CALISTOGA — Mt. St. Helena doesn’t pop up in very many books about hiking in the San Francisco Bay Area.
It may have something to do with its relative remoteness in terms of travel time to reach the trailhead compared to other hiking trails.
But I can think of three reasons why it should get more widespread notoriety:
uAt 4,343 feet it is the tallest point in the San Francisco Bay Area and easily eclipses Mt. Diablo that has an elevation of 3,557 feet.
uIt offers impressive views of Napa Valley as much asSonoma and Lake Counties. Plus on a clear day you can see an active volcano — Mt. Shasta 192 miles away — from the summit of the spent Mt. St. Helena volcano.
uThe trail (actually a fire road for the most part that accesses communication towers on two peaks) is straightforward.
Mt. St. Helena is part of the low-key Robert Louis Stevenson State Park straddling Highway 29 some seven miles north of Calistoga. The park was named after Stevenson — the author of “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped” — because he used an old mining cabin within the park’s modern day boundaries for his honeymoon in 1880. This is where he started penning “Silverado Squatters.”
The 10.2-mie round trip to the top with a 2,068-foot net gain can be daunting for some but the views are well worth it. The hike took me right around four hours. The various hiking sites put the time for the complete jaunt at six hours for a hike moving at what they describe as an “average pace.” That of course is relative. Thanks to my knees reminding me that downhill is less fun for them than uphill, I tend to go slower downhill than up while the opposite is true for many.
The trail starts by taking a windy 0.8 mile hike through the forest that will take you past a monument that features a gigantic book with an inscription about Stevenson before joining the fire road that serves as the main trail. If you prefer, you can take the first 1.3 miles of the fire road to the head of the 0.8 top of the trail passing through the forest. Mountain bike enthusiasts use the fire trail all the way.
The rest of the way to the summit is a fairly steady climb. On the way up you can get glimpses of the view that awaits framed between trees and bushes. There is a spot roughly two miles in that is popular with technical rock climbers. As rocks to scale, they are low key but it serves as a perfect excuse to take a break to watch climbers work their way up the side using rope. There is even a conveniently located bench to watch if you are inclined to take a load off your feet.
Roughly 1.7 miles from the top you will have a choice to veer left and go to the South Peak or keep going to take in the main event. The view from South Peak is limited compared to Mt. St. Helena’s summit although it arguably had a better view of Napa Valley per se.
You have sweeping views of Napa, Sonoma, and Lake Counties from the top. On my trip the thermals were pushing four hang gliders upwards near the southern face of the volcanic plateau that is surrounded by five sub-peaks.
The best way to describe the “difficulty” is that is similar to hiking Mt. Diablo from Rock City to the summit. If you’re in fairly decent shape it won’t take that long to summit.
Besides making sure you take ample water as there is none along the way, you might want to have snacks and carry a wind breaker. I hiked the entire length last Saturday in a sleeveless shirt. It got borderline chilly at the top.
Everyone recommends good hiking shoes but with the fire road as the trail most of the way if you just have decent cross trainers, tennis shoes, etc. you’ll be fine.
The most perilous part of your hike may be getting to and from the trailhead. Parking is at a premium due to the small lots provided. That means finding a safe spot to park along Highway 29 and walking to the state park entrance. Drivers on Highway 29 sometimes act as if they are on the checkered flag lap of a NASCAR race at the Sonoma Speedway.
The trailhead to Mt. St. Helena is to the west of Highway 29. To the east is a much shorter hike that takes you below the volcanic cliffs of the Palisades.
Dogs are not allowed.