Elkhorn Peak CC
Mt. Saint John P500 CC
Mt. Veeder P1K CC
Bismark Knob CC
Bennett Mountain P1K CC

Mon, Feb 25, 2013
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 4 GPXs: 1 2 3 4 5 Profiles: 1 2 3 4 5

For a number of years now I've been doing night hikes, primarily in the Diablo Range which is 90%+ private property. While there are still plenty of secondary peaks to keep me busy there for many more years, I've cleaned out the CC-listed peaks and most of the P1Ks. In fact I only have three CC peaks south of SF Bay but there are nearly as many north of the Bay as there are to the south. If I'm going to continue to make headway on the list I knew I had to start making trips north, but I've always been shy about it for fear of the dreaded East Bay traffic. With a full moon scheduled for Monday, it was time to bite the bullet and pay a visit to the Napa/Sonoma area to tag some of these summits. There were four private property ones that I had first on my agenda, needing to get them done before daylight. I had an additional five summits on public lands that could be done during the day, but I only managed one of these. After 25 miles and 5,000ft collectively between the five I did, I had to admit I was pretty tired and my feet were pretty beat up. There was far too much bushwhacking that burned up a lot of time and the ticks and poison oak didn't make things any easier.

Elkhorn Peak

Elkhorn is a prominent landmark north of SR12 on the drive between Fairfield and Napa. All the terrain around the summit is ranch land, almost completely covered in grass with a smattering of trees, particularly near the summit. Hiking to the summit is easy, parking is not. They're in the process of widening SR12 and while they've provided access for the few residents along the highway, its not clear if I was parking illegally in the work zone. I figured it was a short hike and I wouldn't be there long. I had to hop two fences at the start, one a construction zone fence and the other the standard barbed-wire ranch fence. The grass is tall and luxurious right off the road - this parcel hadn't been grazed yet this season and I found several ticks (or rather, they found me) in there. There were cows along the way that didn't like my being there. They mooed to let me know, then ran away, then mooed again from a distance for good measure. I followed a ridge from the pavement up to about the 850-foot level before traversing through a flat-ish area south of the ridge to avoid some minor up and downs. I approached the summit from the west and then northwest, finding some moss and lichen-laden rock scrambling through a bit of dense forest. I finally found the summit at the SE end of a short ridgeline, an old steel tower dominating the large clearing found here. It appears to be the scaffolding that once held a lookout tower. The highpoint might also be found northwest of the clearing in a thicket of trees, so I thrashed around in there for a minute or two just to be sure. There is an old, steep dirt road, no longer driveable, leading west and southwest from the summit clearing that was much easier than the rock and forest scramble. I took this down and then rejoined my original route back across the traverse and down the ascent ridge, once again crossing two property boundaries in the process. The round trip time was just over an hour and a half, handily the easiest hike of the night.

Mt. Saint John

St. John lies just east of the Napa/Sonoma border in the hills that separate these two famous wine growing valleys. A road traverses the SW side of the summit about 600ft below the top, a 3.5 mile hike from Oakville Grade Rd. The satellite view shows the summit to be heavily covered in chaparral so I was particularly worried about this one - I might end up hiking 7 miles with no summit to show for it if the brush proved too dense or the poison oak to ubiquitous.

As I was finishing Elkhorn and getting back in the car, I took my boots off and found a tick partly embedded in my ankle. The ticks in the area are smaller than those of the Diablo Range, but they waste no time getting to business. I had failed to do a tick check before getting in the car and wondered how many other unwelcome hitchhikers I might have brought into the van with me. It took a little more than half an hour to cover the drive between the two trailheads. There is a locked gate barring access to the dirt road off Oakville Grade Rd, but there is a huge dirt area along the pavement with ample parking. There are occupied homes on the opposite side of the road to the south, but they are mostly out of view and of little concern. I followed the road as I had outlined the route on my GPS. It is a good dirt road that could be driven by any vehicle (were there no gate), with a pretty tame gradient most of the way. At the only junction I turned left to take the uphill fork that climbs before traversing the SW side. Though shaded in many portions, the decent grading meant I didn't need to use my headlamp. There are many open places along the road with fine views of the surrounding countryside, free from the distraction of city lights. The moon was high overhead by this time and quite bright. An old blue pickup truck with a shell startled me at first because I thought it might be occupied or otherwise parked next to an occupied home. Upon closer inspection it looks to have been there for some time, but well preserved.

