Atlas Peak P1K CC
Castle Peak CC
Mt. George P300 CC
Sugarloaf Peak P300 CC
Sugarloaf NN

Fri, Sep 7, 2012
Castle Peak
Sugarloaf Peak
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 4 5 GPXs: 1 2 3 4 5 Profiles: 1 2 3 4 5

Over the past several years I have been working on the CC-list during the Sierra off-season, a selection of peaks from California's coast ranges stretching from the Oregon border to San Luis Obispo County. To date, almost all of that effort has been in the southern portion of this extent, those peaks from the Bay Area to the south. Mostly this has been because it is relatively easy to head south from San Jose where I live. On the other hand, driving north across the length of the metropolitan regions of the Bay can be rather arduous, whether driving through San Francisco to reach Marin County, or through Oakland/Berkeley to reach Napa/Yolo Counties and beyond. I'm starting to run out of CC peaks to the south however, and have to start heading north sooner or later. In this case, I had to drive my daughter and her friend to a social engagement with her friend's family in Napa on a Friday night. After bearing the brunt of traffic for several hours and dropping them off, I was free to do as I liked, which naturally turned to peakbagging. My original plan was to drive off to sleep somewhere before getting up to climb a handful of CC peaks in the county. Some of these peaks had restricted access (I was unsure on several, not having taken sufficient time beforehand to research it), best done under the cover of night. A half moon was set to rise shortly before midnight which would help with visibility in the early morning hours. In the end I decided to simply start on the peakbagging as soon as they were dropped off, primarily to decrease the chances of running into trouble on the private property peaks. That, and I happen to find it fun to occasionally go all night long. This would be the first time I'd pulled an all-nighter with multiple driving legs between the various peaks. All of them were relatively short, no more than five or six miles roundtrip. I figured a nap of several hours duration in the afternoon should be sufficient to get me through the night.

My first stop would be one that troubled me the most, Atlas Peak. Though less than 3,000ft in elevation, it has more than 1,600ft of prominence, the second highest in the county. It lies less than a mile northwest of the end of Atlas Peak Road, conveniently paved, though long, windy and narrow. The trouble is that between the road's end and the peak is an occupied home, making the direct route right past the house out of the question. Portions of the hillsides are forested, making it difficult to discern the dirt road network that might be used to reach the peak. I would have to drive up there, investigate, and hope for the best. I knew that cross-country would be very hazardous at night with the high probability of poison oak. This would be tricky...

It took most of an hour to drive from downtown Napa to the end of Atlas Peak Rd though the mileage wasn't all that great. The number of homes along the road decreases in proportion to how far one drives, to no surprise. At the end of the road I turned around and cruised slowly back along the road until I found an old dirt road with a barbed-wire gate held closed by a simple loop of wire. This looked like it would do, and though there were no good turnouts anywhere nearby, I could pull off the road enough to let another car pass and hopefully not find myself asking for a parking ticket. I had a good idea where to find the better dirt road to the west along the peak's summit ridge with the route loaded in my GPS (which was indispensible for most of the night), so I just had to hope the forested old road I started on would hook up with the other. And so it did, quite nicely. There was poison oak right from the start, even some in the dirt roadway, so sticking to the road was essential. A second home was not far off to the south so it was important to keep from making myself noticeable. However, with the moon still an hour from rising it was impossible to navigate in the dark and avoid the poison oak. So I kept my headlamp held low in my hand and shining only on the ground immediately around me, difficult to detect from a distance.

It took just under 40 minutes to find my way to the summit, crossing a number of property boundaries along the way. The summit and surrounding area is part of the Sutro Ranch. A memorial plaque to the ranch's manager for 45 years was placed at the summit by his family sometime after 1995 when he died. This sits next to an antenna tower and service building that grace the highpoint. I climbed to the roof of the building for the views which would otherwise be blocked by the trees and brush. Along with a myriad of stars overhead, one can see the city lights of Napa and the Bay area to the southwest and those of the Sacramento and Central Valley more faintly to the east. I snapped my pictures and beat a hasty retreat back along the same route. I breathed more easily once I was in the car and driving back down towards town.

