Napa Valley Recreation: From Hot Air Ballooning to Horseback Rides

View from a hot air balloon of another balloon floating below with the countryside stretching out.

Hot air ballooning over Napa Valley. Photo © Luiz Eduardo, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Map of Upper Napa Valley in California

Upper Napa Valley

Hot Air Ballooning

Another near-unique Wine Country experience is rising into the morning sun over the valley in a brightly colored hot air balloon. Be sure to make your reservations in advance as trips can fill up quickly, especially during the high season (which extends well into fall in Napa). You must be an early riser, since most balloon trips depart shortly after dawn. You’ll float serenely over the vineyards of Napa Valley on your trip, before a gentle descent into a predetermined spot.

Calistoga Balloons (888/995-7700) is the only company offering regular flights in the north end of Napa Valley, so they’ve got the lock on some of the prettiest scenery around. In addition to the vineyards, wineries, spas, and charming town of Calistoga, you’ll get to see Mount St. Helena and the lush forests of the hills surrounding this lovely area. On the other end of Napa, Balloons Above the Valley (800/464-6824) offers the full package—from lodging packages that include transportation to the launch site to included-with-every-ride champagne brunch after you touch down. Be sure to bring your camera to capture those otherwise-impossible shots of the vineyards and wineries from above!

Golf

Since you’re already in the land of upscale entertainment options, it seems only natural to enjoy a round of golf during your Wine Country vacation. At the par 72 Napa Golf Course (2295 Streblow Dr., Napa, 707/255-4333, $33–43), golfers of all levels—even beginners—can enjoy a full 18 holes. More experienced players will enjoy (or curse!) the plethora of water and full-sized trees on this course, known locally as a bargain. Another charming, inexpensive course up north in the Valley is the Mt. St. Helena Golf Course (Napa County Fairgrounds, 707/942-9966, $18 weekdays, $24 weekends). This 9-hole, par 36 course offers a perfect spot to take your younger or less experienced golfing buddies. It’s flat and straight, with easier lines than some other courses. On the other hand, all those trees along the fairways and the small greens make it interesting for intermediate-level players.

Map of Lower Napa Valley in California

Lower Napa Valley

Bicycling

Biking is a popular way to see the vineyards, forests, and wineries of Napa. You’ll get out away from the highways and the endless traffic of the wine roads on two wheels under your own power. If you don’t know the area, the best way to bike the area is to take a tour. Napa Valley Bike Tours (6488 Washington St, Yountville, 800/707-2453) offers standard and custom tours all over the area, from central Napa to Calistoga. You’ll get a first-year, brand-name bike, a map, a helmet, and an orientation before beginning your trek. Then you’ll be off on your chosen tours: a pedal through the vineyards, a half-day tour or a full-day tour including both wine tasting and meals, or a multi-sport “adventure package” that includes kayaking, a balloon ride, or a horseback ride. If you prefer to go off on your own rather than follow a guide, you can also rent a bike from Napa Valley Bike Tours. Or you can select from a more diverse fleet at the Calistoga Bikeshop (1318 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga, 707/942-9687). With cruisers and touring bikes, mountain and road bikes, tandems and trailers, this shop has whatever you need to suit your travel plans. Ask at the shop for directions and maps for whatever kind of ride you want to take, from a simple couple of hours puttering through the vineyards up to the most challenging mountain bike tracks in the area.

Horseback Riding

If you don’t want to use your own legs to get around Napa Valley, consider borrowing the four strong legs of a horse. Take a break from the endless vineyards and explore some of Napa’s most beautiful parks with the Triple Creek Horse Outfit (707/933-1600). Choose from Jack London State Historic Park, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, or Bothe-Napa Valley State Park in Calistoga. Rides run 1–3 hours and cover a variety of terrain. Explore both the natural beauty and the historic significance of these parts of Napa. Whether you’re an experienced rider or this is your first time on a horse, Triple Creek will find the right horse for you. Check with the ranch for limitation on rider age, fitness, and weight.

Boating and Fishing

Tired of the often dry land of Napa in the summertime? Get out into the water! If you like your water running, take a cruise on the Napa River with Napa Valley Adventure Tours (Kennedy Park Boat Dock, 707/224-9080). Float along the river in a lovely small covered motor launch in cushy seats, enjoying the view out the massive wraparound windows. Bring along a picnic and a bottle of wine to make the most of your pleasure cruising experience. The trip takes you right into the heart of downtown Napa and back to the dock.

If you’re looking for a lake vacation adjacent to Wine Country, drive a few miles out to Lake Berryessa (Berryessa-Knoxville Rd.). On this largish lake, you can power boat, Jet Ski, kayak, canoe, and fish—or just sunbathe on the shore and splash about in the shallows with your family. If you’ve got your own boat, you can launch it at one of the marinas or the Capell Cove Boat Ramp (Knoxville Rd.). Or you can rent from one of the lakeside resorts. The Lake Berryessa Marina Resort (5800 Knoxville Rd., Napa, 707/966-4204) offers all kinds of boats, from patio cruisers to high-end ski tow boats to personal watercraft to kayaks. Make reservations well in advance to get the boat you want! You can also rent water skis, wakeboards, and ski tubes.

Lake Berryessa also boasts some of the best fishing in California. You can fish for coldand warm-water fish, including bass, rainbow trout, and kokanee salmon. Rent a boat from one of the resorts, launch your own, or enjoy some relaxed fishing from the shore. The resorts can sell California fishing licenses and bait, and advise you about the season’s hottest fishing holes.


Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon California.

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