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A little bit of everything along the Napa River Trail

May 11, 2003|John McKinney | Special to The Times

For the fledgling city of Napa in 1848 -- when commerce relied on waterways -- location meant everything, and the city had a great one: the northernmost point of navigation on the Napa River.

From here Napa Valley farmers and ranchers sent wheat, fruit and cattle to San Francisco. As many as 50 ships a day crowded Napa's seven wharves. Scow schooners, specialized watercraft that carried heavy loads in shallow waters, moved agricultural products downriver to the big city and returned with machinery, tools and other manufactured goods.

Napa declined precipitously in the 1920s when cars, better roads and bridges made commercial river transport less important. Decades of environmental abuse followed. Sewer lines and industrial waste emptied into the river, creating a toxic stew that killed fish and peeled paint from waterfront buildings. Not until the 1950s were sanitation and river restoration measures implemented.

These days, some parts of the river finally resemble the watercourse of old. Conservationists, city planners and residents have teamed with the National Park Service's Rivers, Trails & Conservation Assistance Program to develop the Napa River Trail. After years of effort, it's still a work in progress, but eventually the trail will extend six miles.

The river route offers a little bit of everything: bird-watching, panoramic views, even proximity to city life in the form of old downtown Napa and its revitalized Main Street. Along the way, hikers can look at historic homes, industrial buildings and boat docks -- reminders of an era when the river was a vital commercial strip.

You can get a good sampling of the trail from two segments. Reach the first segment by following California 29 to Trancas Street, then driving 1 1/2 miles east to the river. Watch for the trail access sign on the west side of the water.

The path begins as a wide trail of crushed granite. It meanders riverbanks cloaked in oak and bay and choked with ivy and blackberry. The mellow walk ends at loud, busy Lincoln Avenue.

The second segment is in John F. Kennedy Memorial Park, Napa's largest park, popular with bird-watchers, anglers and boaters.

Start near the boat launch area, reached by following California 29 to Napa and taking Imola Avenue east. Turn right on Soscol Avenue and follow it past Napa Valley College, then turn right on Streblow Drive and follow it past a golf course to the boat launch. The walk along an earthen levee provides great views of mallards, geese and other waterfowl.

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