Parks Location Card 

~click left image to see map

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..


by Jim Ostdick

Jim Ostdick is a retired teacher and author who has resided in San Juan Bautista since 2005. His primary interests are energy conservation, outdoor recreation, and human-powered travel. An avid hiker and bicycle tourist, he has backpacked the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada (2009), bicycled the perimeter of the lower forty-eight United States (2013-14), and walked from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast (REACH Across America, 2016). He is the author of Palomino and the Dream Machine: A Retired Dude's Bicycle Tour Around the Lower Forty-Eight United States (, 2015) and Palomino Nation: My 2016 Crazyass Walk Across America (, 2017). He is a dedicated Adopt-a-Highway volunteer and served on the board of the R.E.A.C.H. San Benito Parks Foundation 2015-2017. Palomino Dream blog Palomino and the Dream Machine Palomino Nation

Below is the collection of his walks and hikes in San Benito County with descriptions and maps

Jim Ostick High peak trails about us
Jim Ostdick

San Benito Parks & Open Spaces

Panoche Hills


Reach San Benito Panoche Hills

Badlands topography in the Panoche Hills Recreation Area.

Technically, 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 Hills

Dendritic (tree-like) drainage patterns.

As 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 Hills

Plateaus provide awesome views into the steep canyons.

I 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 Office

Historical building serves as the Mercey Hot Springs resort office.

The 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.

REACH San Benito Parks to visit Panoche Hills - Pool

Mercey Hot Springs cold pool.

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. With 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 Park

Walking trail around Brigantino Park.

I 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 Park

Bench and trail and grassy area.

I 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.

Reach San Benito Parks Brigantino Park

More walking trail.

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. On 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.

Parking area.

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 - windmill

Highway 156 and The Alameda.

One 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.

Reach San Benito Parks San Juan Bautista - water tank lausen rd

Vista from Lausen Drive near the municipal water tank.

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!

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 house

The historic Marentis House (1873) on Monterey Street.

Returning 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 - mission

Mission San Juan Bautista from El Camino Real.

Continuing 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.

Spring flowers on 4th Street.

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

View toward Salinas Road from the De Anza Trail.

View toward Salinas Road from the De Anza Trail.

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.

View toward the Diablo Range from the De Anza Trail.

View toward the Diablo Range from the De Anza Trail.

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.

De anza trail A shady part of the De Anza Trail.

De anza trail A shady part of the De Anza Trail.

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.

Anzar Road wildflowers.

Anzar Road wildflowers.

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!

Anza Lake

Anzar Lake

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.

Anzar Road barn.

Anzar Road barn.

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

Everybody's Mountain

View toward Salinas from Fremont Peak Trail.

View toward Salinas from Fremont Peak Trail.

Poking its rocky cone-shaped head up 3,169 feet above sea level, with a flagpole and historical plaque on top, Fremont Peak is one of the most recognizable landscape features in San Benito County. Easily visible from almost anywhere in the region, the mountain’s microwave repeater stations can be seen for miles in every direction. As the star of California’s Fremont Peak State Park, the relatively short and very accessible hiking trail to the summit makes Fremont Peak one of the state’s easiest prizes for both peak baggers and weekend campers alike.

Looking down on the Fremont Peak Observatory.

Looking down on the Fremont Peak Observatory.

Frequent Saturday night star parties at the Fremont Peak Observatory draw astronomy buffs from far and wide. The park’s informative brochure describes current camping opportunities and the history of the mountain, plus it provides a map of the hiking trails that circle the campgrounds and lead to the summit.

Fremont Peak stairs from the saddle.

Fremont Peak stairs from the saddle.

So what about the walking? You have several choices, depending on your conditioning and abilities. The trail to the peak starts by the John C. Fremont Historical Monument near the upper day use parking lot. It circles around the mountain for about a half mile to a saddle with great views toward Salinas and the Santa Lucia Mountains. A paved access road for the cell towers would allow wheelchair users to reach this point from the parking lot. It’s fairly steep, so use appropriate caution. To climb the peak, head for the rocky stairs and scramble up the worn path to the top.

View toward Salinas from Fremont Peak Trail.

View toward Salinas from Fremont Peak Trail.

Just take your time, aim for the flagpole, and watch where you put your hands and feet. The view from the top is exhilarating! Go back the same way you came and respect the signs that tell you to avoid restricted areas.

Marble on the Fremont Peak Trail.

Marble on the Fremont Peak Trail.

Heading back to the parking lot, take a look at the marble and dolomite outcrops next to the trail. This metamorphosed limestone was once deposited on an ancient sea floor, altered by heat and pressure, uplifted on top of the Santa Lucia granite, and transported northwest to its current spot by movement on the mighty San Andreas Fault. Earth in action!

In the southwest corner of the parking lot you will see a trailhead for the Valley View Trail. It leads you about 0.6 miles past the Valley View campground to a fire road intersection. From there, you can either continue on the Cold Springs Trail which takes you about 0.75 miles to the park entrance or you can loop back up through the Oak Point campground on park roads to the start.