The moon rose over the Central Valley to the east as I was driving down Atlas Peak Rd. In a few more hours it might actually be useful for navigation. Next up was Castle Peak, only a few miles from Atlas but lots more driving. I had to return nearly to town, turning north on Silverado Rd and then Soda Canyon Rd. A short side road led to a locked gate at Napa Soda Springs which was as close as I could drive, something like half a mile and 700ft below the rocky outcrop that forms Castle Peak. Located about halfway up the 1200-foot canyon wall, it has very little prominence but looks impressive from below, one of the few large rock features in the area. There was no dirt road to take advantage of on this one - it would be all cross-country. The hillside looked to be at least partially grazed by cattle, but some oak forest/brush was inevitable. My plan was to look for a way through the understory lower down, avoid poison oak, and hope the short distance would make whatever bushwhacking I encountered mercifully brief.

I hopped a dilapidated fence alongside the road and moved away from the roadway. I wandered around the edge of a pasture area until I found a somewhat clear path up through the oaks that cover the lower part of the hillside. I was happy to find poison oak sparingly along the route. Though not clear, the understory required only modest bushwhacking to push through to the steeper, but clearer slopes above. I kept my headlamp close to the ground once again as I moved into the open view from cars and homes below, but it was sufficiently rural that there was little chance of detection. Once at the base of Castle Peak I found things a little more challenging than I expected. The last 100ft or so are rocky and cliffy. I saw no obvious way around the west side so I moved around to the SE side where I found steep climbing through moderate brush on the verge of becoming class 3. The top rocks were wonderfully free of trees and had an open view of the North Bay Area to the southwest. A 10-12ft flagpole had been installed at the summit long ago, reinforced at a later date, but no flag was currently flying. Though the weakest summit in terms of prominence, Castle Peak was the most interesting feature I visited of the five. It was a quick descent back to the van, interrupted only briefly while I turned the light off to wait for a car to drive by down on Soda Canyon Rd.

My next peak to visit was Mt. George. It is located northeast of downtown Napa, just south of SR121. I didn't know it at the time, but the summit and much of the mountain is owned the the non-profit Napa Land Trust. They ask that you contact them for permission (which I did after the fact) which is granted if you either go on one of their guided hikes (about once or twice a year) or first do some volunteer work for the trust before doing the hike on your own. It was the most difficult of the five summits to figure out a way to reach the top, especially so at night. A road that runs around the east side of the peak was blocked by a gate (one of those tall iron ones, that mark the entrance to many gated communities). I tried hiking from SR121 on the north side of Mt. George which ran right by someone's house and ended up leading me into large swaths of poison oak that I retreated from. Back in the car, I was feeling like a teenage hooligan out for trouble in the middle of the night, driving and snooping around, watching out for neighbors and law enforcement. Only in my case I was trying to reach the top of a mountain, not find a place to drink booze or spray paint my name on a rock. Eventually I tried a dead end road on the northwest side that seemed like my best, last option. I was becoming convinced this one might not be possible. The narrow, paved road turned to gravel/dirt as it went through a gate indicating private road. I didn't know if there was an occupied home at the end or not, but before I got to the end I pulled over at what turned out to be the only spot I could do so before pulling into someone's driveway in front of their house. A minute after I started out I found this home at the end of the road with a truck parked outside. All the lights of the home were turned off and there was thankfully no barking dog to greet me. At this point I probably should have turned back and normally would have, seeing as this was the end of the road where it's just a a turnaround in front of the home. I recalled seeing on the satellite view what looked like a path starting from a water tank somewhere around here - but where was the water tank?

