CARNEROS — The Napa Valley’s quilt-work of vines, woodland and meadows is impressive even from a bird’s-eye view or a passing vehicle. But other local vistas, other sights and sounds of the wine country, can be off-limits or difficult to find – except on certain weekend mornings.
Walking tours led by volunteers with the Land Trust of Napa County provide a view of the landscape, flora and fauna that can open the eyes even of those living nearby. Last month, the route of discovery was a steep path up the hills of the Carneros district, where a dozen day hikers received a taste of the valley beyond its vineyards.
“You get a lot of even native Napans who have no idea any of these places existed,” said Carol Cavagnaro, who led the 4-mile, uphill-and-down stroll and has volunteered as a Land Trust guide for five years. They’re always surprised by the views they get, the amount of diversity available in all our hikes … I’ve had tours where there were even piglets running all over the place – you never know.
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“We want to give people access to properties they wouldn’t (otherwise) have access to, so they understand the mission of the Land Trust: to preserve the land.”
The Carneros hike is one of two annual excursions the Land Trust leads through lands owned by the winemaker Dario Sattui. Home to working vineyards and usually closed to the public, the property is among a collection of privately held lands on which the trust holds conservation easements.
Founded in 1976, the nonprofit protects about 55,000 acres from development through a mix of land purchases, donations, transfers with local, state and federal parks and conservation agencies, and agreements with landowners to keep their properties in a natural state.
Visitors can follow Land Trust guides on more than 40 hikes and walks annually. While the group this year added shorter, physically less taxing mile-long excursions along the Napa River, the walking program continues to include longer routes like the Carneros walk, which led hikers nearly 900 feet above sea level.
From the end of Henry Road, a series of gravel and dirt tracks formed a natural staircase along which one tableau could give way to another within three minutes of walking. Arches of live oaks, cool and dark underneath, skirted deep ravine before emerging into sun-dried swells of grass, then back into wooded stretches where flocks of quail flapped their wings with a drum-like sound. As the path twisted and curved, more and more miles of the county slowly revealed themselves down below.
Even before the summit came within sight, it had already been a productive hike for Bill Senske, who joined the walk using a Land Trust membership a friend from his former Colorado home had gifted him for his 50th wedding anniversary. Toting a camera, a sharp eye and a 400mm telephoto lens, he identified many of the winged denizens of the hills: a California jay, a white-tail kite, a dark-eyed junco.
After a final push between parched grass fields, Senske and the others at last reached a hilltop where the Mare Island bridge appeared a tiny brushstroke and the distant San Francisco Bay shimmered in the morning sun.
“You have to be struck by the spectacular view of the bay here,” he said, as other hikers peered through binoculars toward the horizon.
The sight was to be cherished even more for being within reach but a few times a year, he added, pointing toward a winery building the opposite way. “These people buy property so that you can’t see them!” he added, chuckling.