Four stages • 212 miles • 8400′
Tour packet: 31 pages; 35 photos; 4 maps
Napa Valley is probably the most famous wine-producing region in America. Other regions may make wines of equal, or in some cases, better quality. Other regions may boast thousands of acres of pampered vines and dozens of prestigious wineries. But no other region comes close to Napa for the intensive development of its local viticulture…from the percentage of available land turned to vines to the sheer number of wineries along its roads, to the careful grooming of its reputation as the holy grail of grapes.
But Napa Valley is more than just the wine in its bottles. Its prestige and great natural beauty have proved to be powerful magnets for visitors, and it ranks right up there with Disneyland, Yosemite, and the Monterey Peninsula as one of California’s most popular tourist destinations. From the point of view of a cycle-tourist, this is something of a good news-bad news deal: there are literally hundreds of inns and B & B’s scattered up and down the valley; but there is also a great deal of traffic, at least at certain times and on certain roads.
Our Napa Valley Mini-Tour does a thorough job of exploring the best of the region’s back roads. Given the particular geography of the area, it’s impossible to avoid the busy roads entirely, but we’ve tried hard to keep them to a minimum, and to steer our cyclists onto as many miles of scenic, cycle-friendly byways as possible.
After considering each of the valley’s three small towns as the base of operations for this tour, we settled on Yountville for several reasons: it works best for our routes; it’s conveniently located, being the town closest to the Bay Area; and it has—in my opinion—the nicest selection of lodgings. Besides, it’s a charming village, with lots to see and do after the rides and an interesting assortment of places to eat. (Note: most of the inns in Yountville are quite pricey. For more affordable lodgings, look to the city of Napa, just a few miles to the south.)
Napa County really has two personalities: the nearly flat valley floor and everything else, meaning for the most part, the hills that surround the valley. Each of our four basic rides spends part of its time among the vineyards and wineries of the valley and part of its time climbing into and dropping back out of the wooded hills on either side. The four rides are listed below in the order in which I would choose to do them. However, you can do them in whichever order you like, and can modify them to your heart’s content.
This tour can easily be combined with the Sonoma County Mini-Tour for a comprehensive, week-long exploration of the North Bay.
Pope Valley Loop
51 miles, 2100’
Heads north up the valley for a few miles before climbing out of the valley to the east, past Lake Hennessey and into beautiful, quiet Pope Valley, one of the most serene and scenic cycling venues anywhere. Climbs back over the hills on a tranquil, easy grade and drops into Napa Valley on a wonderfully slinky downhill. More mostly level valley miles bring you back to Yountville. Go slightly off-course and explore the town of St. Helena.
Mt Veeder Loop
45 miles, 1800’
Begins with a nearly level loop around the valley before winding into the forested hills again, this time on the west side of the valley. Climbing is the name of the game almost continuously between miles 19 and 25, and some of it is quite challenging. But then you get the payback of a marvelous, twisting descent for most of the next six miles. The climb and descent are all in woods of redwood, oak, and bay. After a brief flirtation with Napa’s suburbs, roll back to Yountville through the vineyards.
Exploring Up Valley
64 miles, 1400’
Locals refer to the northern end of Napa Valley as “up valley.” That’s our destination today. Although it’s the longest ride of the set, it has the least elevation gain, because it spends the most time in the valley, cruising through the vines. There are only a couple of modest climbs at the far northern end of the valley, where the route briefly dips a toe into neighboring Sonoma County. Visits the up-valley hub of Calistoga. Offers an obscure, hilly add-on for those who haven’t had enough climbing on the day.
52 miles, 3100’
A real Jeckyll-and-Hyde ride. Mile after mile of rolling hills in the vineyards—easy, pleasant riding—but then a few miles of steep, sustained climbing on a remote, one-lane mountain road, followed by some of the fastest, most hair-raising descending around. Leaves Napa County to visit the historic town of Sonoma. Also contains a few miles of less-than-great suburban highways with more congestion than is ideal. But the balance of the ride makes up for it. At least I think so! We will discuss how to avoid the big climb and the busy roads with a modified route.