Panoche Hills

Parks Location Card

R.E.A.C.H. San Benito Parks Foundation (R.E.A.C.H.SBPF) received the ‘Creatives [for] Community’ Design Grant in 2017. Through Schipper Design we were assigned a great design team to work on a 6”x 9” card to get everyone motivated to adventure and explore in the parks! .

Our intention is to find the resources to print 23,000 cards to send out to every household in the county to help make their healthy New Year happen!   Currently thanks to a Donor, you can find these cards at, among other places, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Board of Supervisors antechamber.   You may donate to that effort, here.., through our website. Thank you, in advance! And enjoy the parks card!

You can download a copy here..

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Reach San Benito Panoche HillsTechnically, nature fans, the wonderful hike described herein is not really within the boundaries of San Benito County. I am fudging a little bit. The turn toward the U.S. Bureau of Land Management Panoche Hills Recreation Area from Little Panoche Road is actually about two miles into Fresno County, a minute or two after the entrance to Mercey Hot Springs. However, these badlands are so cool, so fascinating, that you simply must ignore that fact and go anyway. Furthermore, I propose that San Benito County residents adopt these badlands as our very own. Do not worry. Fresno folks will not even notice. The force is with us.

REACH San Benito Parks to visit Panoche HillsAs a geological genre, badlands topography is stunning and unique. The sweeping, grassy terrain is chino brown and arid, made up of soft, eroded sedimentary rock with very little vegetation and sliced by steeply angled ravines and canyons. The Panoche Badlands were formed from uplifted marine sediments dating back to the Cretaceous period between 140 and 65 million years ago, when what is now California’s Great Central Valley was covered by a shallow sea. Mosasaur (giant reptile) fossils have been excavated from these hills by university paleontologists. If you are fortunate enough to stumble upon exposed vertebrate remains or Yokut artifacts on your hike, please report their location to the local BLM office. Be part of history by allowing your discovery to be properly catalogued and respectfully preserved for posterity.

REACH San Benito Parks to visit Panoche HillsI ventured out to the Panoche Hills on a sunny, but cold December weekday morning. The ripping north wind necessitated multiple layers of clothing, but nonetheless, the hiking was superb. A couple of miles past the BLM overlook, jeep roads and cattle trails provide easy foot access to views of the scarred, plunging slopes. There is no water, but there is a covered picnic table, a vault toilet, and a kiosk with maps. You could hike for an entire day here without getting bored.  I opted to walk high on the grassy, rolling plateaus and ridges rather than to skitter down into the canyons. Whether you ridge-walk or follow the animal paths into the abyss, the preserve is wide open and up to you.

REACH San Benito Parks to visit Panoche Hills - Mercey OfficeThe windswept vegetation and animals here are of the hardy desert variety. Mormon tea and annual grasses dominate, but on this day, there was no wildlife to be seen. No wonder. Kit foxes are no fools. With that howling wind, I wished I had a burrow to crawl into, too, on more than one occasion. After a couple of hours of happy wandering, collecting photographs of the gorgeous scenery, I called it quits and headed over to Mercey Hot Springs.

I learned a lot about Mercey Hot Springs from Kendra, the friendly office manager. This idyllic spot has been a natural, unspoiled resort on the old stagecoach route from the Central Valley for more than a century. In addition to the hot mineral baths and sauna, it has a cold water swimming pool, rental cabins, RV spaces, and shaded camp sites for tent campers. REACH San Benito Parks to visit Panoche Hills - PoolWith 150 acres of rambling property, guests have plenty of room to hike, mountain bike, bird watch, and star gaze. There is even a very challenging disc golf course on site.  For more information and some interesting historical photographs, check out their web site here. I know they are just barely outside the county line, but can we adopt them, too?

To reach Panoche Hills from Hollister, go south on Hwy 25 to Paicines, turn left on Panoche Road and continue over Panoche Pass. Just past the Panoche Inn, turn left on Little Panoche Road, drive past the Solargen Project and Mercey Hot Springs, and turn right at the Panoche Hills Recreation Area sign. The overlook is a few miles from there. Check it out, you will be glad you did.

And please, my friends do not litter.

For a location map of the Panoche Hills Recreation Area, please click here.

Panoche Hills

Reach San Benito Panoche HillsTechnically, nature fans, the wonderful hike described herein is not really within the boundaries of San Benito County. I am fudging a little bit. The turn toward the U.S. Bureau of Land Management Panoche Hills Recreation Area from Little Panoche Road is actually about two miles into Fresno County, a minute or two after the entrance to Mercey Hot Springs. However, these badlands are so cool, so fascinating, that you simply must ignore that fact and go anyway. Furthermore, I propose that San Benito County residents adopt these badlands as our very own. Do not worry. Fresno folks will not even notice. The force is with us.

