August 10-11. 2012, Napa Valley hiking at its finest. I heard about the Oat Mill Mine Trail years ago from a BSA Scoutmaster working at REI. The path was developed in 1872 to support mining operations (quicksiver and mercury). It's currently popular among runners, bikers and hikers.
This is part of Robert Lewis Stevenson State Park, private, other public and federal land. The trailhead is very easy to access and there is ample on-street parking nearby. Not to mention world class eateries in all directions...plan your trail food requirements accordingly!
Round trip up to the Federal BLM Land, with overnight stay, estimated at 9 miles. Elevation gain from the valley floor at 351 feet above sea level to over 2,000 feet places this hike at a "challenging" rating. Our circumstances included wind and temps that were unusual at 100+ F and 5mph light breeze. We also started late in the day 5pm (after working a full day starting at 7am) whick added to the difficulty.
The trail is mainly very well maintained and mostly under light canopy of Oak and Pine. Some stretches are not so smooth however: very rocky loose, large rocks. Mountain bikers rip through here without concern, but it can be ankle-twisting to hikers if you don't watch your step. Upper trail sections are less well maintained and a bit overgrown and without canopy. There are multiple trail junctions further up the trail for a variety of options for day hikers. We planned to spend the night on a small section of BLM about 4.5 miles from the trailhead.
Circumstances prevented us from reaching our destination. Elevation gain, heat, end-of-day start and only average fitness resulted in an average speed of only 1.2 mph up the hill. Actual trail speed was between 2-3 mph, but frequent rest stops reduced our effective speed dramatically. This impacted our ability to make camp before sunset. We had not paid close enough attention to the map during our hike (sorry Andrew Skurka, we're going to improve this skill). When we reached a portion of the hike that veered west but we were unable to identify that on the map, and with sunset 15 mintues away on an unfamiliar trail that was apparently poorly maintained, we decided to back-track to a flat area and camp there for the night.
We bulked up previously on town food so did not carry dinner on the trail. We fired up the alcohol stove and enjoyed hot chocolate and the wonderously beautiful evening sky as the sunset at 8:09pm. The sky was still bright until nearly 8:30pm, so next time we'll plan to extend our hiking time past the sunset when we're at higher elevations with a clear line-of-sight to the a far horizon. The valley heat was still high and the night was completely windless. We found ourselves sleeping on top of our sleeping bags for most of the entire night, a very rare occurance in coastal California.
We woke at 5:15am, about 1 hour before sunrise, and were treated to beautiful night sky with volcanic peaks outlining the darkness and a sliver of a moon. Sunrise was at 6:21am and we fired up the alcohol stove for a quick breakfast of oatmeal, water and granola bars. We packed quickly and were on the trail by 6:38 (confirmed by GPS). We averaged 2.23mph on the way down the hill, slowed a bit by slippery walking down loose gravel/rock pathways and a few sightseeing stops along the way. We were high above the thick blanket of fog that enveloped the whole Napa Valley. Another day in paradise.
We'll be back. With more moderate temps and an early morning start at the trailhead, we'll comfortably make the planned campsite just 1 mile past were we became "directionally challenged". There we can base-camp and explore the surrounding volcanic Palisades during the day. And all of this is only 40 minutes from home.
We've gotten our packs down below 20 lbs minus food and water. Thanks to input from The Backcountry Forum and others supplementing our BSA outdoor education.