Napa is no big mystery for the Bay Area day-tripper but what exactly do you know about Calistoga besides bubbly mineral water and wine? Set between two mountain ranges, the northernmost city of the Napa Valley features some amazing finds such as an Italian Tuscan style 13th century castle, a forest with dinosaur-age petrified trees and the last working mill of the Bay Area – oh, and the only state park with a public outdoors swimming pool. A day trip with the kids is a must but if you insist, a weekend is best to soak in the vibe.
Until the Bothe-Napa Valley State Park is saved from California budget cuts, there is no camping option in Calistoga but families on a budget can stay at the Best Western Plus Stevenson Manor where the morning waffle bar and free wi-fi attract Bay Area regulars. To enjoy a variety of pool options and your own outdoors patio with grill and picnic area, the Calistoga Spa Hot Springs resort (see more details under Play) is your ticket to relaxing family days by the pool. For an upscale experience, the Solage Calistoga resort features condo-size studios, complimentary bikes to explore the area, a family pool with toys and beautifully-landscaped grounds with artwork.
Wake up at the Calistoga Roastery (1426 Lincoln Avenue,) where you can get your coffee fix while the kids munch on fresh baked scones, oatmeal, home-made granola (with honey and cranberries, yum) or bagels. For lunch, try Busters Southern BBQ for its yummy barbecued meats, soda fountain and hearty side dishes. When night falls, indulge in elegant dining at Solage’s SolBar restaurant where the outside patio and Calistoga take on local seasonal food will make you wish you saw starry skies more often. From May through October on Saturday mornings, the Calistoga Farmers Market will help you pick the best of the season for the winery picnic you’ve been dreaming of.
Start your day with a hike along the Redwood Trail at the Bothe Napa-Valley State Park where the Ritchey Canyon creek waters gently go down the rocky bed under Douglas firs and oak trees. If your kid prefers to get hands-on, the Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park is only 3 miles down highway 29 and offers grain milling demonstrations on weekends. Kids even get to assist the miller and you can buy stone-ground flour to take home for luscious cookie-time.
For the dinosaur fanatics, the Calistoga Petrified Forest offers gentle trail walks through a redwood forest that’s hard as rock. Thanks to a volcano eruption 3.4 million years ago when weird winged creatures roamed the earth, all redwoods you’ll see have been turned to stone. Pretty cool thought. The second volcanic oddity of Calistoga is the Old Faithful Geyser where you can witness, every half hour, 60 to 100 foot eruptions of steam and scalding water coming from an underground boiling river. Open 7 days a week, this place will delight young ones with its mini animal farm and picnic grounds.
To cool down on a hot sunny day, bring the kids to the Calistoga Spa Hot Springs where three mineral pools and a kiddie wading pool should be plenty to keep everyone busy. Bring your picnic lunch or enjoy the on-site snack bar, watch junior blow raspberries in the wading pool where water cascades over a rock wall and relax. Note that unless you’re staying there, you’ll need to secure a day use pass for members of your party. These passes are sold on a first-come first-served basis and availability cannot be guaranteed in busy times such as weekends.
In downtown Calistoga, Pioneer Park (1308 Cedar Street) is a cute and quaint city park where kids can unwind on the playground before or after a stroll on Lincoln Avenue, the main shopping and dining area. And on rainy days or days you need to focus on something else, the Sharpsteen Museum (1311 Washington St) will show kids how Calistoga used to be from the 19th century to today with historical dioramas, a geothermal exhibit and displays on the Wappo people.
Now, parents should not be forgotten and Calistoga wines deserve more than a quickie. Ever heard of the Paris tasting? That was a blind tasting in 1976 when California wines scored higher than French wines for the first time. Well, these award-winning wines are right in Calistoga and you can visit Chateau Montelena Winery to taste for yourself if the wines are still as good (they are) while kids explore the garden and pond area. For an only-in-California winery experience, the Castello de Amorosa Winery is an extravagant must-see for the whole family, whether you’re here to tour the Tuscan style Castle and Winery with a castle guide or taste the wines. Note that entry charges apply whether or not you enjoy the tasting. Last but not least for a Palm Springs desert-to-mountain touch, Sterling Vineyards may be the only Bay Area winery you can access with an … aerial tram from the vineyards. How cool is that?
Mark your calendar:
Through the year, check for programs at the Calistoga Art Center. Join the 4th of July parade in the summer or the popular Calistoga Lighted Tractor Parade in December.
— Laure Lathem