Old Howell Mountain Road to Ink Grade

Distance: 25 miles dumbbell
Elevation gain: 3340 ft

This ride is a bit of a grab bag.  It strings together three climbs and three descents, each with its own character.  Locals typically ride it one way, from south to north, 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.  The scenery is fairly ordinary for the area, and 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 nasty mix of heavy traffic and broken pavement which you must simply survive.

Because Old Howell Mt. Road is officially closed to all vehicles (see below), many maps (including electronic ones) don’t acknowledge its existence.  Also, various maps have various opinions about what it’s called.  Just follow the route map and you’ll be fine.


Park on Silverado Trail just outside St. Helena at the intersection of Silverado Trail and Old Howell Mt. Road (at the intersection the road is signed Howell Mt. Road, but is signed Old Howell Mt. Rd. at its other end.  RidewithGPS calls it “Howell Mountain Road South”).  OHMR 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 southeast, with Lake Hennessey in the distance.  After 4 miles, OHMR dead-ends at a road that 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.  You could go L and descend Ink Grade for 4 miles to its end on Pope Valley Rd., then turn around and ride back up, but it’s a wild and wooly descent and I prefer continuing to the intersection with Howell Mt. Rd. and taking HMR, a much smoother, faster, easier way down, to Pope Valley Road, going L on PVR to Ink Grade, and returning via Ink Grade.  This is the area’s bad-ass climb, but it’s not as bad as its reputation implies (4 miles of mostly 6-8%), and it has a nice, unpolished atmosphere.

At the top of Ink Grade, turn R on White Cottage Rd., which in this direction is a mellow, fun descent, and retrace your steps to Deer Park Rd.

The ride’s one vista—looking southeast to Lake Hennessey from Old Howell Mt. Rd.

Now 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.  So we’re going 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 is heaven in comparison to what you’ve just done—very fast (40 mph if you want) but glassy smooth, almost car-free, quiet, pretty.  Perhaps the high point of the route if you’re into thrills.  When it returns to Deer Park Rd, it’s a stone’s throw down DPR to Silverado Trail, which you take L back to your car.

Shortening the route: Do either loop by itself.  I think they’re equally good.

Adding miles: On Pope Valley Rd. 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.

Just on the other side of St. Helena is Spring Mountain Rd./St. Helena Rd., a road which on paper looks like a perfect ride—small, relatively untrafficked, curvy.  It’s up and down across the ridge between the St. Helena valley and the Santa Rosa valley, and it’s a pretty good ride with a couple of drawbacks that keep me from recommending it: 1) the climb up from St. Helena is really steep, steeper than I find fun either going up or going down (like, lots of 12%+); and 2) the pavement on the Santa Rosa side is uniformly lousy, the kind of lousy I find really interferes with my pleasure.  If they would repave the west side of the summit, riding just it as an out and back would be a dream.  But this is Sonoma County after all.

Old Lawley Toll Road

3 thoughts on “Old Howell Mountain Road to Ink Grade

  1. Aaron

    This is a terrific route in Napa, which has few good roads for cycling. Excellent routing suggestions — descending Howell Mt. Rd. instead of Ink Grade and Deer Park/Sanitarium instead of OHMT is definitely the way to go. Nothing beats climbing a closed road, and the “Col de Ink Grade” signs on the final climb are a nice touch.

  2. Brian K Miller

    I would add Crystal Springs Road (at the bottom of the Sanitarium descent. If you see Canon Creek Garage, you have gone too far) to this ride. A shady, lovely little ride with a beautiful creek, a few sharp climbs, a really cool McMansion imported directly from Tuscany, Crystal Springs is actually one of our locals’ standard rides.

    1. Jack Rawlins Post author

      I’ll add it to my to-do list. Crystal Springs Rd. takes off to the R a stone’s throw from the bottom of Sanitarium. It’s a very sharp turn, almost 180 degrees. It runs for 2 miles, then rejoins Silverado Trail. If you loop CSR>ST back to our route, you add 4.5 miles. Canon Creek isn’t a typo for Canyon, btw.


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