When I got to the base of the summit and it was time to leave the road, I geared up with gloves and dove into the underbrush. My first effort was rebuffed before I had climbed 100ft - I found the brush well over head level, incredibly dense and dusty to boot. My second attempt was further north on a more westerly facing slope with a gully and more trees that provided occasional clearings. I used animal trails where I could, thrashed through and over thick brush where I couldn't, eventually bullying my way to the upper clearing found on the west side of the peak. It was a very steep slope overall - 600ft in a third of a mile. The summit had a simple wooden "T" held together with wire (possibly from a survey tower). A few rusty tools had been left at the base - a hand saw and scythe - symbols no doubt of the effort needed to reach it. I found no register (same with the other four summits as well). The summit has a good 180 degree view towards the south. My return down the West Slope went much better thanks to better clearings and a better use of the animal trails - only a modest amount of bushwhacking, I was happy to find. This one took almost three hours, round trip.

On the drive to the next peak, I noticed chaffing under my arm that might have been caused by my pack. I reached under my shirt to check it out and felt a small bump. Did I have another tick? I pulled over and awkwardly tried to see it in the rearview mirror. Unsuccessful, I thought to use the camera to take a picture with one hand while I held my shirt up with the other. It took four or five tries before I was able to confirm what I suspected. Dang it. Here it was past 2a and I had to do surgery in the middle of my outing. I got out the tweezers from my swiss army knife, but couldn't blindly find the tick by poking around. I had to kneel in a twisted fashion on the driver's seat while I looked behind me in the mirror to get a hold on the tick. It took several tries, but it came out. Bad tick. At least it wasn't on my back - that would have been a real problem. It didn't help that the hand I had used to probe for and remove the tick had been contaminated with poison oak. A large area roughly the size of my hand would be red with the rash in less than 24hrs.

Mt. Veeder

Mt. Veeder is found about 4 miles due south of Mt. St. John in the same group of hills between Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Higher than St. John, it has more than 1,200ft of prominence. Al Sandorff had written me a few months ago on his attempt at Mt. Veeder. He got chased off by an angry homeowner and was foiled by terrible brush on the south side of the summit. An old dirt road goes almost directly over the summit, but utilizing this is difficult. There are two entrances off Cavedale Rd on the northwest side of the mountain that can be used to access the summit road. One goes through a vineyard and right by a ritzy house that can be seen in the satellite view to sport a large putting green and surrounding chipping turf, along with a swimming pool, large living spaces and impeccable landscaping. They might also have good security. I didn't try this one. The other route passes through or by several seedier-looking homesteads, at least one of these occupied. I didn't know this until I had started the hike and quickly had to opt for plan "B" which followed Al's route around to the south side of Veeder. This road passes uncomfortably by one house near the end, but at least doesn't go through the property. After passing by this last house, there are lights from another that can be seen where the road dips to a vineyard and this lighted home. It would be possible to pick up the south end of the road going over Veeder in this area, but one would need to go through the home's property. The slope going up the south side is initially a piece of cake of mostly grass, but deteriorates quickly after about 300ft. The brush is dense and thick with much downfall piled haphazardly. An odd piece of flagging gave me hope that I might find a clipped route through the brush, but it seemed to indicate nothing of the kind. I spent more than 30 minutes fighting for a few hundred feet, a most frustrating effort.

