East Peak P2K CC / NN
Mt. Saint Helena East CC
Mt. Saint Helena P1K CC / NN
Cobb Mountain P2K CC

Fri, Apr 30, 2004
East Peak
Mt. Saint Helena East
Mt. Saint Helena
Cobb Mountain
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 Profiles: 1 2 3
East Peak later climbed Mon, Mar 11, 2013
Cobb Mountain later climbed Sun, Jan 8, 2006

Having a Friday to blow, I decided to hit some county highpoints in the North Bay. On the schedule would be the highpoints of Marin, Napa, and Sonoma Counties, which I expected I could do before about 6p, assuming I got an early start - but not too early. I wanted to start climbing Tamalpais, the first of the day, just as it was getting light to avoid the headlamp, maybe even get on top for sunrise. And by leaving San Jose at 4:30a I was able to avoid all the usual traffic one might find on US101 between San Jose and San Francisco.

I did manage to get off-route on the drive as the freeway portion of US101 ends rather abruptly in downtown SF. Though at first I managed to follow the street signs indicating how US101 winds its way through the city, I lost it somewhere and ended up heading west towards the ocean somewhere south of Golden Gate Park. Street life in SF never dies, but those folks still out at 5:15a as I drove through were mostly of the homeless variety, moving to stay warm, to fight boredom, or maybe to walk off a hangover. Maybe all three. I eventually found my way back to US101 on the north side of the Presidio, just as it starts making its way over the Golden Gate bridge. Quite a lovely drive, it would have been even better if it hadn't been reduced to two very narrow lanes (to allow rush hour traffic to take up 4 coming the other direction) that required steady concentration (no aimless gazing over the bridge to see if any boats are on the water at night, or to take in the view). By the time I turned off onto SR1, Panorama Highway, and parked near the Mountain House Inn, it was nearly 6a and just light enough to hike without a headlamp.

I could have just driven the entire route to the top of East Peak (except the last few hundred yards) since a fine road makes its way up there. But to keep it sporting I chose the Fern Creek Trail from Gary Suttle's book (as did I for the hikes up the next two peaks as well). The hike itself wasn't much to get excited about - a fireroad past a water tank and a fire station, followed by a single track up along dry Fern Creek, then out on the road to the top for the end, less than 4 miles round trip. What added a bit of magic was that I started in the fog, but soon rose above the cloud layer just before sunrise. I thought I was going to be cold when I started, but it warmed up nicely and was fine with just a t-shirt. I missed reaching the summit before sunrise, but I had the summit tower to myself as I walked around it in the early morning at 6:35a when I arrived. All of the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco (with the exception of Sutro Tower) were socked in, as was much of the surrounding area. But there were breaks in the cover and one could see portions of the Bay, Mt. Diablo to the southeast, and many of the lower, rolling hills in Marin and Sonoma Counties. I stayed but a few minutes (the lookout tower is tightly locked and guarded with barbed wire), before heading down. Jogging the whole way, I was easily back at the car (and back in the fog) by 7a.

Though still chilly out with the sun hidden from view again, I put the top down and headed on to Napa County. With the heater cranking to keep out the chill, I zipped down SR1 with the commuter traffic, then headed north on US101 (thankfully against the traffic heading south into the city). I was more than an hour ahead of plan, and wisked through Santa Rosa where the sun finally broke through the fog and began to warm the day (it would very soon get too warm). I took a very fine county road from Santa Rosa to Calistoga (a gorgeous drive), then headed north on SR29. As I left Calistoga I noted that I was nearly empty on gas - a bit of a tactical error. Not wanting to turn around, I guessed I ought to have another 20 miles left in the tank, so I wound my way up the curving road. At the summit is the turnout described in Suttle's book for Mt. St. Helena, and I dutifully pulled over and parked. I would worry about gas when I got back.

I was expecting more for a state park, but was disappointed. The first mile is on a decent enough trail, but the switchbacks are so flat that by the erosion that abounded it would seem that most hikers get fed up and cut the trail in dozens of places (for the record I didn't cut any of the switchbacks, but I had none of my usual anymosity towards those that did). There is a memorial plaque to Robert Louis Stevenson (for whom the park is named) in that first mile. Apparently he spent some time in a cabin (no longer there) nearby. Big deal, I thought. A big celebrity comes by and spends some time in the boondocks, then the locals go ga-ga and name a park for him. I just hope they don't have a Michael Jackson something-or-other in Santa Barbara some day.

After the first mile the trail ends at a fireroad, a well-graded access road for the various communication towers found on the summits. One follows this rather boring road the rest of the way. At one turn in the road there is a 40-50ft crag with a number of bolts visible, evidence of sport climbing in Napa County. With the south-facing exposure I don't imagine too many climbers could bear the heat found here for six months out of the year. As the day began to warm, the views grew more hazy too. The vast Central Valley to the east was a dismal brown fog, nothing recognizeable there. In time the road tops out to the north of South Peak, giving one the first view of East Peak (really they should be called Southeast, Middle, and Northwest Peak since that is how they are aligned, but it has been simplified to just South and North by the State Park Service, with East Peak only getting named in Suttle's Book due to its relation to the higher North Peak) with it's antenna-topped summit. The road heads down slightly to a saddle between East and South peaks before resuming the last few hundred feet of the climb. I hiked up to East Peak, climbed on the roof of the building there for better views and a few pictures, then left a few minutes later - not much enticing one to linger. I then hiked over to the higher North Peak, at once believed the Sonoma County HP.

