In the Napa Valley, there’s old and then there’s *really* old.
Old would be the building that houses 1881 Napa, a structure that dates to the year 1881. Old would be the circa-1888 Greystone Cellars complex that houses the Culinary Institute of America. Heck, in the case of wine, even Schramsberg would be considered old—it was founded in 1862.
But these relics are veritable babies when compared to the trees-turned-rocks at the Petrified Forest outside Calistoga.
This destination off Calistoga Road near the Sonoma County line represents California’s oldest collection of petrified trees, dating back to the Pliocene epoch 3.4 million years ago. Visiting the spot is essentially a journey back in time that delivers fascinating information about the Napa Valley centuries before it became a luxury travel destination.
“It’s almost hard to imagine how old this place is,” says Janet Angell, who co-owns the property. “When you think about what’s here and how long it’s been here, it’s really unlike anything else in the Napa Valley.”
As the name suggests, the Petrified Forest comprises more than two dozen petrified trees. The trees were knocked over and covered with ash when Mount St. Helena erupted (yes, it once was a volcano) eons ago. Buried for millions of years, the trees turned to stone. Then, in the 1850s, they were rediscovered by a man named William Travers. The forest was claimed by Charles Evans in the 1880s. In 1914, Ollie Orre Bockee (a woman) bought the 265-acre parcel for a whopping $14,000.
It has remained in the Bockee family ever since—Angell is a descendent of Bockee’s sister, Jeanette Hawthorne.
Visit today and you might meet Angell behind the register in the gift shop, where guests must pay $12 (or $6 for kids) to gain admission. Once you’re in, there are two options to see the trees: a guided tour that takes about an hour, or a self-guided tour that enables visitors to poke around at their own pace.
Both tours follow the same route: A hilly half-mile loop past some of the most notable trees.
Some of the redwoods on this loop include the Giant, a petrified redwood that measures 6 feet across; the Queen, which is 65 feet long and likely was 2,000 years old at the time of the eruption; and the Robert Louis Stevenson, named for the author and poet who made a home in the Calistoga area in the late 1800s. Another specimen, dubbed the Pit Tree, the only petrified pine found in the forest.
Signage along the way informs self-guided visitors about each sight; for those on the guided tour, a knowledgeable docent fills in the proverbial blanks with colorful data steeped in geologic science.
For those who wish to turn their visits into more of a workout, a second trail, dubbed the Meadow Trail, is a relatively flat half-mile spur trail from the main loop that ends at a meadow with a spectacular view of Mount St. Helena.
Back at the gift shop, peruse shelves of petrified wood from elsewhere around Wine Country, as well as fossils such as trilobites and gemstones such as rose quartz and chunks of sulfur from India.
Gem lovers will be in their glory.
The forest certainly has gotten its fair share of accolades over the years. Stevenson mentioned the site in his 1883 book, “The Silverado Squatters.” More recently, the Palynological Society, an international organization that celebrates the study of pollen grains and other spores, referred to the site “one of the finest examples in the world of an ancient forest.”
Of course, for the rest of us, the site is notable because it’s different. Yes, old buildings and old wines can be wonderful. Sometimes, however, old rocks are the perfect way to inject a new experience into a visit with familiar things.
Check out our IGTV channel to learn more about the Petrified Forest and other hidden gems of Napa Valley!