Valley View trailhead.

Valley View trailhead.

The Cold Springs Trail has a few interesting switchbacks and connects near the park entrance to Tony’s Trail. That short path soon connects with Carmen’s Trail which takes you about 0.6 miles back to your car.

Under normal circumstances, the loop hike around Fremont State Park is a fun, easy walk. Currently, though, there are a few concerns. The above average rainfall this year produced some major growth along the trails. In places, high grasses nearly obliterate the tread from view. I highly recommend wearing long pants and using bug spray to protect against ticks. Make sure you watch where you place your feet and hands. Poison oak is abundant along the trail, so use caution to avoid exposure, especially if you are sensitive to it. There are also some blown down trees to climb around, so be ready for that. I hope to talk to park officials about getting a volunteer trail crew up there soon so the loop hike is as pleasant as it usually is.

Valley View Trail needs brushing.

Valley View Trail needs brushing.

Do you like to do trail work? Are you a Boy Scout or Girl Scout troop leader? Do you sponsor a church youth group? Grooming these trails would be a great public service project and learning experience for both adult leaders and young folks. Having such easy access to a mountain on public land with drinking water and toilets and shady campsites is a real treasure for San Benito County residents. Every other peak I can think of is on private land requiring landowner permission to climb or hike. Fremont Peak is truly everybody’s mountain. Let’s take care of our mountain and learn as much as we can from it.

Fremont Peak historical plaque.

Fremont Peak historical plaque.

Fremont Peak State Park is open from dawn to dusk for day use ($6 fee) and for overnight camping ($25 per night). A winding, 11-mile scenic drive up San Juan Canyon Road from Highway 156 and The Alameda in San Juan Bautista will take you up to the park entrance (watch carefully for hardy San Benito bicyclists!). Turning off your car engine, you will immediately notice the beautiful mountain quiet of the natural world. Let that sink in and feel the stress of city life leave your body. It’s good for you.

And please my friends, do not litter.

For a Fremont Peak State Park location map, click here.


Pinnacles National Park South Wilderness Trail

Pinnacles park San Benito County
Peaks View

One of the best things about San Benito County is the national park right in our backyard. On the final Thursday morning of summer, under a perfectly sunny blue sky decorated with puffy white cumulus clouds, it was time to head south on the Pinnacles National Park Highway to go for a hike.

Pinnacles things to do in San Benito parks South wild

Typical stretch of the South Wilderness Trail

There are many trail choices in the park, some long and strenuous and others more moderate. Hiking pal Mike was scheduled to pick up his grandson early that afternoon, so we decided on a quick morning adventure on the South Wilderness Trail. Parking at the Peaks View parking lot, we walked southeast on the Bench Trail to connect with our target. A mostly flat 6.5 mile round trip hike, the South Wilderness Trail is described as “unmaintained” by the park, but it gets enough traffic for the tread to be pretty easy to follow. From the Bench Trail, walk the fire road for a few minutes until you see the signed trail splitting off to the south. The one tricky part comes a few minutes after that, where you must turn right down into (seasonally dry) Chalone Creek and cross to the other side to continue.

It pays to start early. Right away we were greeted by a startled bevy of quail, a few shy cottontails, a lone busy woodpecker, and a few docile, photogenic deer. Rust-colored California buckwheat covered the ground, giving way to oak forest interspersed with Jeffrey pine as we proceeded along the creek. I think trees are like people - they get more interesting as they age. Okay, yes, I suppose I am prejudiced.

Pinnacles south peak a deerThere is a good bit of poison oak in places along the creek bed, so make sure you know the rules. Rule #1: leaves of three - let it be.  Rule #2: if it’s hairy, it’s berry. Berry plants have three leaves, too, but their stalks are not smooth like poison oak stalks are. Rule #3: if you can’t tell the difference, see Rule #1.

The trail was blissfully quiet and lined with brown dry grass, reminding us of the extreme fire danger. Soon it led out of the trees to clear views of the ridgelines high above the drainage. We were treated to the sight of an inflight California condor soaring way up next to the clouds, much too distant for my camera phone to capture, a true Pinnacles National Park spectacle.

Ridge line and clouds above the trail.

At our feet, a few lichen-spotted rocks appeared now and then, but mostly there was a variety of plants and fungi and branches in varying states of decay, returning to Earth to start the life process anew. The towering, jagged peaks for which the park is named are not part of this hike. For rock climbing locations, talus caves, and more challenging adventures afoot, check back here in coming months for articles on other routes. But if you are looking for a fast hike with great views and lots of wildlife, the South Wilderness Trail fills the bill.

Earlier that same morning, a southern California couple camping in the park was walking along the road near the Visitor Center as we arrived. They flagged us down and we agreed to give them a lift up to the Bear Gulch trailhead before starting our hike. In the course of a friendly conversation, one thing led to another and it turned out that the woman and my good ole hiking pal Mike were born in the same SoCal hospital (nearly a century apart, haha). That is one of my favorite things about traveling, even close to home. You never know when a completely serendipitous meeting will yield a coincidence you could never have predicted. Don’t be afraid to talk to strangers, folks.

