On several occasions over the past year, I had skirted the Palisades, either missing out when some of my friends were headed there a couple of times, or taking other hikes that were adjacent to the mile-long volcanic ridge that sits over Calistoga and Napa Valley. I had heard that it could be grueling, especially in the summer. So I was looking forward to the chance to finally explore that area this past weekend on a fairly cool day.
Our plan was to start at the base of the Table Rock trail in Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, hike about 2 miles up to Table Rock itself, and then cross over into and across the Palisades for several miles, and then do the last 4-5 miles or so coming down the Oat Hill Mine trail and ending up in Calistoga. That’s three very difficult stretches stacked together, and with us not getting started until nearly 10:30 a.m., and darkness coming by about 5, I suspected we’d be hustling to end before it got really dark.
Part one was tricky, but getting to Table Rock was worth the hike. Beautiful views, although a bit foggy in parts, and some odd rock formations to climb and linger. Part two was the Palisades itself. Our hiking group tends to self-separate. Some are jackrabbits, heading for the finish line, others stop and smell the roses, and some do a bit of both. On this day, our group of 12 was split in about three parts. I was with a few friends at the front, and after stopping for a long lunch break under a cool cave-like rock (and even taking a mini-nap!), we kept on trucking toward the Oat Hill Mine junction.
On these hikes over the past year, we’ve had some misadventures, temporarily losing folks, losing our way, losing our minds, but on Saturday, we got a new addition to that litany. Snap! Yup, coming down a steep incline, the hiker behind me took a bad step and that sound was her left ankle. Suddenly, we were faced with five miles of tricky downhill ahead of us, someone who couldn’t walk, and about two hours left of daylight.
For awhile, a few of us took turns carrying our injured colleague — note to self: keep knees bent when carrying someone on your back — and thanks to some mountain bikers who came by, we had a decent group of helpers. Another hiker had called 911, and I ran ahead a few miles to meet the Calistoga EMS folks who had started up the mountain with a stretcher. Meanwhile, a CHP helicopter was dispatched and headed our way too. Long story short, our friend – who showed a heck of a lot of strength during the whole ordeal – was airlifted to a St. Helena hospital, and the rest of us speedily finished up the hike, although not before it got dark. We were greeted at the trailhead by a small army of Napa Valley emergency vehicles (two fire trucks, one ambulance, one police cruiser). In a previous blog post, I wrote about emergency officials in another area complaining of having to rescue lost hikers. In this instance, all the emergency folks I talked to were courteous and seemed genuinely interested in helping. It was a little disconcerting the lack of communication among the three different agencies that responded, but as a former police reporter, I know that’s not uncommon.
Both the Palisades and the Oat Hill Mine trail are terrific trails to explore. The rock formations date back tens of thousands of years, and you can see the grooves in the rocks where old mining vehicles would travel. In the summer, it’s not a hike to take lightly, or at least not without plenty of water, but on a cool, almost-winter day, it’s exhilirating to stand atop a peak overlooking Napa Valley and feel the rush of the wind at your back. Makes up for the punishing climb to get there.
All in all, a challenging, memorable hike, but now I can say that I’ve explored the Palisades. Snap!