The Napa Valley is anchored by Mt. St. Helena in the north and the city of Napa in the south. In between you find the towns of Calistoga, St. Helena, Rutherford, Oakville, and Yountville. These towns are spread out throughout the valley along Highway 29 (which is the main road through Napa Valley on the west side of the valley). The distance from the city of Napa in the south to Calistoga in the north is about 26 miles. The valley is narrow as it is bordered by the Mayacamas mountains on the West and the Vaca mountain range to the east.
There are only two north/south roads in the valley. The Silverado Trail is located on the East side of the valley (lesser traveled and more scenic, especially in the north) and Highway 29 on the West side. With normal traffic it will take about 90 minutes to reach the northern part of the Napa Valley from San Francisco.
Each town in Napa Valley has their own unique shops and art galleries and all are surrounded by vineyards and wineries. Calistoga is famous for its hot springs, massages and mud baths and is gateway to the Old Faithful Geyser and the Petrified Forest. St. Helena has excellent restaurants, boutique shopping, and the scrumptious food at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. Yountville is the culinary capital of the valley. The city of Napa is the largest of these communities.
The Napa Valley is currently home to over 500 unique physical bonded wineries with another 600+ “virtual” wineries (wineries that don’t own a physical winery but make their wine at someone else’s winery). Napa wineries range from the “tribute to the owner” chateau’s, eclectic, boutique and historical (ghost wineries). Some are built for the masses while others provide more intimate tours of their winery and caves. If you visit the Napa Valley without visiting a winery it is like going to Disneyland and sitting on a bench the entire day. You don’t want to be a bench sitter when you come to Napa.
Napa Valley has been featured in several movies – the most notable include “A Walk in the Clouds” and the remake of the “Parent Trap”.
Area Sights & Activities
Old Faithful Geyser is located north of Calistoga directly next to Tubbs Lane, just down from the entrance to Chateau Montelena Winery. Address – 1299 Tubbs Lane – Phone: (707) 942-6463. This geyser erupts regularly every approximately 30-40 minutes.
If you are driving by at the appropriate time you can actually see the eruption from the road – although the lower part of the eruption is blocked from view by tall bamboo.
This geyser has been featured in National Geographic.
Sometimes before earthquakes the geyser may vary its eruption pattern.
Petrified Forest is not actually in Napa Valley but is worth visiting and is close enough to Calistoga that we list it here. It is located about 15 minutes northwest of Calistoga at 4100 Petrified Forest Road. From Calistoga take Highway 128 north for about 1 mile and then turn left at the gas station onto Petrified Forest Road.
This forest contains very good examples of petrified redwood trees – some are quite large. You can take a self guided tour. Also visit their gift shop for rocks and minerals. Sometimes they have sales. The earliest memory I have in this life dates from this forest. Strange, but true. For more info visit: www.petrifiedforest.org
Sharpsteen Museum is one of the hidden gems of Calistoga (although in a small town you certainly can’t hide too far), a “boutique” history museum set just off of main street at 1311 Washington St. This museum is open daily and features excellent historical exhibits about the history of Calistoga and nearby areas. Highlights include detailed painted dioramas, native American exhibits and the “founder’s room”.
This museum is named after its founder, Ben Sharpsteen – an Academy Award winning producer and director for Walt Disney Studios. Some of his memorabilia and accolades are on display in this room. With a little historical knowledge about Calistoga under your belt you can’t help but think of Sam Brannan. He was California’s first millionaire and the man responsible for naming the town (a verbal mispeak on his part resulted in the name).
A restored original Brannan Cottage adjoins the museum, from his Hot Springs Resort – you can walk into this cottage from the main museum. A small bookstore contains a varied selection of books about California and regional history as well as biographies.
Natural Spring. As you drive towards Lake County on the back side of Mt. St. Helena heading north on 128, there is a small spring with a metal pipe sticking out on the west side (left side) of the road (There is no parking on the northbound side of the road – parking space allows for maybe 3-4 cars max on the left side). This spring provides great natural tasting water and is free! Consider stopping here and filling up your water bottles – the locals absolutely do this although sometimes you have to wait in line as it can be a popular stop especially in the summer.
Knights Valley. An absolutely beautiful spot, especially in the heart of Springtime, is Knights Valley – which is the vineyard covered valley immediately north of Napa Valley. It is about 5 or 6 miles north of Calistoga – take Highway 28 north from Calistoga. There are a number of vineyards in this valley and one of the highlights is a drive up the narrow windy road that leads up to the trout fish farm on the east side (Ida Clayton Road). This road is essentially one lane that winds up the sides of the mountain for 7 miles. It provides great views of Knights Valley and some of the other terrain in the distance.