I moved over to the left side of the cul-de-sac, furthest from the house where a path looked to start between two bushes. By now the moon was up and I would have to rely on it because there was no way I was going to turn on a headlamp only 25ft from someone's house. It looked like the path was just going across the top of the backyard, maybe an access path to get around his hillside. I was wondering how the heck I would explain to the owner what I was doing wandering around in his backyard when I noticed a trail leaving his yard and a sign for the Napa Land Trust. Paydirt! I moved cautiously along the trail about 50yds until the house was out of view, then turned on the headlamp, using it in my hand to illuminate the ground at my feet. I didn't want to run into poison oak unexpectedly. The trail seemed to merely circumnavigate the mountain as it didn't gain or lose much elevation as I followed it around several ravines heading south on the west side of the summit, about halfway up the mountain. It was a very nice trail, well-maintained, but not heavily used by the looks of it. At one ravine crossing was the half-buried remains of an old vehicle. How it got there is a bit of a mystery. There are no roads anywhere above or nearby, but surely at some time in the past 60 or 70 years, there must have been. I came to a junction after perhaps a quarter mile where the left fork looked to run up a ridge to the summit. More gold. And a good thing too, because the mountain was too heavily encrusted with manzanita to have made a cross-country effort possible. I followed this zigzagging trail up through the manzanita, neatly tunneling its way to the summit. I don't think this was the route I had spied beforehand, but it would do nicely.

It was now after 3a and the summit did not offer much in the way of views, though one could get a view to the city lights off to the west a short distance below the summit. It looked like there were three trails converging on the summit from different directions and I took a few minutes to check out the other two to see that they actually went someplace other than petering out. Like the other two summits I had visited, there was no register to be found though this one certainly saw more visitors than the others. The return went quickly enough, jogging down through the manzanita tunnels, along the circumnavigating trail, the lights off while slowly passing the home and back to the van. I was happy to be done with the three most difficult ones in terms of access and breathed a sigh of relief when I got back on the highway.

Next up was Sugarloaf Peak overlooking Lake Berryessa. I drove about 30 minutes northeast along SR121 to the lake, utilizing SR128 where SR121 ended, then the Berryessa-Knoxville road to just past the Olive Orchard Day Use Area (part of the Lake Berryessa Recreation Area) on the right side of the road, fairly close to the starting point I had identified from the satellite views. I was unsure if the peak was on private or public lands. It certainly wasn't on parklands, but it may have been BLM land (which in the end was my conclusion). At worst it was thinly populated ranchland which I wasn't too worried about. It was just before 4:30a and still quite dark, but I knew it would be light soon. I expected I could get back before anyone might be coming around to start work on the ranch.

Immediately across the road from the picnic area was a gate across a dirt road that looks to have been some years since it was last used. This led to the wrong side of the creek and seemed to go nowhere in particular, not the road I recalled from the satellite view. So I spent perhaps ten minutes wandering around the flood zone of the now dry creek, weaving through very tall grass, picking up unwanted burrs and generally not having much fun with it. Eventually I managed to find my way to the actual road on the east side of the creek, some distance from the pavement. Oddly, on the way back I found that the road does not nicely connect with the pavement via another gate I assumed I had missed. It sort of peters out in the field, despite recent grading that was done on it. Instead of being the start of the road, this seemed to be its end, and likely the owner didn't want to connect it to the pavement or perhaps unable to due to easement issues.

I followed the road for most of an hour as it first followed above the dry stream channel then switchbacked steeply up to a ridgeline at 1,200ft where the angle lessened but was followed by a few ups and downs. I dropped down about 200ft to a saddle before the last half mile for the final climb up to the peak. Several junction were marked by OHV signs indicating at least the part around the summit was on BLM land. They were somewhat confusing, not marked to get one to the summit and I took a few wrong turns before figuring it out. The day was beginning to break as I headed north along the undulating ridge before the saddle, and it was not long before the eastern sky was alit. The last short stretch to the summit was a use trail starting from the highest point the OHV roads reached, and about ten minutes before 6a I reached the summit. A nicely painted rock depicting a mallard duck served as a covering for an ammo box underneath, amidst a modest summit cairn. The register, placed in 2005, mostly held the names of firefighters from the firestation down by the lake on the east side of the peak that they probably used for a workout routine. It was still almost an hour before sunrise, but the lake was beautifully illuminated by the reflection of the eastern sky off its surface.

