website calls these 4 miles “frankly a bit monotonous,” the monotony broken up only briefly at the 1.6-mile mark when you reach the “Bubble Rock,” a sheer rock face with bubblelike indentations that climbers frequent in summer.
But, really, the 4-mile trip to the summit is all about how you approach it. Sure, you could stare straight ahead and hump on up like some soldier forced to march. Better, however, to swivel your head and take in the views. The winding trail makes it so that you’re alternating between the valley below to the south and the mountains north and great expanse to the east. Even on a morning when fog envelops the valley, you get the sight of cottony tufts nestled like a blanket over the area.
Stevenson, apparently, was able to find pleasure in the journey to the peak – or, at least, he fakes it pretty well in “The Silverado Squatters” – writing, “Gladness seemed to inhabit these upper zones, and we had left the indifferences behind us in the valley. ... There are days in a life when this climb out of the lowlands seems like scaling heaven.”
You’ll be cursing heaven if, at about the 4-mile mark, you make a left turn at the unmarked spur of the fire road and climb a half-mile to what you think is the summit, replete with communications towers. Well, it is a summit, but it’s the south peak at 4,003 feet. You want to stay straight and keep plugging along to the north peak.
On the latter sections of the trek, you will actually pass, briefly, through three counties – Napa, Sonoma and Lake – though no signs are present. You’ll also pass two more sets of communications towers and keep climbing until, basically, you run out of road and turn a corner and see a plaque noting the 1841 ascent of the mountain by the same Russian expats who settled Fort Ross on the Sonoma Coast.
History lesson over, the return trip is a lot less taxing and affords the same views. Back in Calistoga, imbibing the local drink (sparkling water, of course, wink), you can look back at the mountain looming to the north and drink in the views.
Let’s leave the final word to Stevenson: “There was something satisfactory in the sight of that great mountain that enclosed us to the north: whether it stood, robed in sunshine, quaking to its topmost pinnacle with the heat and brightness of the day; or whether it set itself to weaving vapours, wisp after wisp growing, trembling, fleeting, and fading in the blue.”
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.