Although not as high, rugged, or as spectacular as the Palisades in the Sierra Nevada, the Palisades at the northern end of California’s famed Napa Valley are still a magnificent spectacle. What they lack in height and dimension they make up for in mystery and uniqueness, and though not as high as the Sierra Palisades, they are still incredibly rugged. Forming the northern skyline for the community of Calistoga and the upper Napa Valley, the Palisades are a striking horizon looming beyond vineyards and wineries.
The Palisades make an excellent winter or spring destination. In the winter, the hills are turning green and the creeks are flowing. In spring, there is a profusion of wildflowers on the grassy slopes beneath the cliffs. Moreover, the vineyards far below often have massive mustard grass blooms, turning large parts of the valley floor yellow. Climbing and bouldering in the Palisades is seemingly limitless, with numerous cliffs waiting to be explored. At virtually any point in the Palisades trail one can depart the main route and begin climbing the vertical surface. Even if one is not inclined to climb, the fantastic formations and the incredible views of Mount Saint Helena and the Napa Valley make the Palisades a worthy destination.
The Palisades from the lower flanks of Mount Saint Helena
Robert Louis Stevenson State Park includes not only the Palisades, but also Mount Saint Helena, to the west. Most visitation to the park consists of hikers and bikers making an ascent of the mountain, as well as climbers who scale numerous formations located alongside the trail to the summit. A few hikers make it to Table Rock, which lies west of Mount Saint Helena. Even fewer venture beyond Table Rock on the Palisades trail. The same holds true on the eastern end of the formation. Oat Hill Mine Road is a long stretch of rugged single track popular with mountain bikers and hikers. Most bikers simply make the ascent up the road to Holm’s Place and then head back down. Hikers reach the same destination and may add a side trip up Duff or Bald Hill, again, few venture into the wilderness found at the base of the Palisades.
Geography and History
The third amphitheater
The Palisades are one of the more dramatic formations found in the North Coast Range. The North Coast Range extends through northern California from the north end of San Francisco Bay until they merge into the Klamath Mountains in the far northwestern part of the state. The North Coast range is generally divided along a north-south axis formed by the south flowing Russian River and the north flowing Eel River. West of this axis low, predominantly sedimentary mountains characterize the range. East of the divide the mountains get higher, with the crest of the range generally running above 7,000 feet and topping off at 8,094 feet at South Yolla Bolly (Mt. Linn). These mountains are composed of a rock called greywacke.
One of the most fantastic features of the North Coast Range is the Clear Lake Basin. Clear Lake is the largest natural lake in California (since Lake Tahoe is divided between California and Nevada and Goose Lake is divided with Oregon). The southern terminus of the high crest of the North Coast Range forms the northern part of the basin. In winter, Snow Mountain, the southernmost 7,000 footer in the range is visible from around the lake. The southern and western rim of the basin is formed by the Mayacamas Mountains, a subrange of the North Coast Range. Numerous high peaks are found in the Mayacamas’, including Cobb Mountain, the range highpoint, Mount Konocti and Mount, Saint Helena, which can be seen as far south as the San Francisco Bay. Cow Mountain, near the town of Ukiah, is the northern terminus of the Mayacamas. Unlike most of the North Coast Range, the Mayacamas Mountains are volcanic in origin. Mt. Konocti is an extinct volcano. Although not volcanoes, Cobb Mountain and Mount Saint Helena were formed by a massive volcanic uplift.
The first amphitheater
The volcanic legacy of this area is powerfully evidenced by the presence of the Geysers Geothermal Steamfield. It was here in the 1950’s that geothermal power was pioneered and perfected first by Magma Corp and then by Pacific, Gas & Electric Company (the first successful geothermal powerplant was built in Larderello, Italy in 1905 but this was an extremely small and limited operation). Engineers for these companies recognized the unique volcanic geography in the area and developed a way to harness the steam and heat within the earth to make electricity. By the 1980’s the Geysers, as the area came to be called, was able to supply electricity to 2,000,000 homes. It remains the larges geothermal power operation in the world. One interesting side note, the Geysers area, prior to its development as a green power resource, was a resort area operated by members of the Curry family, which gained fame for its historic resort operations in Yosemite. Such luminaries as Jack London, Mark Twain, Ulysses Grant and Theodore Roosevelt all spent time in the resorts spas.