At the summit one finds more telecom equipment, along with a dilapidated outhouse (with a great open view to the north, however) and a memorial to the first European ascentionists. A group of Russians from nearby Fort Ross climbed it in 1841, leaving a inscription on the summit. The peak was evidently named for the patron saint of a princess who accompanied the group according to legend. n 1912 a monument that is still at the summit was erected to honor these Russian explorers. Sadly, the telecommunication towers have been given preference and the monument now stands hidden behind a shed. There appears to be the remains of a summit register as well, probably placed at the same time as the monument. I jogged back during the decent, returning to the car at 11:20a. Two down one to go. In an unusual reversal of the norm, I was finding the driving the most pleasant part of the day and the hiking rather dull.

I was still low on gas upon my return, but from the parking lot it was downhill and less than ten miles to Middletown. Middletown is a small rural town with unusual charm. None of the touristy type places one finds in Calistoga and similar places, just a small town serving the needs of the local area, mostly ranches, farms, and of course vineyards. I stopped at the Union 76 for gas and inside found a small deli that made a most delicious pastrami on rye that I had for lunch. Highly recommended! After lunch I headed north on SR29 towards Cobb Mtn. The access road in Suttle's book points out that it is on private property, though commonly used to gain access to the summit. Perusing a map, I noted that Socrates Mine Rd to the south looks to provide a closer approach with less elevation gain. Why didn't Suttle mention it, I wondered. As I passed the turnoff to Socrates Mine I decided I was well ahead of schedule and could afford to blow an hour checking out Socrates Mine Road. The road is very well paved, and though there are a few private residents off the road, most of the land around the 5mi road is owned by Calpine where they operate what they claim is the largest geothermal site in the world. It certainly looks impressive, with large pipes shuttling steam from access ports to one of several turbine sites scattered throughout many square miles. At the crest of the ridge 5mi in I could see my destination but a few miles to the north. It certainly looked pretty close. I came to a gated entrance and parked my car outside, getting out to talk to the perplexed attendant in the booth. He politely told me I would be unable to pass the gate either in my car or on foot - it was all Calpine property beyond this point. This undoubtedly was why Suttle didn't mention it. When he asked where I was trying to get to, I told him Cobb Mtn. He then proceeded to pull out a simple map printed on a sheet of paper and gave me directionss to Whispering Pine, exactly as described by Suttle. I tried to explain by way of my topo map why I wanted to go in through the gate, but he only looked at my map blankly and went back to his own, pointing with his finger to Cobb Mtn (it wasn't shown on his map, and he was pointing to a river, not the mountain). I then tried to show him where Cobb Mtn was on his map, and how my topo was a subset of the larger region on his map. Another blank look. Not only did the topo label Cobb Mtn, but it also showed the Calpine turbine buildings that I expected he would recognize. "See," I pointed, "these are your power plants along this road called 'Fire Road' on my map." "Never heard of it, there's no such road around here," he replied. I then pointed to the street sign about 50 yards beyond the gate that was labelled "Fire Road" and suggested they were one and the same. "I'll be damned, I've never noticed that before!" was all he could offer. Still, I couldn't pass the gate. Oh well, back I went.

Turns out I didn't lose too much time, and I was soon back on SR29. I didn't find the Whispering Pines Tavern, but I did find the Maple Shadows Road Suttle describes and parked alongside the highway at 12:30p. Whispering Pines is a very small community. Suttle says the roads are lined with vacation homes, and certainly many were, but there were more homes that were obviously housing full-time residents, most of these like something out of a scene in Deliverance. Junk cars and random garbage littered yards, dogs barked, a few folks milling about, but mostly quiet. I found the locked gate at the end of the public access, walked around it and disappeared from sight up the hill under cover of trees. Unlike the previous two chaparral-covered peaks, Cobb Mtn is mostly tree-covered, a combination of scraggy-looking pines, oaks, and other trees that looked like they got just enough water to eke out their existence on the mountain slopes. The road has been long abandoned with no evidence of vehicular traffic in many years. Deep ruts from runoff cut the road in many places, trees have fallen across it, and shrubs are encroaching from the sides. But it was easy enough to follow and none of the three miles to the summit could be described as a bushwhack. I reached the top in little over an hour, where I stumbled upon a large dish antenna enclosed by a fence. Because the top was covered by trees, it was difficult to get views to find the county highpoint located off to the west.

After wandering around for a bit, I found a road that took me in curved direction to some other installations located further west. Behind the installations I found a large cairn but was fairly certain I was still on Cobb Mtn, not Cobb Mtn West. I climbed a rock outcrop looking in vain further west for my destination. I had forgotten my map in the car along with my compass, and was wishing I hadn't been so cavalier. I continued west down the fireroad another five minutes or so until I came to another local highpoint. Here I found another rock outcrop which I climbed for a view. I got no view (the mountain just looks to begin a steep dropoff, but I did find a homemade snowshoe - a piece of plywood with ski bindings mounted to it. With no pivot point and nothing on the bottom to provide grip, I imagine the snowshoe worked rather crudely, and evidently the owner thought so as well and abandoned it. But getting back to my quest - it was not at all obvious if I was on the right point and if I wasn't, where I was supposed to go. I decided to return. After getting back to the car at 2:45p, a close reading of the map suggested I didn't reach the correct point - rats. I would have to come back and try again at a future date - GPS in hand, this time.

And thus ended a partially successful outing. I will have to stop underestimating the effort required for county highpoints and do more to ensure my success!

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More of Bob's Trip Reports

For more information see these SummitPost pages: East Peak - Mt. Saint Helena East - Mt. Saint Helena - Cobb Mountain

This page last updated: Mon Mar 11 20:50:32 2013
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