Oat Hill Mine Road
100% FIRE ROAD
This is one of the most well-known advanced rides north of the bay. Oat Hill Mine Road is technically a "fire road" (in terms of a trail type, not because it was built for fire control), though some parts of it have been transformed into singletrack by erosion, slides, rerouting, or encroaching vegetation. Moreover, the parts that do remain in the form of a wide fire road are frequently very rocky and technical. So, "advanced" really is the keyword here. Looking at the length and total climb of the ride and concluding that it's no big deal would be a mistake. The more important detail to notice is the fact that I've rated this ride a 10 out of 10 in the technical rating. The technical difficulty of the ride puts it a notch or two above what the other specs would suggest. And the ride is almost guaranteed to be discouraging to and a source of misery for inexperienced riders.
Most rides on this trail are out-and-back rides, and arguably the two most common ride routes are the one that turns back from "Holm's Place" (resulting in a 9-mile ride) and the one that turns back from the trailhead on Aetna Springs Road (yielding over 16 miles). This particular route is more similar to the former option. It merely goes a little further on Oat Hill Mine Trail before turning back quite arbitrarily from the spot where the trail meets Maple Spring, which is where I decided I ran out of time on this ride.
It would be fair to talk about two distinct portions of the climb up Oat Hill Mine Road to Holm's Place. Up to the saddle point near Bald Hill (a little over 3 miles from the start), while still throwing some very technical sections at you every now and then, the trail never goes beyond what mere mortals can manage. However, once you're past that point, although the average grade doesn't change very much, the level of technical difficulty is ratcheted up very quickly. Soon you reach numerous places where you find yourself scrambling up a path of chunky and craggy volcanic bedrock, wondering if there's a "line" there somewhere. (See some of the photos linked on your left.) These happen to be the same sections where my ride up the trail turned into a hike-a-bike, and on the descent was frequently punctuated by you-gotta-be-kidding moments where I had to get off and walk once again. You have to be a rider who's pretty serious about advanced downhill riding in order to ride these sections with any amount of completeness (and probably a professional trials rider in order to pull off the same thing in the uphill direction).
Part of what makes Oat Hill Mine Road such an excellent ride is the merciful grade of the slope that the trail very consistently maintains. The overall average grade is a hair under 8% pretty consistently all the way to the top. This means two things: Notwithstanding the crazy technical sections, the climb up the trail is actually quite reasonable, and it never gets steep enough to be too treacherous as you're descending the technical sections on your way back down.
You might be interested in knowing that this road was originally built as an access road to the mine from which it gets its name. It adds some perspective to your ride here to know that it took 20 years to complete the construction of this 23-mile road. It also makes it that much more evocative to notice the grooves left in the rocks that are visible even today, and to realize how rough and difficult the road must have been even back then for such deep grooves to be cut into the rock by wagon wheels.
While parking at the trailhead for the ride, I noticed a sign on a shed right by the parking spaces stating that public parking is prohibited. It seemed a bit unclear whether this sign is applicable to the entire dirt clearing at the trailhead or just to the side of it that's adjacent to the (apparently) private property to which that shed seems to belong. I do believe parking right at the trailhead is commonly done. However, I don't know what the exact story behind that sign is (if any). If any of you know about this, I'd appreciate it if you could leave a comment on this page to explain. Meanwhile, those of you who'd rather play it as safe as possible with the parking will be glad to know that roadside parking is allowed along a number of roads and streets right by the trailhead.
Another 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.
Beware that the upper portion of Oat Hill Mine Road (the portion that runs from its junction with Palisades Trail to the Aetna Springs Road trailhead) is subject to seasonal closure due to wildfire risk and deer hunting season. In 2011, this closure was between August 13 and September 25.
The Oat Hill Mine Road trailhead is a stone's throw from downtown Calistoga. With a good selection of restaurants and cafes available, the cute Calistoga downtown is an obvious option for refreshments or a meal after a ride here.
© Ergin Guney
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