At about mile 5 you will reach the top of the grade and for approximately 2 miles wind along the side of the ridge until you reach the dirt road leading down to the fish farm. This farm serves up fresh trout which you catch yourself with provided fishing poles and bait, (it is not open all year). If you continue on the paved one lane road past the dirt road that leads down to the fish farm eventually this road becomes dirt for a mile or two, until reaching pavement again. Once you reach the pavement again, it will wind down the mountains and you will come out in Lake County on highway 29, just several miles from Middletown and a mile or two from the Twin Pine Indian casino. Note that Ida Clayton Road becomes Western Mine Road as you approach highway 29 on the Lake County side. At certain times of the year parts of this one lane road can be closed by snow – but not every year.
Bike Riding – some of the best and most relaxing bike riding in the Napa Valley is around the town of Calistoga. Less people make the drive to this part of the valley, there are fewer wineries and the roads are typically less traveled. For bike rentals in the town of Calistoga visit: www.calistogabikeshop.com
Mt. St. Helena. Consider a hike or bike ride to the top of Mt. St. Helena. The top of this mountain anchors the northern end of the Napa Valley and on a clear day you can see Mt. Lassen’s snow covered peaks far to the north, and on an extremely clear day, if you have excellent eye site you can even see Mt. Shasta, although having binoculars will significantly increase your odds of this rare sight.
The 10 mile round trip trail leads from the summit of the road that connects Napa Valley to Middletown & Clearlake (Highway 29). There is a dirt parking lot on the opposite side of the road from the trailhead. A very small dirt parking area on the same side of the road as the trail is available but will only accommodate several cars at one time. Be *very* careful crossing this road if you have to – cars whiz up and down both sides very fast, and from the north bound side, you don’t have much room to see the cars before they appear. Pedestrian friendly signs really should be posted on both sides of this road, but as of press time there are none.
The trail leads up the side of the mountain via switchbacks and is single track for approximately 1 mile until you reach a dirt road. It is a good hike – and an even better bike ride. Parts of this single track are a bit rocky when you get close to the dirt road. One note of historical significance is this single track trail passes the home site of Robert Louis Stevenson – he lived here for a summer or two and wrote a book from this site. There is nothing left of his stone house except a flat area and a weathered info plaque marking the spot.
Once you reach the dirt road from this trail, take a left – the road hugs the side of Mt. St. Helena affording one excellent views of the northern part of Napa Valley on a clear day. The road will switch back several times, passing a popular climbing wall. Small pretty quartz crystals can be found on the side of this road if you know where to look. The trail finally crests and reaches a saddle – if you go to the left you will reach the lower summit – if you continue straight you will reach the true summit in about 1 mile.
There are good views of the northern landscape from the top here. On a clear day you can make out the Sierra Nevada range in the distance, and then looking in a southerly direction you will see Mt. Diablo. There is a watch tower here; usually no one is inside. There are two levels on the main tower – the metal ladder used to stretch to the ground so you used to be able to climb up. Now the ladder is cut off high above the ground in order to prevent people from climbing up into the tower.
Be sure to bring plenty of water and possibly sunscreen on this hike. Aside from the first mile of single track which is covered by trees, you will be hiking on an exposed road to the sun.
There is a hike on the other side of the road from the Mt. St. Helena trailhead that meanders along the eastern ridge over to Table Rock. This is a several mile hike beginning on a dirt road but quickly turning to a single track trail. As you hike away from the main road you quickly are surrounded by native vegetation and hillsides and its hard to believe you are mere miles as the crow flies from the world famous Napa Valley!
We have spent much of of our time since 2006 visiting and tasting with commercial wine producers in Napa. We have reviewed each producer that we have met with; all 1,000+ reviews appear on The Napa Wine Project. Please visit: www.thenapawineproject.com
Several wineries in and around Calistoga worth visiting are Castello di Amorosa (or simply called “the castle” – a real life castle that took over 15 years to build. With 100+ rooms, a torture chamber, a drawbridge and a small moat, its hard to believe this was built in the Napa Valley! A ticket for either a wine tasting only or tour and wine tasting can be purchased at the entrance.
For a complete contrast in feel check out Tedeschi Family Winery – sit with the owner, drink some great wines and or take a small vineyard tour. See how a visit to a Napa winery used to be! Tedeschi is bicycle friendly – just call ahead to let the owner Emil or one of his two sons know that you will be stopping by.
Chateau Montelena is located off of Tubbs Lane just north of Calistoga. This very historical stone winery sits in a beautiful location. Superb wines, an old stone winery building and a Chinese themed lake and walk bridges grace the property.
Winery Tours I have an extremely unique point of view into the Napa Valley from a winery perspective as I have personally visited and tasted with 1,000+ commercial wine producers (wineries) since early 2006. As a result I have a plethora of resources to draw from in regards to customizing any tour to the Napa Valley. I enjoy guiding and providing information about this incredible place. Tour information: www.davesnapavalleywinetours.com