I eventually stumbled upon the old summit road and checked the elevation. I went southeast along the road to visit the benchmark indicated on the map at a slightly lower elevation. I did not find the benchmark among the trees but did find a small communications tower and seismic monitoring instrument. Not wanting to relive the fun of the bushwhacking on the south side, I went back over the summit and down the northwest side. The road has not been driven on in years judging from the size of the shrubs growing there, but it was easily navigated on foot, even at night, albeit with a headlamp to keep from stumbling over loose rocks, shrubs and other obstacles. I was nearly back to the lower road I had taken earlier when I came suddenly upon an old gate, unopened in ages. Beyond it I could see several buildings, vehicles, and lots of junk. This was when I realized the road goes through the property, not around it. I immediately doused my headlamp and pondered the scene. There were no barking dogs, thank goodness, but it seemed dangerous to hop the fence and walk through the property. Leaves and brittle branches littering the ground made walking stealthily impossible. My only real alternative was to try to bushwhack my way around the property to the left. This was more awfulness, which abundant poison oak did nothing to alleviate. I came upon an old garbage dump amidst the chaos I was stumbling through, stuff that has been around for five decades or more. I nearly bumped into a cabin which gave me a small fright until I realized it was empty and abandoned. By the time I had regained the road I was none to happy to be done with Veeder and quickly hiked the short distance back to the Cavedale Rd pavement. I would not be recommending Mt. Veeder to anyone without a masochistic streak.

Bismark Knob

A short distance south of Mt. Veeder is another CC peak, Bismark Knob. It lies on the crest of the main ridge on the county boundary but has only a few hundred feet of prominence. The topo map shows a dirt road running from the north along the county boundary from Cavedale reaching to the summit. The satellite view shows a newer road traversing below the southwest side of the ridge, reaching nearly to the summit. This is the obvious route I should have taken, but for some unknown reason the route I entered into the GPS was the older, far less certain route along the ridgetop. This turned out to be a big mistake. I was able to drive to within a mile of the summit which led me to believe this was going to be an easy one, and I didn't bother to bring any water. I was parked at the junction of the two routes. The route to the right heading downhill had two fancy stone pillars suggesting wealth lay in that direction. The ridgeline route on the left had a Surfer Crossing sign suggesting a more laid back attitude and seemed more welcoming. I started to the left.

A thousand feet from the start I found the road going right through someone's property. A strong wind was blowing now which drowned out any noise I might make which gave me some comfort to continue. I stepped gingerly past what looked like two homesteads and disappeared over a small knoll where the road continues downhill to a small vineyard. Here the easy part ended. I could find no traces of the old road depicted on the topo and began yet another unwelcomed bushwhacking odyssey. Awful, awful stuff was found on the other side of the fence intended to keep wildlife from the vineyards and children from being lost to the wilderness. More downed trees, thick brush, choking dust and plenty of poison oak that I would surely regret in the days to come. Further on I found what looked like traces of the old road, now overgrown with waist high manzanita that cut and poked into my legs and thighs as I tried to highstep over it. I had covered perhaps 2/3 of the bushwhacking distance to the summit when I came up the newer road I should have taken. This helped some, but did not go to the summit directly so there was more thrashing to be had. I made several attempts to reach the highest point from different angles before satisfying myself that I had wandered over the highpoint. It was all heavily covered in chaparral and had no clearing or obviously higher point, even more disappointing than Mt. Veeder.

I started to follow the newer road back but was puzzled when it turned southeast. It looked to be going in the entirely wrong direction so I turned around and relived the bushwhacking nightmare. Had I gone maybe a hundred feet further I would have found the road had turned a corner and headed back in the right direction. Sadly, I had seen the satellite view of this beforehand and remembered it keenly when I got back home for a second look, but at the time I had it jumbled up with the directions and views from the eight other summits I had researched in the time just before my evening departure. I think what I really need are the satellite overlays for my GPS. That would be awesome.