REACH San Benito Parks to visit Panoche HillsAs a geological genre, badlands topography is stunning and unique. The sweeping, grassy terrain is chino brown and arid, made up of soft, eroded sedimentary rock with very little vegetation and sliced by steeply angled ravines and canyons. The Panoche Badlands were formed from uplifted marine sediments dating back to the Cretaceous period between 140 and 65 million years ago, when what is now California’s Great Central Valley was covered by a shallow sea. Mosasaur (giant reptile) fossils have been excavated from these hills by university paleontologists. If you are fortunate enough to stumble upon exposed vertebrate remains or Yokut artifacts on your hike, please report their location to the local BLM office. Be part of history by allowing your discovery to be properly catalogued and respectfully preserved for posterity.

REACH San Benito Parks to visit Panoche HillsI ventured out to the Panoche Hills on a sunny, but cold December weekday morning. The ripping north wind necessitated multiple layers of clothing, but nonetheless, the hiking was superb. A couple of miles past the BLM overlook, jeep roads and cattle trails provide easy foot access to views of the scarred, plunging slopes. There is no water, but there is a covered picnic table, a vault toilet, and a kiosk with maps. You could hike for an entire day here without getting bored.  I opted to walk high on the grassy, rolling plateaus and ridges rather than to skitter down into the canyons. Whether you ridge-walk or follow the animal paths into the abyss, the preserve is wide open and up to you.

REACH San Benito Parks to visit Panoche Hills - Mercey OfficeThe windswept vegetation and animals here are of the hardy desert variety. Mormon tea and annual grasses dominate, but on this day, there was no wildlife to be seen. No wonder. Kit foxes are no fools. With that howling wind, I wished I had a burrow to crawl into, too, on more than one occasion. After a couple of hours of happy wandering, collecting photographs of the gorgeous scenery, I called it quits and headed over to Mercey Hot Springs.

I learned a lot about Mercey Hot Springs from Kendra, the friendly office manager. This idyllic spot has been a natural, unspoiled resort on the old stagecoach route from the Central Valley for more than a century. In addition to the hot mineral baths and sauna, it has a cold water swimming pool, rental cabins, RV spaces, and shaded camp sites for tent campers. REACH San Benito Parks to visit Panoche Hills - PoolWith 150 acres of rambling property, guests have plenty of room to hike, mountain bike, bird watch, and star gaze. There is even a very challenging disc golf course on site.  For more information and some interesting historical photographs, check out their web site here. I know they are just barely outside the county line, but can we adopt them, too?

To reach Panoche Hills from Hollister, go south on Hwy 25 to Paicines, turn left on Panoche Road and continue over Panoche Pass. Just past the Panoche Inn, turn left on Little Panoche Road, drive past the Solargen Project and Mercey Hot Springs, and turn right at the Panoche Hills Recreation Area sign. The overlook is a few miles from there. Check it out, you will be glad you did.

And please, my friends do not litter.

For a location map of the Panoche Hills Recreation Area, please click here.

Brigantino Park

Reach San Benito Parks Brigantino ParkI have probably passed by Brigantino Park several thousand times coming into Hollister from San Juan Bautista. The park is located just west of the Fourth Street bridge off the Highway 156 business route leading into Hollister, but until last Friday, I had never stopped to check it out. Guess what, folks? It’s a jewel!

Reach San Benito Parks Brigantino ParkI had about 30 minutes to kill in between appointments in town and I really felt like stretching my legs, so I pulled into the parking area to see what the park had to offer. From the road, it appears to be just a large, undeveloped green space. I was looking for a walking path, hopefully with some nice views. Brigantino Park did not disappoint. 

Looping around multiple acres of thick, freshly-mowed green grass atop an elevated, level river terrace, is a wide, crushed-gravel trail about a mile in length. It offers long views of the Diablo Range to the east and a glimpse of the San Benito River between town and the park. The trail steps up to another elevated river terrace on the west side of the park, flanking the base of the oak-covered Flint Hills. Reach San Benito Parks Brigantino ParkOn a brilliant, sunny Good Friday afternoon, I saw just three other small groups of walkers enjoying the scenery and getting in their exercise. This was exactly what the doctor ordered, a chance to walk and breathe and soak in the quiet, peaceful beauty of a perfect San Benito County Spring day.

Brigantino Park, which opened just in the past decade, is in the early stages of development by the city of Hollister. Currently, there are clean porta-cans and picnic tables spaced evenly around the perimeter, a large, fenced parking area, benches and shade trees along the path, and adequate signage to let you know where your boundaries are and what you need to be aware of. Future plans call for construction of soccer and softball fields in the park.

