Mount Saint Helena (hel-LEE-nuh) looms over the northern end of the Napa Valley winery area as the highest peak in the San Francisco Bay watershed. The hike to the summit is mainly on a fire road, and the views are among the best in the Bay Area. This mountain is an island treasure that has a rare population of sugar pines in the coastal ranges of California. This hike is entirely within Robert Louis Stevenson State Park.
The mountain was named for Princess Helena de Gagarin, the wife of the commander of nearby Fort Ross, in 1941 by some Russians who also left a copper plate at the summit. A replica of the original memorial is at the summit of North Peak. The park's namesake author Robert Louis Stevenson lived for a brief time with his new wife in an old forest cabin beneath the mountain. There is scant evidence of its ruins, but his stay is commemorated by a hunk of granite that's carved into a replica of an open book.
The trailhead is on the west side of Hwy 29 and there's minimal signage. Head up through the tall Douglas fir, madrone, bay and oak that shades the trail. This segment heads past a small picnic area before switchbacking to the right up a rocky stretch. There are steps cut into the rock to guide the way. The rocky portion gives way to 10 switchbacks that head through the dark forest up to a fire road. The fire road isn't as interesting as a single track, but the views are worth it.
The first indication of the views along the rest of the trip to the top are at the rock face that's used by climbers. The upper Napa Valley spreads out to the south, but the mountain is far above the chaparral here. In fact the rest of the way is on the fire road which is passable by passenger car, but mainly used by hang-glider people and technicians maintaining communication equipment on the peaks. I got the feeling that a lot of people hike this during a given day.
The dirt road heads gently uphill on the mountain's southeast face through warm, sunny chaparral and knobcone pine then cool, shady and windy copses of Douglas fir. This mountain's Jeckyl and Hyde conditions provide a sense of wilderness despite the fact one is hiking on a dirt road. A few sugar pines appear as the road winds along the north side of the mountain. I have never seen any sugar pines anywhere else in the greater Bay Area. The top of the mountain must face a lot of high winds because most of the larger pines and firs have had their upper half or third knocked off.
There is a small summit on the left, but the main summit is straight ahead and readily apparent due to a few large communication towers. The replica of the original memorial is just in front of the highest spot. Enjoy the views and return the way you came.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.