Etymology Story

It had been a few months since I had done a moonlight hike, and with October's full moon upon us, I decided to head to Calistoga. With the Sierra season winding down, my attention was drifting back to the CC list and the coastal summits north of the Bay Area. I had done some research on two of these, Sugarloaf Mtn and High Point, earlier in the year, finding that both could be done on a single outing of some 18-20 miles. It appeared to be all on private property. This was not one I could probably do with my regular moonlight buddies nor one I could do with only a partial moon. I had left the project unrealized as summer approached, but now seemed a great opportunity with fine weather and clear skies in the forecast. With some traffic on a Saturday evening it took more than two hours to reach Calistoga. SR29 was particularly busy with the wine touring folks that invade the Napa region on any given weekend. I stopped at the market on the east end of town to get a sandwich for dinner. Of course these aren't your standard Safeway $3 sandwiches, but the more gourmet variety expected by Calistoga visitors. It was pretty good too, I must admit.

Just as I passed Silverado Road and was heading north out of town, I spied an open dirt lot that looked to be a trailhead parking area. I pulled in to investigate what turned out to be the Oat Hill Trailhead. Upon reading the map posted at the kiosk, lo and behold, almost the entire hike I was planning to do this evening was on Open Space Preserve property! What a wonderful surprise. The map showed a second trailhead little more than a mile from Sugarloaf Mtn, but reaching it would involve a bunch of additional driving I was in no mood for. Because it was on public lands, it meant I had the option to do the hike during daytime with better views, but since I hadn't come prepared with any alternatives I was happy to continue with the hike agenda as planned, even if it would be many miles longer. Not all the land is public though its difficult to distinguish without carrying a map as there were no fences to be crossed anywhere along the route. Since the trails don't actually reach to the summits, there would be some non-trivial cross-country to do by moonlight. Overall, it was a really great outing.

There were two other cars in the lot as I started out. One belonged to a couple of mountain bikers who came down the trail only minutes after I had started out just before 7:30p. It was almost completely dark and how the one managed to ride down the rough trail was a bit of a mystery. His buddy was a few minutes behind him, more cautiously walking his bike. The other car belonged to a handful of locals who had hiked up to an overlook bench found in the first mile. They were enjoying the view with their dog who took an immediately dislike to me upon my approach. Fortunately they had it firmly on a leash and I was saved the trouble of digging out my pepper spray. We excanged greetings and I bade them a good evening as I continued up.

The trail follows an old 4x4 road that climbs steeply up the hillside about 2,000ft in four miles. In places the road is very rough and eroded, no longer passable by vehicles and difficult even for bike and foot traffic. By the looks of the heavy footwear, its a very popular trail. From many points I could see the lights of Calistoga and others south in the lower stretches of the Napa Valley. There was a football game somewhere in town which I couldn't see, but the announcers voice carried well up the hill for more than an hour. The first bonus summit was about 2.5 miles up the trail, Bald Hill, aptly named for its appearance. the summit has little prominence, but there are several rocky protuberances sticking out from the grassy surroundings. The highest is no more than class 2, but several others appeared harder, possibly class 5. It did not seem wise to play around on these at night, so I left them undisturbed. I took a photo of the Calistoga lights before continuing.

By 9p I had reached the major junction found at a saddle about 4 miles from the trailhead. Here the Palisades Trail heads northwest to join up with Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. This would be an interesting stretch to do another time. Heading southeast is the route to High Point, though it is unmarked and hard to find, especially at night. I continued in the northeast direction towards Sugarloaf. The saddle is located atop the crest between Napa and Pope Valleys. The trail now followed into Swartz Canyon which leads into the latter valley. There were no visible lights seen to the east, but the moon provided ample light to see well down Swartz Canyon and the surrounding hills. The trail stays high in the canyon as it makes its way towards a second saddle between Swartz and Bear Canyons about three miles further. Just before this saddle, there are acres of interesting rock leading up to unnamed Peak 2,943ft that looked like a lot of fun. Others have apparently found this likewise, to the dismay of still others who may own portions of it and have marked it as such. That they chose to use spray paint directly on the rock and had trouble with spelling creates a not-so-great impression for passerbys.

Not long after 10p I found myself on the north side of the summit less than a quarter mile from the top. I had taken an old side road off the main trail to reach this point which is as close as one can get by easy means. From here, I headed into the heavy woods for the final stretch. Being on the north side, it meant more trees and less brush, but there was still plenty of ducking, dodging and weaving my way through the busy understory to find my way to the top. I was happy it took barely 15 minutes for this last stretch. I was surprised to find a register, a geocache no less, atop the summit. It had been placed only a year earlier and was housed in a sturdy ammo box. There had been only a handful of visitors in the past 18 months, to no great surprise. The views were outstanding really, but I was unable to find a location above the brush to set a camera to record the scene.

I spent the next hour and a half returning via the same route to the major junction at the first saddle. Try as I might, I could not find the old road depicted on the map that leads to High Point. Thinking perhaps it had been deliberately obscured to discourage trail users, I wandered up an animal trail to a higher saddle near Duff BM where I found an old campfire ring. On the other side of this saddle I headed northeast towards Browns Hill before stumbling upon the road I was looking for. I suspected at first that this section was on private property, but came to find later it was part the Duff Ranch that was acquired by the Land Trust of Napa County. Access is supposed to be by permission only. Oh well. I followed the old road as it wandered along the ridgeline towards High Point, about two miles from the main junction. The road then peels off to the north where it passes by with a tenth of a mile on the southwest side of High Point. Luckily there is some open hillside found leading up towards the summit, with only a modest amount of bushwhacking near the end to reach the rocky top.

It was nearly 12:40p when I reached High Point (not such a clever name, that one, especially since Browns Hill, only a mile away, is higher). The summit has an awesome view of the whole of Napa Valley, the lights lit up like Christmas running for miles down its length. The lights of San Francisco could be seen much further to the south. A glass jar left a year ago by David Naylor was found in the rocks. David had visited Sugarloaf as well the same November day, apparently doing a day version of the hike I was on. So far, his is the most recognized name I've found on these obscure Coastal Range peaks. On the way back, I made a quick side trip up a steep, grassy slope to visit Grassy Hill (you probably could have guessed that, huh?). It was a second bonus peak that offered zero views as the top was buried in brush and trees. But tucked under the tree at the highest point was a second glass jar, also left by David. Clearly there was another peakbagger out there with standards as low as my own.

As I was returning by the southwest side of Browns Hill I thought I might have time to attempt it as well. It is further from the trails than the other summits and from the satellite view appears to have cliffs to contend with. I found what looked like a promising side trail heading in the right direction that I decided to follow. It led not to the summit, but to an old dilapidated treehouse that someone had built up against a cliff wall. It was a very odd find. It had been well-constructed and included a table, benches, ladder and some chairs, but years and weathering have taken their toll on it. It sits near a small pool that might have been part of the reason for its construction. The pool was stagnant and stale-looking at present, but perhaps at one time it had been part of a summer getaway for the Duff Ranch folks. I never did find my way to Browns Hill and left that for a future endeavor, preferrably in daylight.

It was almost 3a by the time I returned to the trailhead along SR29. It had been a most enjoyable outing. I had plans to hike more in the morning but had to be home by the early afternoon for a family obligation. I thought better of my plan and decided I'd rather do another night hike the following evening, so instead of bedding down I simply drove home to San Jose, showered and went to bed by 5:30a. Only to get up and do it again the next day - does it get any better than that?


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