This was the second hike in our week of wandering the Golden State. We spent the night in Calistoga, California – a nice little town toward the northern end of California’s Napa Valley. We were there last summer, when it was swarming with wine tasters. It’s a whole lot more mellow experience in the off-season. It rained overnight but, by morning, while the clouds persisted, the rain had stopped. Unsure of the width of our weather window, we didn’t want to sacrifice hiking time on a lengthy drive to a trailhead. Thus we decided to hike the Oat Hill Mine Trail because it literally starts right outside Calistoga. So, after an arduous two minute drive to the trailhead, we were on the trail and away.
The “trail” is actually an old wagon road that was constructed between 1873 and 1893 to connect Calistoga to the Oat Hill Mine, which was the third largest mercury mine in the U.S. between 1872 and the late 1960s. Today’s trail doesn’t actually go to the mines (they’re further north and closed to the public) but it does go to Holm’s Place, an old homestead up on the ridge above Calistoga. We made Holm’s Place our goal as we started up the trail in to the mists. Northern California has gotten boat loads of rain this winter and that was reflected in the luxuriant greenery covering every slope and field in the Napa Valley, and lining this trail for miles.
In its first three miles or so, the trail passes through forest made up of a diverse mixture of oak, Douglas fir, Gray pine, cypress, chaparral,
and grasslands (and very, very lush grasslands at that).
And, of course, there were wildflowers too.
About three miles from the trailhead, we came out of the forest on to the grassy slopes of Bald Hill, where we got the big view of the ominous clouds overhead and an obscured view of Calistoga below.
While the clouds were granting us a partial view of Calistoga below, they were completely shutting off our view of Duff (a found point, not a beer) to the southeast.
A little further up the trail, we came to evidence of the deep ruts carved in the soft volcanic roack by the heavy wagons that serviced the mines.
Further along, the trail works its way around, on hand-laid stone walls, some of the tall basalt formations that form the southwest ridge of Duff.
Every so often, the clouds would swirl and seem to be dissipating only to swirl some more and close in even more firmly. On a clear day, we would, at this point, have gotten a view of the Palisades – a long band of volcanic cliffs that extend to the north. We would also have been able to see Mount Saint Helena. But the omnipresent clouds denied us these viewing pleasures (sigh). So we pressed on up into the mists.
At 4.5 miles from the trailhead, we reached our goal: the homestead property of Karl Gustov Holm, who built a log cabin on his 160-acre homestead here in 1893, and added a new house in 1896. Parts of the stone wall for his barn and a few old (but still flowering) fruit trees are all that remain today.
After wandering around Holm’s Place for a bit, we headed back down. The usual irony of hikes like this is that the clouds dissipate on the way back and the sun comes out just as we reach the trailhead. Today was no exception. Just below Holm’s, the clouds had lifted enough to give us an unobstructed view of the Napa Valley,
and by the time we reached Bald Hill, the clouds themselves were starting to break apart.
On the way down, we saw a small spider who was having to deal with flooding in her web.
With irony in full operation, the sun came out just as we tagged the car. But, despite the clouds, this was an excellent hike, with an interesting history, wildflowers, and the occassional view. We clocked it at 9.2 miles round-trip with 2,000 feet of elevation gain. But, because of the trail’s history as a road, it has a very moderate grade and our 2,000 foot ascent was not at all arduous. Owning to its gentle grade and proximity to Calistoga, this is a popular trail, one likely quite busy on sunny weekends. So going on a cloudy weekday let us experience it in relative solitude (we saw less than a dozen hikers and bikers during our time there).