And please, my friends do not litter.

For a location map of Pinnacles National Park, please click here.

Pinnacles National Park Balconies Cave Trail

View from La Gloria Road toward Gonzalez and Soledad
View from La Gloria Road toward Gonzalez and Soledad

hiking in San Benito county machete ridge

Machete ridge

After a big breakfast on a bright and sunny New Year’s Day, I decided to head for Pinnacles National Park for a little adventure. I wanted to go where there would be a lot of people to make my hike more festive and holiday-ish. I immediately thought of the very popular Balconies Caves. From previous experiences, I knew there are a few different routes to the caves from Bear Gulch on the east side of the park, all of which are long and time-consuming. Due to my late start and full belly, I ruled these routes out and opted for the easier and quicker west entrance trailhead near Soledad. To get there, I took a scenic back road drive over La Gloria Road from Highway 25.

hiking in San Benito county

Balcones cliff trail

La Gloria Road slices through the Gabilan Mountains on an unpaved, twisty, washboard gravel track about 30 miles south of Hollister. There are awesome views and some great examples of what I call “farm art,” rusted vehicles and implements that will put a smile on your face, even though they have seen better days. That said, the east side entrance and approach to the Pinnacles in San Benito County scores much higher for overall beauty and drivability than the west side. After you drive into Monterey County and down into Soledad, the road is narrow and winding with very little exceptional scenery. Not until you are actually in the park does the landscape wow you with outstanding rock formations and color. Once you are there, however, the iconic Pinnacles and sky high Machete Ridge do not disappoint.

From the Chaparral Trailhead parking area, it is only 0.6 mile to the entrance of the caves on the Balconies Trail. Families and couples and solo hikers were out in force, providing the fun, chatter-filled walk I was seeking. Normally, I go to places like this for solitude and reflection. Today I wanted New Year’s Day excitement. There were giddy kids everywhere and an air of jubilation on the trail. Perfect!

Things to do in San Benito county

Balcones caves trail

The Balconies Caves at the Pinnacles are talus caves, formed by a different process than limestone caves you may have visited in other locations. As these hard, pyroclastic volcanic rocks were split apart into steep spires or pinnacles by fault movement, broken pieces of rock (aka “talus”) fell into the crevices between the pinnacles and were jammed into place by the force of gravity. These rock fall events left behind open spaces beneath the jammed-in boulders that resemble caves and are, in some places, interconnected. They are great fun to wiggle around in and explore. Sunlight shines into the open spaces in spots. In others, darkness reigns, adding to the spooky underground atmosphere.

The Balconies Caves are a little less than a half mile long. Bring a headlamp or flashlight for the dark spots and be prepared to use both hands and feet to descend the steeper sections. I arrived at the entrance at the same time as a big family ranging in age from 5 to 14 in the kiddie contingent, along with their middle aged parents and relatives. I must have looked especially senior, frail, and dementia-prone on New Year's Day because this amazingly friendly family decided to adopt me. They continually offered me assistance in climbing down into the cave and insisted that I walk in the middle of the pack “in case something happens.” They were so sweet. Somehow, despite being old and decrepit, I made it through to the end without cracking my skull, forgetting my name, or keeling over with apoplexy. Insert winky face here.

After a little exploring on the Old Pinnacles Trail, I walked the Balconies Cliffs Trail back to the trailhead. This is a very pleasant hike with terrific views of Machete Ridge and the Balconies Cliffs. The cliffs are stained in places with long dark ribbons of manganese, which has been weathered out of the rocks and washed down the face of the cliffs forming black stripes.

I saw four climbers scaling Machete Ridge. Two had already reached the summit and two others were on their way. From where I was standing, it looked like they were doing this exercise freestyle, completely without ropes. They were either ridiculously skilled super-athletes and/or out of their freaking minds! I watched for a little while before realizing that, should one of them fall, I would be scarred by the memory for life. Give me a nice, safe hiking trail and an overprotective little family any day!

hiking in San Benito county

Sunset Santa Lucia Mtns

By the time I got back to my truck, the sun was beginning to set over the Santa Lucia Mountains and I decided to scoot back home on 101. If you have time, I recommend hiking to the Balconies Caves from Bear Gulch, but if not, or if you just want to do a quick visit, then the west side entrance is a good choice, too. There can be flowing water in the caves sometimes, making footing very slippery, so check the park web site ahead of time.  Go explore the caves and have a Happy New Year!

And please, my friends do not litter.

For a location map of Balconies Caves in Pinnacles National Park, please click here.