The western and eastern highpoints of the Palisades
The Palisades are found in the southern portion of the Mayacamas Mountains, just east of Mount Saint Helena. They are a product of the same volcanic activity that formed the rest of the range. However, unlike most other parts of the Mayacamas, the Palisades resulted from extensive lava protrusions. Following the cooling and hardening period, they were subjected to wind and water erosion until they took their present shape. The Palisades are a long band of igneous rock, forming a wall at the top of the mountains above Calistoga. The band extends roughly 2.5 miles, from Table Rock in the west, to Duff, an oddly named summit on the eastern end. Two highpoints anchor the western and eastern ends of the Palisades. The elevations of these highpoints are within 2 feet of each other, the western highpoint being the taller of the two. From the Napa Valley, they appear to be fairly straight set of cliffs. Once among the Palisades, one realizes the ramparts of the Palisades scallop along the top of the mountains, forming three large amphitheaters between Table Rock and Duff. Each of these amphitheaters contains small spring fed streamlets. The Palisades trail passes through each of the three amphitheaters.
Little development has impacted the Palisades. Most human activity centered around a mine on the north side of the Palisades. The Oat Hill Mine Road was constructed to access this mine. It is unsure what was actually extracted, but it is possible that the mine was intended to harvest Mercury. A homestead, known as Holm’s Place was established in the saddle between the Palisades and Duff. The structures at Holm’s Place were built with huge basalt blacks quarried from the nearby cliffs. Other than the solitary mining operation and homestead, no other human activity has left any lasting presence in the area. Even today, despite the existence of the Palisades trail, the formation receives little human visitation.
Climbing the Palisades
Crags in the Palisades
It is unclear if any formal routes have been established among the Palisades. The rock certainly seems like it is good enough to maintain an active climbing presence. A plaque located at Lasky Point at the western end of the Palisades describes how a man named Moses Lasky (whose family owns a small portion of the land the Palisades trail passes through) spent a lifetime climbing the cliffs and spires of the Palisades as well as crediting him with membership in a team that pioneered a route to the summit of Grand Teton in 1980. It certainly seems as though there is plenty of potential for climbers from the Bay Area to explore this area. Robert Louis Stevenson State Park does not prohibit (nor do they condone) climbing in the park.
The Palisades are seen right of Mount Saint Helena from Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County
The Palisades trail is the primary route through the Palisades. No road access either end of the trail. One must hike either Table Rock trail to reach the western terminus of the Palisades trail, or climb Oat Hill Mine Road to reach the eastern terminus. The best possible option is to park a car at the beginning of Oat Hill Mine Road and take a shuttle to the Table Rock trailhead and make the 11 mile descent to Calistoga, combining all three trails.
Table Rock Trailhead
From Calistoga, proceed north, out of town, on Highway 29. The highway immediately veers west and passes through numerous vineyards at the base of the mountains. Table Rock and the Palisades are prominently visible. Continue west on Highway 29 for a few miles. The highway will begin its torturous ascent up to Saint Helena Pass. This road is EXTREMELY convoluted and many people speed up and down it. Care should be taken. Near the pass, signs will proclaim entry into Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. Immediately after these signs, turn into parking lots on either side of highway, the right side being preferred. From the parking lot, the trail departs to the east.
Oat Hill Mine Road Trailhead
From downtown Calistoga, simply drive north on the main street, which is Highway 29. At a stop sign on the outskirts of town, the highway intersects the Silverado Trail. The trailhead is located on the northeast side of the intersection. Parking is located in the dirt lot in the southwest corner of the intersection.
The Palisades are located in Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. The park is closed from Sunset to Sunrise. There is no backcountry camping. The backcountry around Table Rock is a checkerboard of public and private land. Although it is a wilderness for all intents and purposes, care should be taken not to intrude on any obviously private property. This is particularly true when the Palisades trail briefly passes through private property at the western end of the trail. The property line is marked.
Robert Louis Stevenson State Park
There is no camping at Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. Moreover, there the park is closed from sunset to sunrise. This precludes any backcountry camping. The nearest public campgrounds are at Clear Lake State Park and Bothe-Napa State Park. Both these options are at least a 0.5 hour drive from the trailhead.
The Napa Land Trust owns the land east of the Palisades and they are negotiating the sale of 3,000 acres of land to the California State Parks for inclusion in Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. Once this transaction is completed (pending funding from the state, of course) the State Park intends to construct a few backcountry campsites.