This is a perfect place to go for a walk or a run on your lunch hour or to take the family for a picnic and playtime. The benefits of unscheduled, uncrowded free play for children have been well documented. Bring a soccer ball or a Frisbee for instant fresh-air fun, romping in the lush, green grass. Let them organize themselves and see what happens or get in there yourself to mix it up with them. The point of having a park is to recreate. Go get some sunshine. Run out of breath. Fall down, get up, laugh, and shout for joy, get some grass stains on your britches. That’s what parks are for.

Brigantino Park, at 2037 San Juan Road in Hollister, is open from 8 a.m. to sundown every day. The fenced-in parking lot is locked at night and overnight camping is not permitted. Pets should be leashed in the park. Waste bags for pets are provided at the parking lot. Currently, the water in the park is not potable, so bring your own drinking water. And please my friends, do not litter. 

For location map, click here.

San Juan Bautista Loop

Reach San Benito Parks San Juan Bautista - windmillOne of the great things about San Juan Bautista is that everything is within walking distance. From where I live on the edge of town, I can head out in just about any direction and find open roads, challenging hills, terrific views, captivating history, and lots of friendly faces. This article describes a five-mile loop around one of my very favorite places.

You can begin a loop hike anywhere and have essentially the same experience, but I will start at the Windmill Market shopping center at Highway 156 and The Alameda for the convenience of out-of-towners. That’s where our one and only stoplight is so it’s easy to find.

I should mention at the outset that this is not a historical walking tour. A paper map is available at the Welcome Center inside the San Juan Bakery on 3rd Street that will guide you to and inform you about San Juan Bautista’s many historical buildings. You should check that out, too. But right here, right now, we want to get our blood flowing and get some exercise!Reach San Benito Parks San Juan Bautista - water tank lausen rd

From the Windmill, walk north on 4th Street by Vertigo Coffee Roasters. An early morning daily sighting may be Mary Gray and her walking group. Just try to keep up with those gals! When you get to the stop sign at Washington Street, turn left toward 156, through the sleepy, quiet neighborhood, and under the overpass to Lausen Drive, where you hang a right.

Get ready to huff and puff as you climb the steep, winding road up to the municipal water tank. Want to test your stamina? Go ahead and jog this hill. But be sure to stop and drink in the outstanding vista from the gate near the top. Then coast on down back the way you came all the way to 4th Street.

Turning left (north) on 4th, keep going until you get to Abbe Park (restrooms and e-vehicle charging station). If you see Armando from the city crew keeping the grass in check, stop and say hi. Armando is a very creative photographer. Ask him if you can check out his stunning photos of the Mission on Instagram. Then turn left on Muckelemi Street toward Neil’s Market and the Valero Station.

Now it’s time for more hill work at the San Juan Bautista Cemetery on Monterey Street, near the VFW Hall. No, I’m not trying to kill you. Honestly, you will thank me after you see this beautiful place. To state the obvious, be quiet and respectful at all times. If there is a service underway, do not go up there. It is open only during daylight hours and you should walk on the streets, not on the grounds. That said, the hills are invigorating, the views of the city and the surrounding countryside are stupendous, and the local history is overwhelming. As you read the names on grave markers, you are struck by the diversity and lasting presence of the families and heroes who came before us.

Reach San Benito Parks San Juan Bautista - marentis houseReturning to Monterey Street, turn left. In a few minutes, you will pass the Marentis House (1873) and soon you will see the Luck Museum and Public Library. These are our vibrant community learning centers, where anyone can come to read and converse and relax. The library has the best bike rack in San Benito County by far, plus some smart staff to assist you.

When you leave the library, keep walking south on Second toward the Mission. On the right is Verutti Park, a small but mighty green space recently renovated by a fireball group of local citizens. There are swings and a clean playscape for the kids, ample lawn space for games, and a shaded eating area with a barbeque pit for outdoor dining. Certain senior citizens have been known to stop here and try to do a couple of pull-ups for old times’ sake.

Reach San Benito Parks San Juan Bautista - missionContinuing on 2nd Street, the Mission rectory comes into view. Walk around through the grassy parking area and loop behind the compound to the dirt walking path (El Camino Real) along the east side of the Mission. Berries aren’t in season yet, but you can see the vines flanking the trail as you pass along this scarp of California’s famous San Andreas Fault to the Mission San Juan Bautista.

You aren’t allowed to be tired yet, because you have come to San Juan’s version of stadium steps. There are 22 steps up to the Mission Plaza. Go up and down ten times as quickly as you can without using the handrails. I am told this builds character.