Pinnacles National Park North Wilderness Trail

hiking san benito county
pinnacle peak

Everybody knows that the real “fall back” date this year is November 5, when we set our clocks back one hour, right? For this article, I decided to fall all the way back to last March instead. The original plan for this week was to hike one of the Pinnacles National Park trails. Due to the recent blazing hot temperatures and an injury to my hiking buddy, I elected to wax poetic about a two-hour out-and-back hike we took on the North Wilderness Trail several months ago on a sunny, cool springtime day.


Note: this hike can be done as a 9.3 mile loop if you want more of an endurance challenge and some awesome, remote park scenery. If you decide to take that one on, though, bring plenty of water and snacks and check in advance to see if the Balcones Caves are open. If the temperatures are in the nineties, I would caution against it for most casual hikers.

This is an easy out-and-back hike for most folks. Walk as long as you want and then turn around back to the truck. Starting from the Old Pinnacles Trailhead parking lot, walk northwest on the Old Pinnacles Trail a half mile or so to the intersection with the North Wilderness Trail, then head north along the North Fork of Chalone Creek. In the spring, water in the creek will sing to you as you move upstream along the gentle grade. There are good views of the trademark pinnacles to the west and for the most part, the trail is simple to follow, marked in places with flags and cairns. Follow the tread along the creek and keep your eyes peeled.

hiking san benito county pinnacles

pinnacle climb

Those famous pinnacles are volcanic in origin, eroded into spires by repeating freeze and thaw cycles over several thousand millennia. They formed from highly explosive (high silica content) flows that slowly cooled and were topped off by layers of pyroclastic breccias and tuffs. The latter formations are studded with angular pieces of broken rocks that provide excellent handholds for the many climbers seen frequently in the park. In places, wind and water have eroded the rocks enough to loosen and remove some of the clasts and leave behind eerie, pockmarked holes, perfect for inserting the toes of climbing shoes.


Residents of San Benito County sooner or later learn the unique geological importance of our area’s one and only national park. Situated on the western side of the famed San Andreas Fault, the volcanic rocks of Pinnacles match in great detail those found on the eastern side of the fault near Gorman, CA, approximately 315 kilometers (196 miles) to the southeast. Both eruptions have been dated at ~23.5 million years old. From these data, along with the knowledge of the relative motion of the opposite sides of the fault, geologists can gauge the approximate rate of movement along the San Andreas: 1.34 centimeters (0.53 inches) per year. Ain’t this fun?

Even if you are not fascinated by the park slowly creeping up here like Grandma Moses all the way from southern California, there is plenty to look at along the North Fork Chalone Creek. In the spring, we saw lots of poppies and larkspur, as well as some really entertaining and healthy-looking lizards. Biologists say that male lizards do push-ups and head bobs to attract attention and claim territory. What I want to know is do female lizards roll their eyes, tell them to knock it off, and get their little tails to work? Male biologists are silent on that issue.


My personal favorites in the Pinnacles National Park wildlife kingdom are the mariposas, the beautifully colored butterflies that are livin’ the dream, sampling the heady nectar of the Chalone Creek wildflowers. What a life, ladies and gentlemen, what a perfectly stressless life - a peaceful, fluttering childhood extended indefinitely under the blissful, gentle California sun. Want to relax? Go watch a butterfly on the North Wilderness Trail.

And please, my friends do not litter.

The Pinnacles National Park east entrance is located 32 miles south of downtown Hollister, the San Benito County seat. For a location map of Pinnacles National Park, please click here.

You can obtain a brochure that includes trail maps when you check in at the park’s Visitor Center, located inside the campground store.

Pinnacles National Park High Peaks Trail

Hiking pinnacles
Bear Gulch Trail Scout Pk

The crown jewel of hiking on public lands in San Benito County has to be the High Peaks Trail in Pinnacles

Sunny autumn days provide perfect walking conditions at the park. Although you are unlikely to encounter large crowds of people on this featured trail on weekdays, it is always good to see folks from other areas coming to our county to hike. On an early November Tuesday, I met a tech worker named Nick from Philadelphia and three young visitors from the Netherlands on the Bear Gulch Trail, one of whom was studying Physics at Stanford. I was fortunate to hear about his travels and his research as I ate my lunch on the bench overlook near Scout Peak. An extra tangerine from my pack cheered him up and sparked a good conversation. Up on top, I passed a few local couples coming and going, all of whom had one thing in common: brightly shining, smiling faces. This trail makes people happy!

hiking pinnacles

High Peaks steps

The famous “steep and narrow section” of the High Peaks Trail seems a lot steeper and a little narrower now than the first time I hiked it in the early 1990s. Back then I brought a group of students from the CSU Bakersfield Geology Club to the Pinnacles National Monument and we practically galloped up to the top. I recall the ten year old son of one of the older students trying to climb up the backside of a formation we christened “The Mitt.” It is good to know that The Mitt is virtually unchanged almost twenty-five years later.