I had planned to tag nearby Little Sugarloaf Peak as a bonus but lost interest somewhere along the way to Sugarloaf Peak. Sugarloaf was actually a pretty good looking peak from the south, but its little neighbor not so much. I returned along the same three mile route I had taken on the way up, seeing most of it in the dawn light for the first time. The few scattered clouds overhead took on shades of pink and then orange in preparation for sunrise. I returned to the van just before the sun came up and immediately started back to Napa.

A dozen hot air balloons were rising in the sky to the northwest as I drove through the east side of town to the last summit and second Sugarloaf of the day. This one is located in the Skyline Wilderness Park SE of town, the only one of the five with clear public access. The gate to the park was closed upon my arrival about twenty minutes before its 8a opening. By the time 8a rolled around and the park attendant arrived to open the gate and man the entrance kiosk, there was a small gathering of additional cars also waiting to get in. I paid the fee, checked out the park map and started off in search of the trail system. It's not as obvious as you might expect. One needs to get to the south side of Marie Creek and Camille Lake, going past some sort of natural vegetation display garden, a campground and picnic areas. A few small signs are most helpful to keep you on the right track while others just tried to scare you. Eventually I reached Lake Marie Rd, a combination of dirt and gravel, and followed it upstream past a small spring and some wild turkeys to a trail junction marked by signs and a fig tree. It was a very nice park, really, with lots of shade and interesting trails, very popular with the locals.

From the fig tree junction I turned left, crossed a bridge and found the start of the Rim Rock Trail that climbs up past the summit of Sugarloaf. The trail climbs out of the oak forest to gain views of Mt. Tampalpais to the west and the town of Napa to the northwest. It eventually re-enters forest near the summit where the understory is rife with poison oak. A small pile of rocks marks the highest point, but there are no views to be had from this point. I had planned to head cross-country for about half a mile to a higher, unnamed peak to the east, but the intial cross-country I started on had so much poison oak that I thought it unwise to continue and returned to the safer trail system. Back at the summit and the Rim Rock Trail, I decided to make a loop out of the return and headed south off the back side of Sugarloaf. A sign indicated the trail was very steep and narrow but I brushed it off as nanny rangering. I was jogging the downhill through this section when, sure enough, I slipped and took a nice tumble, precisely on the section I was warned about. I got up, inspected my fresh abrasions, dusted myself off and continued down - much more carefully this time.

I had a better view of the higher eastern peak during the descent and could see what was probably a better route along a grassy hillside that could have gotten me to the antenna-topped summit. But by now I had dropped 300-400ft in elevation, losing most of my earlier enthusiasm, so I gave it up. I dropped down to a shady creek where I reached a junction with the Skyline Trail. This is part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail that is envisioned to eventually encircle the entire Bay Area on the surrounding ridgelines. The trail currently extends east of the nearby park boundary only about a mile. I turned right and followed the trail on first the north and then the south side of the creek as it follows downstream to Lake Marie. There were more people on the trail now, many coming up to view the lake, a smallish one, made by a rancher years ago by pushing dirt across a stream channel with a bulldozer. I continued on the Skyline Trail as it climbs high above the lake and follows along a descending ridgeline with nice views to the Napa region off the west side. There were some interesting stretches of old rock wall along the route, the type that were built by farmers and ranchers in days of old when clearing the rocks from their land. The trail passed by an active quarry that was the source of some heavy machinery noise in the distance, then dropped back down toward Camille Lake. I found some blackberries lining a portion of the trail, many of them ripe, and wondered why they hadn't been picked over more with so many visitors. I sampled a few and found them quite yummy.

I got back to the parking lot by 11a, finding it rather busy. I hadn't realized until then that it was Saturday morning and the higher traffic should have been expected. There was one other CC peak in the area but it was on private lands and I had had enough for one day (or is that really one night?) and would leave it for another time. I got back to San Jose not too long after noon, stopping only for gas and a treat from Starbucks. It had been a good outing and I felt like I'd done a good job maximizing the fun I got out of what would otherwise have been a mundane taxi job.

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