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Napa off the grid: Skyline Wilderness Park

There is the Napa Valley of popular appeal, with its glorious vineyards and wineries and restaurants. Then there are the places that are more off the beaten path but nonetheless with charms of their own. One such place is Skyline Wilderness Park.

Lake Marie, the most popular hiking destination at Skyline Park.
Photo by Kevin Nelson

Skyline is an 850-acre hiking, mountain biking, camping, horse riding and disc-golfing park on the outskirts of the city of Napa in the southeastern part of the valley. It is part of, or next to, the Coombsville wine-growing district, and you will see a vineyard as you drive up Imola Avenue and stop at the park’s rustic entry building to pick up a map and pay the minimal admission fee. Should you decide to go off the grid for an afternoon at Skyline, here are some things to do and look for:

A native plants garden

Next to the parking lot and near a giant valley oak is the Martha Walker Garden, named for a Napa woman who wrote a popular gardening column in the Napa Register and hosted a KVON gardening show for many years. The garden is its own little enclave within the park—a fenced area of three acres of California poppies and many other native flowers and plants. A bench in Walker’s honor sits under an oak tree. The place is a natural magnet for birds, butterflies and elementary school tours. When we were there kids were running around the trails and playing tag.

Colorful characters

When you go off the grid, you often meet off the grid sorts of people. So it was with us when we set off on the Buckeye Trail for Lake Marie. We had barely started when a man in a crooked Australian digger hat stopped us. “Now I know this land as well as anyone,” he said, without bothering to wait for an introduction. “Tell me where you’re going and maybe I can help.”

We explained where we were going and he said, “I see,” seeming to mentally assess our plans and judge whether or not we measured up. “It’s about three miles to the lake on the Buckeye. You climb up a thousand feet or so and go up and around and the path is narrow in spots. Now, the Lake Marie Road is much easier, wider and not as steep. But you two are young. Go the Buckeye and have your way with it.”

Venturing into ‘the wilderness’

Described as “a wilderness,” Skyline is hardly that; there are 25 miles of trails and you still get cell service when you are there. Nonetheless, we could not help but feel a little intimidated after we said goodbye to the man in the crooked hat and encountered a set of signs warning us of the dangers ahead.

“WARNING,” said one. “BEWARE OF RATTLESNAKES, WILD PIGS, POISON OAK AND TICKS.”

Another sign showed a mountain lion perched on a rock and ready to pounce. It explained that although mountain lions are “seldom seen, they are unpredictable and have been known to attack without warning. Keep children close,” it continued, “as mountain lions seem to be especially drawn to them.”

My 13-year-old son looked at me and I looked at him. It reminded me of the old joke about what happens if you’re in the mountains with a friend and you suddenly encounter a grizzly bear that chases after you. You don’t have to outrun the bear, goes the line, you just have to outrun your friend.

The problem was, my son is much faster than me. Still, if a mountain lion did attack us, I might be able to lead him over to the native plants garden. There were lots of kids over there.

But no mountain lion showed his mug and none of those other potential hazards materialized either, except for the poison oak. Poison oak at Skyline is as plentiful as grapevines in the rest of Napa Valley. It is off the trail, however, and if you stay on the well-trod dirt paths it is easy to avoid and you shouldn’t have any problems.

The views, and nature

To better understand a place, sometimes you have to get away from it. When you hike at Skyline—or mountain bike or saddle up Blaze—you are quickly rewarded with some nice views.

People may think of Napa Valley as flat but it really is not—not entirely anyhow—and you can see this clearly from Skyline’s trails. The valley rises and flattens and rises again across its 30-mile length, spreading out to the south in a river plain while being bounded on three sides by coastal mountains. When we were there clouds moving in from the Pacific were sweeping across the hills into the valley.

The moderate-to-rigorous Buckeye Trail is aptly named, with buckeyes here and there and oak and other trees providing shade in the heat. Still, it’s best to hike in the mornings or on a cool day when the sun packs less of a punch; carry water, snacks and ideally, lunch in a rucksack for when you reach Lake Marie, the only body of water in the park and its most popular destination. (Hardier types may wish to shoot for Sugarloaf Peak, at 1,630-feet the highest point in the park.)

Lake Marie is a pleasant patch of blue held back by an earth dam and surrounded by chaparral-covered hillsides. There’s no swimming but a bench provides a place to sit and rest and listen to the wind whistle through the trees, the only sounds we heard save for a woodpecker pecking away nearby.

The walk back, and more

On the way back we hiked down Lake Marie Road, which is the path to take if you’re looking for an easier up and down. We came across some large stone remains that over the years have become part of the hillside. You can climb on the rocks or walk underneath them through a narrow archway into a grotto with ferns and moss growing from its walls.

These remains are apparently from an old rock quarry that dates from the 19th century when they mined in this area. More recently, nearby Napa State Hospital owned this land and had plans to sell it in the 1970s. A group of citizens came together and launched a campaign to preserve the area as a public park. Their efforts succeeded, and the nonprofit Skyline Park Citizens Association now operates the park.

Like many off the grid places, it’s a bargain. The day use vehicle fee is $5. Enter on foot and it’s $2; ride your mountain bike or horse in, it’s $3. Bring a horse trailer or a vehicle with a bike and the price is $6. Overnight camping in an RV or trailer will set you back $32-$35. It is no wonder that Skyline is a popular lodging choice for rock ‘n’ rollers attending Napa’s Bottle Rock music festival.

Skyline Wilderness Park, 2201 Imola Ave., Napa. No dogs; consult website for other restrictions. Open 7 days, 8 a.m.-7 p.m. (summer); 8 a.m.-5 p.m. (winter). 707-252-0481.