In a human lifetime, igneous rocks like these do not change that much. The formations and views have remained essentially the same for millennia. The carved stone steps, arched tunnels, and sturdy metal handrails of the trail are still the same gradients and dimensions as they were when the Civilian Conservation Corps built them in the 1930s. Yet somehow, inexplicably, the puzzling years of this twenty-first century have radically altered my climbing velocity. This arrangement hardly seems fair if you ask me (insert winky face here).

hiking pinnacles

High Peaks lookout

The skies of the Pinnacles are as unpredictable as a 66-year-old’s sciatica. Conspicuously absent on this fall day were any hoped-for dazzling appearances by iconic California condors. I always half-expect to see one of those grand birds whenever I go to the park – that is part of the excitement of going to the Pinnacles – but on this day, I had to be satisfied with the glorious soaring views from the High Peak Trail and the long winding descent down Condor Gulch. No matter what, this hike never disappoints.

The park campgrounds are sparsely occupied mid-week so staying overnight to hike another trail the following day would be a good option if you can manage it.  The night-time weather is starting to get a little nippy now, though, so if you go, be prepared with a good insulating layer beneath you and a cozy sleeping bag liner if you have one. If not, an extra blanket might come in handy. The backcountry is dry and fire danger is extreme. Please check with the rangers, but in general, campfires are not advised. Just bundle up and enjoy nature’s magnificent quiet.

hiking pinnacles

High Peaks Jim

And please, my friends do not litter.

For a location map of Pinnacles National Park, please click here.

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Tres Pinos

If you are looking for a good breakfast and a moderate six-mile hike with terrific country views, grab a friend and try out this tour of Tres Pinos on Airline Highway south of Hollister. FlapJacks Breakfast and Grill next to the Post Office serves a mean, hiker-size dish called Blueberry Flapjacks Fantasy. It’s the perfect fuel for a casual walk through town, up Quien Sabe Road and back, over to the Tres Pinos Creek crossing on Southside Road, and a round trip to the Tres Pinos Union School on the community bike path.

On a cool, overcast Thursday morning, I met Ridgemark resident and fellow retiree Mel Tungate at FlapJacks to chow down and get acquainted face to face for the first time. Our shared interests of hiking and bicycling pages on social media prompted a meeting to talk in person. His children were just a little too old to have been at San Benito High School during my tenure there, but I recognized several of the names of their favorite teachers. I was happy to hear that he had hiked a section of the Pacific Crest Trail in Southern California, so we traded trail stories about that as well.

After some righteous breakfast grub, we decided to walk a few blocks to the end of town and head east upgrade on Quien Sabe Road through the long, rolling, grassy foothills leading up to the Diablo Range. The sun was out by then, warming and brightening the morning. Looking back at town, the Immaculate Conception Church tower was the lone multi-story building in sight. Views to the west were unbroken all the way to Fremont Peak and beyond.

The road (why is it called “Quien Sabe,” you ask? Who knows?) becomes narrow and winding as you gain elevation, so walk on the left and be prepared for a car or truck coming your way once in a while. You won’t see much traffic, but there is plenty of room to step off and get out of the way if you need to bail. For the most part, all you will see are cattle grazing on the plentiful grass or splashing down into a stock pond for a sloppy drink of water. Or red tail hawks soaring. Or maybe, if your timing is right, local paragliders doing the same thing. You can extend this hike by continuing up the road as far as you want. On this day, we walked uphill for 30 minutes and turned around back into town.

Retracing our steps, we passed by the restaurant and turned left on Southside Road across from the Tres Pinos Country Store. I was curious to see if there was any water left in Tres Pinos Creek about a half-mile away. Sure enough, there was a small flow at the crossing, just enough to wet the road and color the wash. Keep a sharp eye out. If you look in the creek bed or in just about any location along the San Benito River, you might be lucky enough to find a rounded river rock containing pecten fossils (ancient mollusc bivalves of Miocene age), washed down from the Monterey Formation far upstream.

Walking back toward Airline Highway, turn north (left) on the community bike path that leads just over a mile to the highway crossing to Tres Pinos Union School. There you can turn around and head back to town to finish the hike. We were fortunate enough to meet a local walker/runner this sunny day, a young mother named Brenda who was pushing her infant daughter along the path in a sturdy jogging stroller. A San Benito High School graduate, she hikes and jogs regularly on the bike path to stay in shape, an inspiration to other moms and to old retired guys, too.

Tres Pinos is seven miles south of Hollister on the way to the Pinnacles National Park. In addition to breakfast at FlapJacks, food and drinks are available at the La Fogata Mexican Restaurant, the 19th Hole, and the Inn at Tres Pinos. Check online for days and hours they are open.

For a location map of Tres Pinos, click here.


Baler Strong

The closest thing we have to a River Parkway so far in San Benito County is the San Benito High School cross country course off Nash Road near Powell Street, just southwest of campus. Circling abandoned river terraces, the well-worn dirt path cuts through a mile and a half maze of oat grass and cottonwood trees.

