A forecast of rain wasn’t going to keep me from climbing Mount St. Helena on Saturday. For one thing, the weather usually changes a few times just going up and across the mountain. Also, the views are amazing, even when fog, clouds and storms visit. And there are always a few surprises along the way. Which is why it’s one of my favorite hiking spots.
Plus, with plans for sheer decadence in my life Friday and Sunday, a rigorous hike in the elements seemed wise on Saturday.
Turns out it hardly rained and was a perfect day for hiking. Never got cold enough to require extra layers or muddy enough to force us to slog through any tough footing. We weren’t alone on the mountain, which is one of the last remaining hills of the Mayacamas Mountain range, formed a couple of million years ago by volcanic activity and then heavily mined earlier in this century. The parking areas where the main trailhead starts were full Saturday morning and stayed full throughout the day as people kept showing up. It’s easy to see why. After hiking less than a mile into the Robert Louis Stevenson State Park grounds, you encounter the stone monument to the author, who spent his honeymoon there at an abandoned mine cabin. One of our group had camped there the night before, and it’s a great spot to sit and reflect, covered by trees and rocks and with several challenging trails nearby.
From there, regular visitors know you can hike about a mile more through some tricky switchbacks and rocky trails to an open fire road. The trail gets less complex there, but that’s where the views start. For the next couple of miles, it’s an uphill climb with soaring vistas of Napa Valley, Calistoga and plenty of far-off peaks.
As we were climbing, I looked around and realized that we officially “above the clouds”, a neat experience to behold. It was clearly raining somewhere as we could see the darkness below, but not where we were standing. We encountered exactly three little clumps of snow. Not enough to do anything with, but a few fellow hikers managed to eke out a snowball, which showed some initiative. The peak of Mount St. Helena is actually a few peaks, and unfortunately the main one is pretty crowded, with more cellphone towers and antenna dishes each time I’ve been up there (I guess all those 4G commercials that I don’t understand mean more towers and satellite dishes everywhere….), and the peak (4,343 feet high) is a windy, rocky spot. Time for a short lunch and rest and then the descent.
Our trip down went a slightly different way than the main trail, as we went to check out a few abandoned caves that led into mine shafts. The night before, I had gotten a chance to tour some wine caves in nearby Calistoga and it was a bit odd to be in slightly older, and less upscale caves, the next day, but that’s Wine Country life, I suppose. Quicksilver, mercury and gold were all aggressively mined up here, and there are plenty of remnants around of the mining activity. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can rappel a bit down into a cave, which don’t really lead anywhere but hey, it’s something to do.