When I got back to the van it was just after 6a and it was already growing light. I was happy to see there were no signs of early risers in the homes as I passed by them a second time. I stripped off all my clothes and put on fresh ones to reduce the amount of poison oak exposure. This would help, but I would be breaking out in rashes by the next day, the cruel price I pay for doing battle with such hills. I was happy to be done with the private property hikes before sunrise, and anything after this would be gravy. I was getting both sleepy and bone-weary. There would not be much in the way of bonus today and it was apparent my grand plan for nine summits was overly enthusiastic.

Bennett Mountain

Bennett Mountain is the second highest named summit in the Sonoma Mountains, a small range separating Sonoma Valley to the east from Cotati and Petaluma Valleys to the west. Like Mt. Veeder, it is both on the CC-list and a P1K. Unlike Veeder, it is easily accessible at any time of the day. Though technically outside of Annadel State Park on private property, it is just barely so and the only reasonable way to reach it is from inside the park where a trail has been conveniently allowed to pass through the park fence and make its way to the summit. The park has many miles of trails (many are old ranch roads) that criss-cross the rolling, oak-studded hills. Like most of the coastal hills in California at this time of year, they are very green with new grass. It took me a little more than half an hour to drive from Cavedale Rd back to Oakville Grade Rd and to one of the THs for the state park found just off SR12. At something over 5 miles and 1,600ft of gain to the summit, it was the longest hike of the day, though far from the hardest. It was really quite pleasant though my feet were sore and would have preferred a shorter walk.

I followed a series of trails from the SE end of the park up switchbacks and to a large marsh shown on the topo map as a lake. The trail going by it is called the Marsh Trail, so I doubt it sees much life as a lake. At a junction I followed the Ridge Trail, thinking it might go over the summit, given the name. It doesn't. The Ridge trail actually traverses around the east side of Bennett Mountain and I found I had to cut cross-country to find the old road/trail that actually runs along the park boundary fence on the ridgeline. There is a homestead found nearby that may have been the cause of this ridgeline route falling to disuse. Cattle still graze the area and along with other summit seekers, have kept the old road quite servicable. Along the way there are views south to Sonoma Mountain, southwest to Bennett Valley and east to Mt. Hood across Sonoma Valley. The summit itself offers poor views, and has some growth of poison oak that one has to watch out for in the short stretch from the trail to the summit cairn. Moss and lichen adorning the rocks in the cairn suggest it is decades old. There was no register or benchmark to be found. Tacked to a tree was a memorial newspaper article for a Richard Blackwell who had died in 2012. There was no mention of his connection with Bennett Mountain. Even before I had written this trip report I got an email from someone who knew him and saw the photo I had posted:

That's really odd. Richard Blackwell was in my class at Oberlin College. I knew him only slightly. I remember that he played the trumpet. How strange to find an obituary notice tacked up along a trail in Sonoma County. He must have had some connection there, but there's nothing in the notice that connects him with California.

Kind regards,
Herb Childs

It had taken me almost two hours to reach the summit. Some jogging and a bit of cross-country across the open, grassy slopes to shorten the distance had me back in about an hour and quarter. I would have liked to add the other peaks I had planned onto the day, but I was both short of time and energy. I would save them for a spring day trip to the area since they are all on public lands. I stopped in Sonoma to buy a box of salty crackers and a Starbucks drink to fortify me for the ride home. My daughter would be happy to find I was back in time to pick her up from school. That almost makes up for missing the walk to school with her in the morning. Fortunately, she's somewhat understanding...

Anonymous comments on 04/06/15:
Hey Bob. As of 2015, the ridge line you took is still not grazed and has grown even thicker, making it impassible in sections. I recommend following the gully just east of the ridge line. This is currently being grazed, and it is best to follow the fence until it right angles. The cows here are very brave compared to the other cows on the mountain. There is also parking now just off the freeway.
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