This savannah-like terrain is a nibbling paradise for cottontails and jackrabbits, plus the occasional feral cat or a dog on the lam from the adjoining neighborhood. This is not the prettiest walking venue in the county, but it’s convenient and safe and an easy, a flat track to pound out some morning or evening miles whenever school is out. Early or late on a clear day, the views of the Diablo Range and the Gabilan Mountains can be stunning. Two or three brisk laps around the fields will get your heart pumping and make you glad you came.

On a recent cloudy Memorial Day morning, I met several Hollister hikers taking their daily exercise and getting a glimpse of the still-flowing San Benito River. Most of the year the riverbed is a dry, sandy wash, but abundant winter rains have provided sufficient groundwater to produce a nice ribbon of moving water at the surface. We know it won’t last, but seeing and hearing the river in motion is a real treat. Meeting all these nice folks out for a holiday stroll gave me a lot to think about.

There are many ways to enjoy a walk. A solo hike can give you time to sort out your thoughts or just let them come and go as they please. Many folks use walking alone as a form of meditation, a calming way to center themselves in the present. It can also be an exercise in independence, just getting out on your own and seeing what the day has to offer. A personal encounter with a hawk or a crow or a turkey vulture can lift your spirits and the sudden bolt of a jackrabbit can jump start your motor in an instant.

Few things are more pleasant than sharing a walk with a friend or a loved one. The miles fly by when you are solving the world’s problems together or swapping old tales of hoops glory or getting that argument you had with your teenager off your chest. Just sharing a golden sunrise or a cherry red sunset and saying absolutely nothing works, too. This is what friends are for.

What really lights me up and gives me hope is seeing a young family out for a walk together. Children get plenty of screen time and lots of worksheets and concentrated verbal instruction. Many of them, however, lack much meaningful time with loved ones just relaxing and experiencing the connectivity of nature. There is intrinsic joy in that family circle, but it has to be nurtured. Having outdoor fun together knits tight, lasting bonds in ways nothing else can.

Whatever your walking style, solo or with a buddy or in a group, the point is to get out and recreate. Re-create! Make yourself whole and refreshed one footstep at a time. Individually, you will be healthier and more productive. As a couple, you will be closer and more loving. As a family, you will be stronger and more dynamic. My dream is  to one day see all kinds of San Benito walkers strutting their stuff on a continuous path from Aromas to San Juan Bautista to Hollister to Tres Pinos.

There is so much to enjoy and discover here – on bike trails and river footpaths and country roads - let’s work together to connect the dots.

And please my friends, do not litter.

For a location map of San Benito High School, click here.

St Francis Loop

If you are looking for a beautiful five-mile walk on country roads with minimal inclines and a wide variety of scenery, consider this loop hike from the Hacienda de Leal in San Juan Bautista to the St. Francis Retreat Center gate and back. You will cross the San Andreas Fault (SAF) four times, a historical railroad track twice, walk through a tree tunnel, and meet three sheep, some horses, and a cute but disturbing little donkey with an all-business, deadeye stare. Seriously, don’t mess with that guy. You will also pass through some of the most gorgeous grazing and farming land in the county.

As a loop hike, locals can start and finish anywhere that is convenient, safe, and legal for parking. Visitors staying at the Hacienda, St. Francis, or the Mission Farm RV Park can simply start the walk from their front doors. I have described the route beginning at the Hacienda de Leal at the corner of The Alameda and Old San Juan Hollister Road in San Juan Bautista.

Walking east on Old San Juan Hollister Road, immediately past the Hacienda, where the sidewalk ends, you will notice a historical marker commemorating the site of the San Juan Pacific Railway. This line delivered Portland Cement from nearby Old Mission Cement Plant to Chittenden in the early 1900s. Continuing east for another few hundred yards, you will begin to notice a very rough stretch of road at the edge of a thickly-wooded area. The San Andreas Fault creeps along here at a few centimeters per year, breaking up the asphalt and causing a noticeable curve in the faded yellow dividing line in the middle of the road. Standing here and facing northwest, it is easy to see how the fault continues beneath the highway past Mission San Juan Bautista.

Passing alongside a beautiful redwood grove, you soon see the entrance to the peaceful, bucolic Mission Farm RV Park with active farm fields across the way. Continue straight to Mission Vineyard Road and turn right (south) at the stop sign. If you time it right, you will be treated to the intoxicating fragrance coming from acres of berry huts on your left. Stay vigilant, because you will soon see a slight dip in the road with en echelon northwest trending fractures indicating another crossing of that persistent San Andreas Fault. Soon thereafter, take a left (east) by the entrance to Amycel, following the sign to St. Francis Retreat.

Now look left and start counting the telephone poles. They are numbered. When you get to pole number five, the road will be exceptionally broken up. Yes, you guessed correctly, you are crossing the SAF for the third time. Turn right toward St. Francis where the signed road bends and begins a slightly uphill gradient. Your fourth SAF crossing is coming up.  In about a quarter mile, where the pavement is once again extra-crumpled, you will notice a set of closely spaced poles in the ground behind the fence line. These poles are used by USGS seismologists to measure creep (slight, slow movement) along the fault. Okay, school’s out, that’s it for the science-y stuff.

