Old Howell Mountain Road to Ink Grade

Distance: 25 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 3270 ft

This ride is a bit of a grab bag.  It strings together three climbs and four descents, each with its own character.  Locals typically ride it one way, from north to south, and continue on, as a part of pleasant longer routes we’ll discuss in Adding Miles.  But it’s equally good in both directions, and I’m not crazy about those longer routes, so I’ve mapped it as an out and back.  I wouldn’t drive far out of my way to do it, but it has nice variety, a challenging climb, and the thrill of riding a Forbidden Road (see below).  It also includes 1.6 miles of a hellish mix of heavy traffic and broken pavement which you must simply survive.


Park on Silverado Trail just outside St. Helena at the intersection of Silverado Trail and Old Howell Mt. Road (which is here signed Howell Mt. Road, but is signed Old Howell Mt. Rd. at its other end).  OHMT climbs from the gun, so consider warming up on Silverado, the region’s primary bicycle path, which is nearly flat and heavily trafficked but with a plentiful shoulder.

Old Howell Mountain Road

A short leg up OHMR brings you to the intersection of OHMR and Conn Valley Rd.  CVR is serious vineyard country, as evinced by the 20 wineries whose names hang from the unmissable sign at the intersection.  Go L to stay on OHMR, and very soon you see a permanent sign that reads, “Road closed ahead: no vehicles, no bicyclists, no pedestrians.”  Indeed, shortly thereafter you reach a permanent and serious gate across the road.  But as is almost always the case with road closures, there’s an implied “Just kidding!” for cyclists, getting around the gate is easy, and the road, while having its share of vertical pavement cracks, is a ride with zero peril.  This means you get the road to yourself and you get to feel like you’re behaving badly.

A no-traffic guarantee

OHMR is a steady moderate climb through typical east Wine Country dry scrub.  Watch for a nice open vista to the south, with Lake Hennessey in the distance.  After 4 miles, OHMR dead-ends at a road tht is Howell Mt. Rd. to the R and Deer Park Rd. to the L.  Go straight across onto White Cottage Rd. and ride it for (another) 4 miles almost to its end.  White Cottage is a pleasant but not exciting steady climb through fairly developed terrain on a polished, wide two-lane road.  The eponymous Cottage is nowhere in sight.

Closed roads don’t get routine maintenance

Just before White Cottage dead-ends at Howell Mt. Rd., it crosses Ink Grade.  Take Ink Grade to the L and descent , often steeply, for 4 miles through fairly wild terrain to its end.  Turn around and climb back up Ink Grade, the last of our 4-mile climbs.  This is the region’s “wall climb,” the hardest work on the route, with an extended pitch around 10%.  Return on White Cottage Rd., which in this direction is a mellow, fun descent.

The ride’s one vista—looking south to Lake Hennessey

At the intersection with Deer Park Rd. you have a choice.  You can cross and descend Old Howell Mt. Rd., but it’s very rough at speed and I don’t think it would be fun.  The alternative is to go down Deer Park, and it’s awful—lots of whizzing cars passing you while you fight for control at 35 mph over dangerously broken pavement.  After 1.6 miles of this, which feels like 10, bail out to the R onto Sanitarium Rd. (you’ll feel like checking in), which feels like heaven in comparison—very fast (40 mph if you want) but glassy smooth, almost car-free, quiet, pretty.  Perhaps the high point of the route.  When it returns to Deer Park Rd, it’s a stone’s throw down DP to Silverado Trail, which you take L back to your car.

Adding Miles: At the bottom of Ink Grade you’re in the midst of eastern Wine Country cruising country.  The roads in every direction are worth riding.  Turning L on Pope Valley Rd., you can ride to its end and continue on Butt Canyon Rd. all the way to Middletown (16.5 miles).  Turning R. on PVR, you soon reach Pope Canyon Rd and Chiles Pope Canyon Rd., both staples of regional touring.  Chiles Pope Canyon dead-ends on Hwy 128 , which will return you to the Napa Valley (don’t go the other way on 128—the traffic is deadly), while Pope Canyon connects with Berryessa Knoxville Rd., which runs for 37 miles all the way to Clear Lake (where it’s called Morgan Valley Rd.).  It’s all good, none of it is great.

Old Lawley Toll Road

You’re 11.5 miles down Silverado Trail from the Old Lawley Toll Rd, a tiny gem of a climb I absolutely love but which stands in the midst of a cycling wasteland (since Hwy 29 is unrideably trafficky) and is only 4 miles long.   You don’t want to drive any distance to do 4 miles, so you should go bag it now while you’re in the neighborhood.

Old Lawley Toll Road

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