Photograph by Wallace Weeks, Alamy
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Wineries dot the Silverado Trail in Napa Valley, California.
Photograph by Wallace Weeks, Alamy

Road Trip: Silverado Trail

The Silverado Trail runs parallel to California State Route 29, the main traffic artery through the Napa Valley, offering glimpses of the nation’s foremost wine region.

Distance: 29 miles
Time: 1 hour
Season: Spring through fall. In spring mustard flowers carpet the Napa Valley. Summer is hot and crowded. Fall is grape harvesttime. Winter brings 70 percent of the year’s rainfall.

The Silverado Trail runs parallel to Calif. 29, the main (and often clogged) traffic artery through the Napa Valley. This quieter back road offers glimpses of the nation’s foremost wine region, about an hour northeast of San Francisco, as it was perhaps 30 years ago. Because the roadway dips and curves along the foothills, it offers gorgeous views of vineyards and mountains.

Along the way you can stop in at small wineries for tours and tastings; most of the larger ones are along Calif. 29. The Silverado Trail was established in 1852, when floods swamped the valley’s main road. By the late 1800s it was the wagon route from the cinnabar mines at the valley’s north end to the docks of San Pablo Bay to the south.

To begin the drive, go north on Calif. 29 through the city of Napa to Trancas Street; turn right, drive less than 2 miles, then turn left on the Silverado Trail. As you proceed, most of the grapevines surrounding you are Chardonnay, but when you reach the Yountville Cross Road after 8 miles, Cabernet Sauvignon begins its reign. Turn left at this crossroads—one of many east-west links between the trail and Calif. 29—and go about a mile to the Napa River Ecological Reserve. This is a rare public access point to the river. The 73-acre riparian habitat reveals what the area looked like 150 years ago. A path winds among oaks, California bays, and willows; 150 bird species have been catalogued here.

Drive another mile on the crossroad for a side trip to Yountville, a cozy tourist town named for George Yount, who planted the valley’s first grapes in 1838. Back on the Silverado Trail north, the valley opens up and allows you to grasp the picture of local geography. The mountains rising 1,500 to 2,000 feet on both sides of the valley are part of the Coast Range. Those that form the valley’s western wall are covered in chaparral and Douglas-fir, while the less lofty, drier mountains to the east are generally cloaked in oaks and manzanitas. The mountains were created when sedimentary rocks buckled upward under great pressure, then were covered with volcanic lava and ash. Alluvial deposits made the rich soil that’s perfect for wine grapes.

Continue to Rutherford Hill Road, passing countless vines and serene wineries; a right turn leads a half mile to the Auberge du Soleil. The renowned restaurant’s outdoor deck seems to hang over the valley like a hot-air balloon.

A mile north on the trail brings you to Zinfandel Lane. For a side trip to St. Helena, a principal town of the Napa Valley, turn left and go about a mile to Calif. 29, then turn right. Highlights include the old-fashioned main street, and the Robert Louis Stevenson Silverado Museum, devoted to the noted Scot.

Continuing north on the Silverado Trail to Taplin Road, notice one of the valley’s original 60 or 70 stone bridges; another picturesque example stands a bit farther at Pope Street. About 10 miles farther, your drive ends upon turning left on Lincoln Avenue into Calistoga, settled in 1859. The mineral spas and hot mud baths of this resort town represent the last gasps of the volcanic activity that helped shape the Napa Valley. Another geothermal remnant, the Old Faithful Geyser gushes 60 feet every 40 minutes. There’s a large model of the early resort at the Sharpsteen Museum.

Above town looms 4,343-foot Mount St. Helena, formed when manifold ridges were covered with hundreds of feet of volcanic materials. A brief silver boom erupted here in the early 1870s; Silverado City boasted 1,500 people, several saloons, and a hotel. The boom went bust by the time Robert Louis Stevenson spent his honeymoon in a cabin there in 1880. Today Mount St. Helena is preserved as 4,747-acre Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. A rough trail ascends past the old Silverado Mine and Stevenson’s cabin site to dramatic views over the Napa Valley.

On the Way: Pick up fixings for an impromptu picnic at any of the valley's gourmet markets and delis.

Don't Miss: Why settle for an ordinary tasting when you can immerse yourself in the art of winemaking with unique experiences like a hands-on blending of your own custom vino.

Be Safe: Chauffeured wine tours offer a chance to sip to your heart's content while avoiding the dangers of drinking and driving.

Motorcyclist Memo: Didn't bring your bike? Several motorcycle rental operations can set you up with everything you need to enjoy Napa on two wheels.

Information originally published in National Geographic’s Guide to Scenic Highways and Byways.