The road is narrow and curvy through here, so pay attention for cars as you walk through a captivating, fairy tale, tree tunnel on your way to the retreat grounds gate. The scenery in this part of the walk is fantastic, with views in every direction of the grass and tree covered hills, grazing cattle, soaring raptors, and endless blue sky. At the St. Francis Retreat gates, it is time to turn around. Please do not enter without permission. Access to the grounds and hiking trail can be arranged in advance depending on their scheduled events. See the contact information below.

Retrace your steps back to the Amycel turnoff, but instead of going back (north) by the berry fields, go straight (west) and walk past the grazing sheep and grapevines on the right and the horses and the stone cold donkey on the left. Do not engage! Keep walking past more horses and houses and crops all the way to the crossroads, just past what is left of the San Juan Pacific railroad tracks, and turn right (north) to head back to the Hacienda. Congratulations, you have completed the loop. Food and drinks are yours right across the highway. You earned it, so grub up!

The St. Francis Retreat Center website has a map of the grounds, including two miles of hiking trails and a small pond. Visitors are welcome with advance notice as long as retreats or events are not in session. Please respect this and all private property along this route.

And please my friends, do not litter.

For a location map of this hike, click here.

For a location map of the San Andreas Fault from the Geology Café website, click here.

The Art and Science of Downtown Hollister

You don’t have to pack up the minivan and drive big miles on the highway to find a good walk in San Benito County. Downtown Hollister offers walking tours that will stretch your legs and stimulate your imagination. In this segment, I combine the Hollister Public Art Walking Tour with the Calaveras Fault Earthquake Walk for a lively four-mile exercise in self-improvement.

The Public Art Walking Tour map can be found on pages 42-43 of the The Guide, compliments of the San Benito County Chamber of Commerce. To start, park in or near the Briggs Building at Fourth Street and San Benito. In front of the building, you will see a sculpture of a smiling man riding an adult tricycle. Created by Sean Monaghan, it is called In Loving Memory and Spirit of Eric Tognazzini.  For background information about the dedication of this memorial, please click here.

Next, walk across Fourth Street to see La Bamba Box by Joel Esqueda.  This box honors the 1987 biographical film about Ritchie Valens by San Juan Bautista’s famous playwright, Luis Valdez. Continuing north on San Benito Street, turn right on Third Street one block to the Hollister Super. Here, you will find an outstanding mural called El Sueno de la Humanidad (The Dream of Humanity) by Ronald Rocha. This one is my personal favorite.

Retrace your steps to San Benito and find the Farmers’ Market Box by John Elliot. That puts you in line toward two more murals another block north at Hill Street and San Benito. The larger one, called The Used Car Lot Mural by Phillip Ray Orabuena, Joel Esqueda, and Adam Valentino, faces San Benito and a smaller one, The Hill Street Mural by Adam Valentino and Phillip Ray Orabuena, faces Hill Street. At the corner of North and San Benito is the colorful Ballet Folklorio Box by Joel Esqueda.

Okay, go back to Hill Street, turn right, and discover why they call it Hill Street. Fasten your fanny packs, hikers, because here comes a little feet-on science. The short climb up to the Community Garden comes courtesy of what geologists call a pressure ridge, a feature that forms as a result of deformation along a fault. Think of it as a wrinkle in a rug that is being tugged sideways in opposite directions. In this case, the “rug” is being pulled toward the northwest on the other side of Vista Park Hill from where you are now huffing and puffing. The hill itself and everything behind you to the east is being pulled to the southeast. Vista Park Hill is a ridge that has crumpled up in response to all that side-to-side pressure along the fault.

It’s a nice place for a garden, don’t you think? In the Vista Park Hill Community Garden, for your viewing pleasure, is Totem Pole by Fred R. Cabrera.  Take a look around while you are up there. You can see for miles.

Across Hill Street from the garden, go down the dirt use path next to a chain link fence. That connects to a paved ramp which winds down to Third Street to The Veterans’ Mural by Phillip Ray Orabuena. Continuing west to Locust Street, examine the curb in front of the corner house that faces the hill. See how warped it is? The Calaveras Fault continues northwest from here alongside Vista Park Hill and out across the valley.

From this point, you can toggle between the Earthquake Walk and the Art Walk all the way to San Benito High School and back. Head south toward Fourth Street on Locust and turn left on Fourth. You will immediately see where the sidewalk has been damaged over time by movement along the fault. This damage repeats itself on all the east-west streets between here and Nash Road. The effects dissipate the further south you go. A slide show describing the Calaveras Fault is included as a pdf below this article.

Staying east on Fourth, cross West Street and take a look at the beautiful Etched Canopy Roof by the Smith Group JJR atop the San Benito County Courthouse.  Then duck into the unique Fremont Memorial Tunnel by Arturo Rosette and pop up on the south side of Fourth Street. Turn right to see the rock sculptures at the end of the block. They represent the mountains that flank the east and west sides of San Benito County — the Gabilan and Diablo Mountain Ranges by Richard Deutsch.

