For most, the rugged, Manzanita-covered mountains that skirt Napa Valley, crowned to the north by 4,339-foot Mount St. Helena, are little more than the scenic backdrop for the savoring of a supple cabernet and some sage crostini. But midmonth, the unveiling of a new hiking trail that shoots out along a spur of volcanic cliffs, caves, wildflower-dotted fields, and mountain lion and peregrine falcon habitat will change all that.
The Palisades Trail, created with the help of the Napa County Land Trust, begins four miles below the top of Mount St. Helena at the main parking lot of Robert Louis Stevenson State Park (the author of Treasure Island spent his honeymoon here) and ends 11 miles due southeast in the town of Calistoga. Though it leads away from the summit of the mountain, the up-and-down trek through evergreen forest, over black andesite rock, and up into mossy groves of oak, buckeye, and bay laurel is by no means leisurely. The first six miles give you an elevation gain of 1,000 feet and increasingly grand views of the Napa Valley. Then you'll pick up the 125-year-old Oat Hill Mine Road, a former wagon track that descends 2,000 feet from a defunct mercury mine to the valley floor and, happily, the hot springs of Calistoga. You'll want to leave an extra car waiting in town so you can retrieve your trailhead-marooned vehicle.
If you're intent on climbing Mount St. Helena, the new trail allows you to begin a merciless 15-mile, 4,000-foot ascent in Calistoga. No camping is permitted, nor are bikes, horses, or dogs, and there's no water on the entire route—certainly no warm spring to soak in at the top. No wonder the mountain, not the sybaritic valley below, served as Stevenson's model for Long John Silver's forbidding old haunt, Spyglass.