Stop and check out the Rose Garden in front of the church. Inhale. Smile. Raise your hands in glory with the statue of John the Baptist. Then cross the Plaza to 2nd Street, turn left to Franklin Street, turn right, and angle over to 3rd Street by Dona Esther’s and JJ’s Homemade Burgers.

You are almost done. To complete the circuit, walk left on Third past the soccer field (restrooms and parking) back to the Windmill. Refreshments await you there at the market or at the Pizza Factory. You also have many more options on 3rd Street. Which one is best? I say come back often, try them all, and decide yourself. While you’re at it, stop into the many shops and galleries to see what local dealers and artisans have to offer. 

The San Juan Bautista Loop will keep you in shape, teach you about your history, and let you play all in the same day. And please my friends, don’t litter.

For a San Juan Bautista location map, click here.

On a Mission

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting with my hiker friend, Ilia Carson, to discuss her most recent project called Pomniv: the Way to Go.  Ilia is an accomplished walker, a veteran of El Camino Santiago in Spain, the Inca Trail in Peru, as well as the California Mission Walk (Pomniv) from Sonoma to San Diego. She is in the process of building and promoting a website to make the 800-mile California pilgrimage a world class trek on par with El Camino Santiago.

About 15 of those miles cross through San Benito County, from Aromas to Mission San Juan Bautista, of course, and finishing up on the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historical Trail.

OK, you and your hiking buddy are already in pretty good shape, you heard that people actually walk the 800 miles between the twenty-one California missions, and you want to know what the local section is like. You came to the right place.

This hike is best accomplished using a car shuttle. Park one vehicle at the Prunedale trailhead of the De Anza Trail at the end of Old Stage Road accessed from Crazy Horse Canyon. Then drive together to Aromas and park near the town square across from the Aromas Library. The Mission is nine miles away via scenic back roads.

Walk north on Carpenteria Road past the Aromas School, turn right on Quarry Road and right again on Aromitas Road near Graniterock. The paved road gives way to gravel as you climb the shady rise to Anzar Road heading east. Moving along this narrow country lane, on the now mostly downhill route, Anzar Lake appears on the right, full of sparkling water from this year’s abundant rain. After Cannon Road and just before the Stevens Quarry, you cross the San Andreas Fault, seen as a deep linear gash plunging toward Highway 101 at a sharp angle to the southeast. You are now on the North American Plate.

Soon, you cross under the highway, still on Anzar Road, passing McAlpine Lake (small convenience store and bait shop) on your left. Just before turning right on San Juan Highway is a field of fragrant, colorful wildflowers and an aging, photogenic barn. If you hike this road around noon on a weekday, you will see lunchtime walkers from Earthbound Farms getting their outdoor exercise. I recently met local nooners Sonia and Natalie enjoying their daily two-mile walk – healthy, happy hikers!

From there, walk against light traffic to San Juan Bautista using the bike lane. Just before you get to the stop sign at the edge of town, you again cross the San Andreas Fault, where the bumpy, cracked road belies the constant creeping motion of the tectonic plates against each other. Welcome back to the Pacific Plate! Stay on First Street until you see a barricade, then shift over to the right one block and continue on Second Street to the Mission San Juan Bautista State Historical Park. 

Hungry? Take a break and feed your face at one of the eateries on Third Street before moving on. Third Street becomes The Alameda, which leads you to cross Hwy 156 toward the De Anza Trail. Follow the signs to the trailhead. It begins at the end of a gravel track that continues straight where Salinas Road turns right up to the San Juan Grade Road.

From the trailhead, it’s a beautiful, four-mile hike up and over the grade back to your shuttle vehicle. There are great views from the trail of nearby Fremont Peak, Pacheco Peak and the Diablo Range to the east, and from the top of the divide near Ben’s bench you can see Monterey Bay. You never know who you’re going to meet or what you’re going to see on the De Anza Trail, from an assortment of hardy locals to mission pilgrims to bobcats, coyotes, deer, cattle, or mountain lions.

If you can walk 15 miles in one day, folks, trust me, you can do 20. When you have walked 15 to 20 miles a day for 46 days from mission town to mission town, you will have accomplished the physical/spiritual challenge of Pomniv. As Ilia says, it’s a life-changer, a journey of both body and soul. It’s the way to go.

About the De Anza Trail: closed to motor vehicle traffic, this historic route from the Salinas area to San Juan Bautista is open daily to hikers, horses, and bicycles during daylight hours. No camping is allowed and pets should be leashed for their own protection. There is no drinking water on the trail or at the trailhead, so be sure to bring some for you and some extra for Fido. And please my friends, do not litter.

Aromas to San Juan Bautista route map