Mount St. Helena
100% FIRE ROAD
Robert Louis Stevenson State Park has only a single out-and-back trail that's legal to bikes that I know of. That trail is this one, which is a straight fire-road climb to the peak of Mount St. Helena. We're not talking about a case where one would say "yes, but what a single bike-legal trail" either; the trail is a wide and smooth fire road almost all the way to the top, which doesn't hold much mountain biking interest in itself. This is especially true when you consider how close the excellent Oat Hill Mine Road is to this location. However, this ride is still worth a try for the views and perhaps for the potential tidbits of geographic interest that might deserve a shot for those riders who think of mountain biking (like I do) at least partially as "sightseeing". It also wouldn't be a bad candidate for a routine training ride if you happen to live nearby.
One quick note about parking, first: The exact spot marked by the Suggested Parking link on the left points to a small pocket of roadside parking (with space for 8 or 10 cars) that's right by the start of the trail. However, the park's main parking area is actually about a quarter mile south of that spot.
Basically, this is a 5.5-mile climb to the peak of the mountain, unbroken other than a nearly half-mile flattish stretch about three quarters of the way up. Most of the climbing parts have an average slope just under 9% grade. However, the grade is not as even as some other such fire-road mountain climbs: There is a half-mile section starting around the 3-mile mark where the grade slackens to an average just under 6%. And things get comparatively steeper when you get higher than that, with the worst part of the climb coming in the last quarter-mile before the main peak, where the grade shoots to just above 15%.
Those riders who are into very fast descents who read my description and decide to give this ride a try with that kind of thrill in mind should be aware of one detail: Much of this trail is covered by a thin layer of loose pebbles and gravel that can be very slippery. You have been warned.
There is one special factor that makes the views from the top of Mount St. Helena somewhat special: The trailhead is at an elevation of about 2200 feet. So, although you end up with a net elevation gain of only about another 2200 feet during the ride, it still means that you end up with a vantage point at 4400 feet of elevation at the end of the climb. There aren't any other bike rides in the Bay Area where the same will be true after just over five miles of climbing. With some favorable weather and a sharp eye, you can see Lassen Peak from the top of Mount St. Helena. That's nearly 140 miles in a straight line. Not too shabby! Meanwhile, spotting the Sierra Nevada range from here doesn't even take any real effort. (Here are some photos.) The park's website mentions that Mount Shasta is visible as well (192 miles away), under good conditions. Once you know that, it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that you can also see all the way to the hills surrounding the South Bay; also exceeding 100 miles in a straight line. In addition, Mount Tam, Mount Diablo, Point Reyes, San Francisco, and Oakland are all identifiable without too much difficulty.
I haven't done this climb enough times to know if this might be something that can be expected here as a characteristic property but, the last time I did this ride, there were very strong winds. Some gusts were strong enough to throw me off my balance. One particular blast almost threw me to the ground. All I'm saying is that it wouldn't be a bad idea to stay away from the edge of the trail on the downhill side if you do this ride on a windy day.
You'll notice that the route shown on this page actually includes side trips to visit two secondary peaks along the way to the top. Clearly, these are optional. They don't hold anything I'd qualify as not to be missed. The first one of these visits South Peak. There's little on this peak other than a small confusion of dirt paths and "yet another set" of transmission facilities. There is, however, a rocky trail that descends right along the spine of this small ridge, roughly in parallel to the gravel road to South Peak. This is not shown on the park map as a trail (then again, the park doesn't feature a map that's detailed enough to show a trail like that) but there are no signs on either end about prohibiting access to it either. It's extremely short, anyway, but this is one brief portion of this ride that remotely resembles technical mountain biking. This short connector is reflected as the return from South Peak on the route on this page. It's very loose and very rocky, and it gets steeper toward the end (steeper than -20% grade), resulting in more of a "controlled slide" for the most part. If you ride it on a really windy day like I did, watch out.
Bypassing the side trip to South Peak would save you almost 450 feet of elevation gain. Bypassing the second side trip to another secondary peak closer to the main one would shave only about 150 feet from your climb. This particular peak is unlabeled on maps, but you'll know it by the spherical radar antenna assembly at its highest point. I'll just call it the "radar peak" here. This peak doesn't have too much to offer either, other than an opportunity for an up close look at the radar tower and a nice view of the main peak.
One minor tidbit of geographic curiosity about Mount St. Helena is that the boundary lines of three counties (Sonoma, Lake, and Napa) meet at a single spot near the peak in sort of a "three corners" configuration. In fact, according to the USGS topographic maps, that spot is precisely at the junction where the dirt path to the "radar peak" departs from Stevenson Memorial Trail.
Another interesting piece of trivia about Mount St. Helena is that a Russian expedition visited the peak in 1841 and left a pair of plaques there. Replicas of these plaques were still present there when I had visited the peak in 2006. On my latest ride there, in 2012, I could not find them. This is not a surprise, because the structures at the peak looked newer and bigger, and featured a bronze plate clearly indicating their construction date as 2009. The replica plaques were sitting on a spot that is now covered by the new structures. A photo of these replicas are available in the Wikipedia article about the mountain. The article also explains that the Russian plaques mentioned the name of Princess Helena de Gagarin, the wife of the commanding officer of the (relatively speaking) nearby Russian outpost of Fort Ross, implying that the mountain got its current name from this, whereas it originally used to be "Mount Mayacamas".
Of course, this park also has the distinction of being the location of a cabin at which the author Robert Louis Stevenson spent his honeymoon in 1880. Nothing is left of the cabin other than a small monument to the author that (I believe) marks its site. However, this spot is along the brief hiking-only portion of Stevenson Memorial Trail, so, if you intend to visit it, you'll need to find a place to leave your bike while you do that, or leave it for another visit.
One thing to pay attention to is the fact that this area is likely to be subject to very high temperatures during the warmer months of the year. If you'll plan a ride here at any time other than winter, you should be pretty generous with the amount of water you bring.
© Ergin Guney
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