by Richard Benyo
Wine lovers can thank an eons-old volcanic catastrophe for leaving the Napa Valley in Northern California covered with volcanic soil in which premium wine grapes thrive. Long-distance runners can thank the valley-forming erosion of the volcanic soil for a divine coincidence. The distance from the southern boundary of the geyser-fueled resort town of Calistoga at the northern tip of the valley to the northern border of the city of Napa at the valley's southern end measures exactly 26.2 miles.
Not a Sour Grape in the Bunch
In March, 2003 the Napa Valley Marathon celebrated its 25th anniversary of running along the Silverado Trail, which runs the length of the valley along its east side. To help celebrate the occasion, the Silverado Trail Wineries Association (STWA) kept alive the marathon's tradition of awarding the top male and female their weight in wine. In 2002 the race was selected as one of America's Top 20 Marathons by Runner's World.
The race is well managed, using 24 California Highway Patrol officers (traveling in everything from motorcycles to airplanes) and 1,000 volunteers to keep the traffic under control when the marathon is run the first Sunday of March. The race directors limit the field to 2200 entrants in order to keep the experience a positive one for each runner.
The marathon, which since 1998 has been the RRCA National Marathon Championship, is not the only running event in the Napa Valley, however. Envirosports puts on two trail marathons in Bothe-Napa State Park (between St. Helena and Calistoga on the west side of the valley): the Napa Valley Trail Marathon in the spring and the Napa Valley Wine Country Classic Marathon in the fall. The valley also serves as the launching point for The Relay. The 36-leg 12-member team event runs from Calistoga to Santa Cruz, a 199-mile extravaganza and mobile party that in the process crosses the Golden Gate Bridge.
Although small as far as valleys in Western states go, Napa Valley is a natural for visiting runners. Highway 29 runs the length of the valley on the west side while the Silverado Trail (along which silver ore and quicksilver were transported in the late 1800s) runs along the east side. The two roads are joined by a dozen crossroads, making for any variety or combination of runs imaginable by joining segments. Think of a ladder, with the crossroads serving as the rungs.
Highway 29 has been the traditional "business" thoroughfare and sports many of the wineries that initially made Napa Valley famous: Robert Mondavi, Sutter Home, Heitz Cellars.
The Silverado Trail used to be virtually ignored by visitors and was used only by locals. But within the last decade, in part due to the efforts of the STWA, it has come into its own as many of its wineries--Mumm, Sterling, Casa Nuestra, Silver Rose, ZD, Rutherford Hill, etc.--have become famous throughout the wine world.
Due to the bumper-to-bumper traffic on Highway 29, most of the good running is done on the eastern side of the valley where the bike lanes along the Silverado Trail are generous and the profile of the road is more rolling, thereby offering better views of the valley.
There is no bad time of the year to run in Napa Valley. In the spring the vines begin to bud while the valley is carpeted with emerald grass made more striking by the golden mustard sprinkled among it. During the summer, the vines are vigorous and full while the grass has been plowed under. In the autumn, the harvest adds excitement to the valley as the vines turn autumn colors and the aroma of crushed grapes waifs throughout the valley. Over the winter, runners have the valley pretty much to themselves as the vines have been pruned back and are sleeping while most people who would normally visit the valley are occupied with holiday pursuits.
No running experience comes close to spending a few days in Napa Valley at one of its numerous bed & breakfasts, getting in a mid-day run, soaking in a mineral water hot tub in Calistoga, getting a massage, going wine-tasting, and later dining in one of the valley's world-famous restaurants. It literally doesn't get any better than going world-class in Napa Valley.
Although a relatively intimate enclosed valley, there are numerous opportunities for good runs, although anything to the east or west involves hills.
4.9-mile Calistoga Loop: Start at town's only traffic signal. Head west on Lincoln to Hwy. 29 then go south on 29 to Dunaweal. Left on Dunaweal, left on Silverado Trail back to Lincoln/Hwy. 29 and left back into town. (Start line of Napa Valley Marathon is where Rosedale intersects Silverado Trail.)
5.5-mile Crystal Springs Loop: Park at intersection of Deer Park Road and Silverado Trail. Run west uphill on Deer Park Rd. for 1/2 mile, taking left onto Sanatarium; just before radical uphill, Crystal Springs Rd. goes off to the left; follow Crystal Springs Road to Silverado Trail; turn left and return to your car.
10.35-mile Howell Mtn. Loop: Park just south of the Pope Street Bridge along the Silverado Trail; check for ECV plaque in the ground for history of "Stonebridge." Cross Trail and ascend Howell Mtn. Rd. (be careful to bear left at first "Y" intersection after climb starts). Take left when road intersects with Deer Park Road. Enjoy the downhill. At grade school, take left on Sunnyside, then immediate right onto Mund Rd., which dumps you back on Deer Park Road; go left to bottom of hill, which is Silverado Trail; turn left to return to Pope St. Bridge. If you want to start on the level before climbing,park at Deer Park Rd. and Silverado Trail and head south to pick up Howell Mtn. Rd.
12-mile Mt. St. Helena Out & Back: Take Hwy. 29 east out of Calistoga. Drive to Robert Louis Stevenson State Park on the shoulder of Mt. St. Helena and park. Take trail on north side of road and run the first mile uphill on a sheltered path past site of Robert Louis Stevenson's 1880 summer encampment in miner's dorm. The trail dumps you onto an access road going five miles to the north peak of the mountain at 4343'. Return by same route.
Bothe-Napa State Park: Off Highway 29 between St. Helena and Calistoga, features miles of trails, most of them hilly. Get trail map at kiosk.
Skyline Park: In the city of Napa east on Imola (above the State Hospital) offers miles of rolling trails. Get trail map at kiosk.
Wining, Dining, & Staying Over
Silverado Trail offers 35 wineries along the east side of the valley; everything from intimate and down-home Casa Nuestra to Sterling (on Dunaweal), where you take a tram up to the winery.
Napa Valley The website has everything you need to know to find a good time in the Napa Valley.
Wine Country Guide For $3.50 they'll send you the current 94-page pocket guide to wine fun in Napa, Sonoma, Lower Mendocino, and Lake counties. Contains 17 maps.
About the Author: Richard Benyo is editor of Marathon & Beyond Magazine, president of the board of the Napa Valley Marathon, and the author of 17 books, including Making the Marathon Your Event, Running Past 50, and The Running Encyclopedia.