This week I asked a few people to play a word association game with "Napa."
The most frequent responses I got were: "wine," "wineries," "grapes," "romantic," and "vacation." "Snobby" and "wine snobs" turned up a few times, too.
Despite all these stereotypes, there are plenty of lesser-known but equally impressive reasons to visit California's original "wine country" -- including camping, hiking, redwoods, a medieval Italian castle, historic technology, petrified trees, and a regularly-erupting geyser.
Last June I camped at Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, home of some of the furthest inland naturally growing redwoods.
The park offers 10 miles of hiking trails that start directly in the 50-site campground.
The most popular trail leads straight from the campground along Ritchey Creek and up to the summit of 1170-foot Coyote Peak. With two approaches to the peak, you can easily make a 4-mile loop hike via the Coyote Peak, South Fork, and Redwood Trails. Ask for a map when you pass through the park's entrance gate. The view from the top of Coyote Peak is partially blocked by trees, but you can look through the foliage to enjoy wide vistas across the Napa Valley.
Bothe-Napa Valley State Park is located between St. Helena and Calistoga on Highway 128/29. Even on busy days, the park is remarkably quiet. At $35 per night, the campsites are some of the best in the state park system -- well-spaced and private.
Clean restrooms with flush toilets and warm showers are centrally located. A family-friendly atmosphere pervaded during our visit with kids riding bikes and playing games throughout the campground.
Campsites can be reserved at www.reserveamerican.com during the most popular months and are available on a first-come, first-served basis the rest of the year. Even though there is quite a bit of shade, the park can be warm during the summer and is best enjoyed in the late spring and early fall. If you do visit during the summer, the park's swimming pool is a great place to cool off.
Adjacent to the park's southern boundary is Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park. The mill is a 1.8-mile walk or a very short drive away. In my opinion it is the best-preserved and most interesting example of historic technology in the state.
The mill still grinds flour using the same equipment that was installed in the 1840s. Informative tours are offered on weekends. You can buy a variety of stone ground grains from the mill to take home with you after your tour. We especially enjoyed the buckwheat and spelt. For more information go to http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=482 or call (707) 963-2236.
Several other great nearby state parks are within an hour's drive: Robert Louis Stevenson, (707-942-4575), Annadel (707-539-3911), Sugarloaf Ridge (707-833-5712), and my personal favorite, Jack London (707-938-5216).
Less than two miles north of the park is the Castello di Amaroso winery -- the most unique winery complex in the state.
Built in the style of a medieval Italian castle, the building is remarkably authentic -- especially when you realize that it was built in the last 20 years under California's strict building codes. It's a fun tour, with 107 meticulously recreated rooms and historic furnishings. The underground cellars are atmospheric and the wine is excellent. Visit www.castellodiamorosa.com or call (707) 967-6272.
Located just a few miles further north, The Petrified Forest is a great place to see ancient redwoods that lived over 3 million years ago and were preserved by a volcanic eruption. Many giant trees have been unearthed and can be viewed daily. Visit www.petrifiedforest.org/ or call (707) 942-6667.
California's Old Faithful Geyser blasts hot water and steam skyward several times an hour. Located near Calistoga, it is open daily. For more information visit www.oldfaithfulgeyser.com or call (707) 942-6463.
Adam Blauert is an avid outdoorsman who enjoys fishing, backpacking and exploring the western states. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org