NAPA -- This week I asked a few people to play a word association game with "Napa." The most frequent responses were: "wine," "wineries," "grapes," "romantic," and "vacation." A few others turned up: "Snobby" and "wine snobs."
Despite such stereotypes, there are plenty of lesser-known but equally impressive reasons to visit California's most famous "wine country" including camping, hiking, redwoods, a medieval Italian castle, historic technology, petrified trees, and an erupting geyser.
In June, I camped at Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, filled with naturally growing redwoods and with 10 miles of trails starting from the 50-site campground.
The most popular trail leads from the campground along Ritchey Creek and up to the summit of 1,170-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 at the park's entrance gate. The view from Coyote Peak is obscured by trees, but you can still get a good view of Napa Valley.
Bothe-Napa Valley State Park is between St. Helena and Calistoga on Highway 128. Even on busy days, the park is remarkably quiet. At $35 a 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 nearby. A family-friendly atmosphere pervaded during our visit with kids riding bikes and playing games throughout the campground. 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 and offers the state's best-preserved example of historic technology. And it still works.
The mill's stones, installed in the 1840s, produces a variety of stone-ground grains. We especially enjoyed the buckwheat and spelt. Go to www.parks.ca.gov or call (707) 963-2236.
Several other great state parks are within an hour's drive, including Robert Louis Stevenson, Annadel, Sugarloaf Ridge and, my favorite, Jack London.
Less than 2 miles north of the park is the Castello di Amaroso winery the most unique winery complex in the state.
The medieval Italian castle appears remarkably authentic especially considering it was built in the last 20 years under California's building codes. It's a fun tour, with 107 meticulously recreated rooms and historic furnishings. Underground cellars are atmospheric and the wine is excellent. Call (707) 967-6272 or visit www.castellodiamorosa.com.
A few miles further north in The Petrified Forest you can find redwoods that lived over 3 million years ago and were preserved by a volcanic eruption. Go to www.petrifiedforest.org/ or call (707) 942-6667.
California's Old Faithful Geyser blasts hot water and steam skyward several times an hour. Near Calistoga, it is open daily; go to www.oldfaithfulgeyser.com or call (707) 942-6463.