Wine, Trails, and 40 Years in Napa Valley 20/24-Sep-2016

Napa Valley California

The LovedOne’s sister and brother-in-law are wine affectionados and when they decided to come out West for a week of wine tasting in California’s wine-obsessed Napa Valley, we agreed to join them there for a small family reunion.  We drove to St. Helena, California along Highway 101 so we could visit Humboldt Redwoods State Park enroute.  For me, an equally important part of this trip was to finally meet-up with an old friend and climbing partner – Ken Stanton – who I’d kept in touch with, but hadn’t actually seen in person, in over 40 years!

Hiking with Ken

Ken and I had done a number of climbs and backpacks together way, way back in the day (we’d just come off a climb in Tuolumne Meadows the day Nixon resigned) and then life happened and our paths diverged.  Since then, in addition to his work in the wine grape industry, he has remained active as a hiker, backpacker, climber, and white water kayaker, and is well known locally for his books about hiking and history in the Napa Valley.  But finding time to visit with him proved to be easier said than done given that his family owns vineyards in the Valley and this is harvest time – when it’s all hands on deck picking and hauling grapes.  This year was particularly hectic since the harvest started about two weeks later than usual, which created traffic jams at the weighing and processing centers.  So, after a few false starts, he made time for a short hike to a favorite spot (which will remain an undisclosed location) followed by dinner.  After a short drive west of town, we parked next to a nearly dry creek,

Napa Valley California
A now dry creek that rages in the Spring

one that he’d considered kayaking (but wisely didn’t) during the Spring flood. From there we shot uphill into a side canyon and on to “Fern Spring” (not on any map) where, despite the years of drought and the lateness of the season, water was still running! Ken was happy for a hike to visit it again and (I would suspect) for a break from wrangling grapes.

Napa Valley California
Ken at “Fern Spring”

Then, with evening coming on, we had to get back.  It was a brief hike, but a good one.  We then had a great dinner at Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen in St. Helena, after which Ken headed home for some sleep before facing another full day with the grapes.  It would be fun to do some more hiking with Ken, but hopefully sooner than later, since I doubt we have another 40 years to procrastinate here!

Napa Valley California
No longer Spring chickens, but still on the trail…

R. L. Stevenson State Park

The next day, the family wine lovers agreed to a short hike in the morning, provided it didn’t intrude on wine tasting in the afternoon. So, after consulting with Ken and his guidebook, we settled on a short out-and-back on the Table Rock Trail in Robert Louis Stevenson State Park.  The parking area and trailhead for this is a poorly-signed wide spot on State Highway 29 seven miles east of Calistoga, shortly after the Robert Louis Stevenson State Park sign.  The very popular trail up to the top of Mount St. Helena starts on the north side of the highway, while the only slightly less popular Table Rock trail starts on the south side.  There was plenty of parking when we were there on a weekday but, judging from the well-used condition of the lot and the trail, finding parking on a weekend day could be tricky, very tricky.  But, incentivized by the prospect of an afternoon of wine tasting (and the cool morning air), the crew got right on the trail.  It begins climbing immediately through a typical northern California hardwood forest, including oak, bay, and madrone, as well as an occasional pine. The grade was moderate and initially follows an old roadbed.

Napa Valley California
Starting up the Table Rock trail

The first opportunity for views came about 0.25 miles from the trailhead, where the trees cleared and a rocky outcropping provided an excellent vista of Mount Saint Helena to the west and the Snow Mountain range far to the north.

Napa Valley California
Looking north from the trail

A little further up the trail, we could look west over the Napa Valley toward the Mayacamas Range,

Napa Valley California
Looking west from the trail

and north for a clear view of Mount Saint Helena.

Napa Valley California
Mount St. Helena to the north

Soon the trail topped out on a ridge, where a battered signpost marked (dimly) the distance to Table Rock (~1.3 miles or so).  A few yards further down the trail we came a prominent outcrop (which some have called “The Turret” because it reminds them of the crenelations on a castle’s turret). This is the highpoint of the Table Rock trail and thus was immediately summited by the LovedOne, followed closely by her sister.

Napa Valley California
The LovedOne seizes the castle…
Napa Valley California
And then her sisters moves in…

From this vantage point, we could look east and see the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada’s Desolation Wilderness far in the distance.  Then we followed the trail on a steep descent over slick (when wet) clay-like greywacke.  At the bottom of the descent, the trail passed through a rock garden where others have stacked and organized the stones into designs throughout the area; with the centerpiece being a large spiral design,

Napa Valley California
The spiral of stones

presided over by a resident Buddha.

Napa Valley California
The on-site buddha

Beyond the garden, the trail passed through a stand of knobcone pine and manzanita, continued to descend, and then swung to the south. Soon unusual rock formations protruded from the ground around the trail.

Napa Valley California
More rock outcrops and clouds

In the distance, we could see the distinctive “T-Rex” rock, which looks like the profile of everyone’s favorite (because it’s now extinct) large, highly carnivorous, reptile.  If it weren’t extinct, we’d likely be its favorite snack – those of us who were left!

Napa Valley California
T-Rex Rock (arrow) on the horizon

Then the group, hearing the siren call of yet another wine to taste, decided to turn back from here. I pushed on a little further, down into Garnett Creek Canyon, 1.75 miles from the trailhead. There used to be a telephone box alongside the trail – it’s now gone and only a thick, multi-conductor cable protrudes from the ground to mark its former existence. How or why such a box  was placed here is a mystery, since there aren’t (and never were) any buildings nearby. Now there’s just a suspicious water line running down canyon alongside the creek – to a ranch or a grow?  The creek itself is now stone dry but might perk up some in the Spring.

Napa Valley California
The dry channel of Garnett Creek

After that, it was back to the trailhead and on to yet more wineries – the Napa Valley Chamber of Commerce should be very pleased with us.

Napa Valley California
Hurry! All the wine could be gone before we get back…

On the way back to Jefferson, we swung by Sacramento for brunch with our friends Patty and Greg, who we also hadn’t seen in awhile (but not 40 years worth of awhile!).   So it was a great family and friends reunion trip, punctuated with a little hiking.  But my short hike with Ken and our only slightly longer family hike toward Table Rock kindled in us a strong desire to come back to the Napa Valley for some hiking during the less hectic (vineyard-wise) Spring season.  We’d like to tackle the whole Table Rock – Palisades – Oak Hill Mine trail system, the trail up Mount St. Helens, and perhaps some others when things are green and (hopefully) some water is flowing.  So our to do list of hikes just grows ever longer.  Sigh (but in a good way).


One thought on “Wine, Trails, and 40 Years in Napa Valley 20/24-Sep-2016

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  1. Great post! We live in Napa and have been exploring the trails since we moved here. I’m glad some people come and enjoy the amazing scenery as well (I mean, not just the beautiful buildings and vineyards). You may enjoy our wine country blog: Follow us if you like what you see.


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