While others tasted Napa wines or relaxed in the spas of Calistoga, a group of friends decided to take New Years resolutions seriously and went for a hike up Mt Helena. At 4240 feet/1281 m, the East Peak is the highest point in Napa County.
Getting there is easy. Drive Route 29 east until you reach the crest of the road within Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. There are parking spaces to both side of the road. Be very careful crossing the road, people drive fast there.
From the uphill parking lot, take the foot trail zig-zaffing up the mountain. After about 0.8 miles, you will encounter an obvious large, flat space in the forest. On the other side, you may be able to spot a use trail going up the steep hill. If you scramble up there, you will find an abandoned mercury mine. The bright scarlet or brick-red rock you find is cinnabar (mercury sulfide), the ore from which mercury is extracted. The walls to either side of the mine entrance are popular climbing spots in summer, because with the exception of an hour at midday it is well shaded. harrison Hood from Hood Mountain Aventures teaches a very good anchor class there. Please do not go inside the mine if you care about life! Mines are inherently dangerous even if they look harmless.
Back on the trail, you will reach the junction with the fire road a mile from the parking lot. Remember where this intersection is; there is a trail marker, but it can be easily overlooked when you are happily headed downhill later. From here on, you will have no shade. Unless you really enjoy direct sun and heat, I recommend to plan your hike for the cooler days of the year. Soon, though, the gentle grade of the fire road will lift you above the trees for expansive views over northern Napa Valley.
Two miles into the hike, the road makes an obvious 180 degree bend marked by a rocky outcrop. This is another popular climbing spot. S convenient wooden guardrail secures the road, providing an excellent spot to sit, enjoy a snack, and watch some athletic girls and guys get their rock time in. If no one is there, see if you can identify the routes by the bolts and chalk marks. I found 4 obvious bolted routes that looked like good fun.
From here on, the fire road gradually winds upward, steadily expanding the views until they include Suisun Valley in Solano County. 4 miles into the hike, the road levels out onto the summit plateau, from which you can see the five summits of Mount Helena shaping the form of an “M”. The summit is obvious. It is not only the highest, but has the largest antennas as well. About half a mile from the summit you can take a road to your left to climb one of the subpeaks, but it is not really worth the effort in my opinion. One last push to the summit, where you will find a small rocky outcropping with good places to sit and enjoy the view.
We had a sunny but hazy day. Mt Tamalpais was visible, but Lassen, the Sierra Nevada, and Mt Diablo eluded us. We saw Mt Diablo later on our way down, when it cleared up a bit. Because the sun was so low in the sky at this time of the year, larger sections of the trail were shaded. Overall, the hike took us 2.5 hours up and 1 hour 45 min down, plus time for lunch.