Summer’s solstice brings the sun and heat to the Napa Valley to ripen the abundant multifarious varieties of local vines, and also cultivates the visiting crowds. Rather than watching my temperature gauge go up and burn out a clutch cable, I prefer to take roads less travelled. My objective for the day: to leisurely make my way to the charming little town of St. Helena in the Napa Valley by intersecting mountain ranges, valleys and scenic roads that are fun, challenging, and practically car-free!
An easy access start coming from the north or south, take Highway 101 to the Pengrove/Old Redwood Highway exit in Petaluma. This exit offers several gas stations. Fill up, as the very few stations on your 100-mile backroad trek through the valley are quite a bit more expensive. Heading east on Old Redwood Highway for several miles the scenery changes from suburban to country livin’, and just about then, Petaluma Hill Road appears to the right. Follow Petaluma Hill Road, passing rural neighborhoods along the way for about 2 miles. At the stop light, take a right, heading east on Robert’s Road. This is one of my favorite hidden treasures, a winding brief jaunt that takes you up into the hills of Sonoma County, passing Crane Creek Regional Park, quietly nestled in small, intimate vineyards. This is a great place to take a break if needed, as there is an ample parking lot and public restrooms for its visitors.
BENNETT VALLEY ROAD
As you wind up, Robert’s Road obscurely morphs into Pressley Road just before arriving at the T-junction on Sonoma Mountain Road. Point the bike north and press your feet into the pegs as you make your way down the densely vegetated, lumpy two-lane road for a mile or two until you bump into Bennett Valley Road, where you will want to head southeast, pulling you closer to your destination of St Helena. With a sigh of relief, you’ll notice the smoothness of the well-paved road and will begin to appreciate the more open, scenic peaks and valleys that virtually sneak you in the back door to the sleepy little town of Glen Ellen, in the Sonoma Valley.
Ascending up then down the country road with a handful of 20 mph turns, you might become distracted by glimpses of beautiful country homes landscaped with vineyards tucked among the trees. Five miles of easy paced sweeping turns and you’ll be faced with another T-junction at Warm Springs Road. Turn right, heading south on Warm Springs Road, passing noble horse ranches with white fencing and thick greenery for the next two miles. Arriving in the old-west town of Glen Ellen, you might do a little hiking in Jack London State Park, or continue on, going a short distance north onto Arnold Drive, and again north onto Highway 12. Before you can hit third gear there will be a quick right turn onto the precarious Trinity Road.
TRINITY – DRY CREEK – OAKVILLE GRADE ROADS
I’m convinced that this stretch was built for motorcyclists because you will rarely pass a car during your 10-miles of tight and demanding roadway. I like to think of Trinity as a brush-up course on my technical riding skills, it’s that challenging. The scenery adds to the challenge as you must concentrate on the road while sweeping past ancient oak trees and dusky redwood groves as you grapple your way to the top. Your reward is a spectacular view of the Napa Valley below.
A FUN PLACE TO EAT IN ST. HELENA
Hang a left to travel northbound on busy Highway 29/128. Yes, this is the road you’ve been avoiding, but not to worry, it’s just a short five miles to downtown St. Helena and Gott’s Roadside, where I always stop for a juicy lettuce burger wrap (on request) or their tangy fish tacos. But they’re best known for the burgers and fries. Gott’s is a popular stopping point for bikers and visitors alike. Give your name and order to a friendly worker at the window. Then go in search of a place to share a picnic table with another hungry stranger on the large open grassy area out back, while you wait for your name to be called. Occasionally, someone will get cute and make up a name to be called over the loudspeaker, like “Billy Elliot” or “Roger Rabbit,” giving everyone a chuckle while they dine!
INTIMATE WINERIES ON SPRING MOUNTAIN ROAD
Stroll down Main Street in beautiful St. Helena and visit the variety of unique proprietor-owned shops selling locally made gift items, or hop back on the bike and continue north taking a left on Madrona Avenue before exiting town. Another right-hand turn south west on Spring Mountain Road (also marked St. Helena Road) will get you back into the country roads and banking back and forth in the twisties for the next 12 miles.
At the crest of the mountain, a bold white line clearly defines when you are leaving the Napa County and returning to Sonoma County, giving you the distinct feeling you have just left Oz and re-entered Kansas with rougher road conditions and more informal scenery.
Regardless, this tranquil road allows you to relax and bury yourself deep within the provincial surroundings, passing numerous petite private wineries in the Spring Mountain District of the Napa Valley, including Fisher, Robert Keenan and Paloma Vineyards. If you ride too fast, you’ll miss them, as they are hidden in the foliage or down a country lane.
WRAPPING IT UP
Calistoga Road bestows yet another choice of north or south. If you choose north you’ll continue winding up for another two miles to Porter Creek Road. Take a left, which will take you west and back towards Highway 101, just north of Santa Rosa. Choose south and end your ride back on Highway 12 in the southern part of Santa Rosa. Either way, it’s a great way to beat the traffic while intermingling some of the best back roads off the beaten path.