Next, turn left on West Street and keep looking to the right as you pass each cross street. In the middle of these blocks, explore the offset sidewalks, crumpled curbs, and large dips in the road, all caused by the fault. The most obvious of the features are located on Sixth Street and in Dunne Park. They really are amazing and you can’t miss them, especially if you watch the slide show before you go.

Keep walking along West Street, checking out the deformation on the side streets all the way to Nash Road. This is the end of the Earthquake Walk.

Turning left on Nash, head over to San Benito Street and walk north down the homestretch. When you get to South Street, just outside the doors to the Country Rose Cafe, you will find a bucking bronco on The Western Box by John Elliot. Behind the Veterans Memorial Building on Seventh and San Benito is the moving Veterans’ Voices Project by Phillip Ray Orabuena.

Another one of my favorite murals, called The Bounty by Arturo Rosette, is in Browns Alley next to Fisher’s restaurant. Makes me hungry! Marlon Brando fans will smile when they see the classic mural Johnny’s – Birthplace of the American Biker by Ronald Rocha in Wentz Alley.  Across San Benito Street from there is the elegant Maddux Mural by Carol Ann Huboi.  And rounding the corner on Fifth Street, on the wall facing East Street is Remembering Our Veterans Past and Present by Ronald Rocha.

Wrapping up this hike is the iconic Biker Box by David Gutierrez on Fifth and San Benito, followed by the City of Hollister Historical Downtown Guide in Briggs Alley by Ernesto Pedro Valles.  Whew, that’s a lot of self-improvement for one day! Now go treat yourself to something good to eat at one of the terrific restaurants on San Benito Street. You earned it.

And please, my friends, do not litter.

For a map of downtown Hollister, please click here.

San Benito County Historical Park

The best-kept recreational and educational secret in San Benito County is the San Benito County Historical Park (SBCHP), located at 8300 Highway 25, one mile south of Tres Pinos. Set on 35 acres of bucolic, shade-tree-dotted countryside next to Tres Pinos Creek, with six acres of county historical exhibits, the park is the perfect place for a family reunion, a picnic lunch, or a leisurely stroll around the grounds.

In the historical village, a project of the San Benito County Historical Society, you can step back in time to visit an old schoolhouse, a dance hall, a firehouse, a bar, a livery stable and barn, and view just about every antique farm implement known to mankind. Currently under construction is an indoor model train track that includes a replica of the Hollister-Tres Pinos line, which was used to haul hay from the southern end of San Benito County into the “big city.” Future plans call for a local indigenous people’s exhibit with a scaled version of an Amah Mutsun village, along with appropriate tribal educational materials.

In the spacious, shady group picnic areas, you will find tables and barbeque grills, support stands for volleyball nets, a playscape for the little ones, and plenty of open areas for games and parties. You can reserve group space for events in the picnic areas as well as in the dance hall or arrange for tours of the historical village by following the directions on the SBCHP website.

For hikers, the park currently has a mile and a quarter of trails, with more to come. Existing trails can be extended with excursions along Tres Pinos Creek to hunt for fossils and to spy on abundant cottontails, jackrabbits, quail, and other small animals. As recently as the last weekend in July, there was still ample water flowing in the creek, which, of course, is unusual for this time of year. Water attracts birds of all kinds, so bring your binoculars and see how many different species you can identify. But first, drink in the far-ranging vistas from the freshly-graded upper trail above the village.

Start your hike at the south end of the park at the trailhead near the red corral. Follow the “hiker” signs and heed warnings to beware of possible rattlesnakes in this less-visited part of the park. Keep Fido or Fida on a leash and as a courtesy to everyone else, pick up after him or her as necessary. The trail leads you up a short, steep-ish hill behind the village to several outstanding views of the park and Tres Pinos Creek below, as well as beautiful, long vistas of the rolling foothills of the Diablo Range. Looking to the northeast, you will see the top of Santa Ana Peak poking up its extinct volcanic head in the background.

After looping around the upper trail, pass the back of the Ferrando barn and circle around to the front. You are now in the historical village. Head straight, past a most interesting Peddler’s Wagon and many rusty, well-used farm implements, and step over the cable barrier into Group Area One. A nature trail is planned for this locale, but it is easy and safe to walk here as it is. Follow the fence line north as far as it goes, stopping short of a small bluff overlooking Tres Pinos Creek.

Last winter’s wild storms altered the path of the creek here, eroding the cut banks and slicing out an entire section of the park’s access road. Group Area Two was significantly damaged, illustrating the awesome power of flowing water and reminding us that Ma Nature is ultimately still in charge. Stop for a minute here and listen to the enchanting sounds of the flowing creek. That magic rhythm is soul-soothing and good for what ails you.

If you want to explore the creek, follow the cut bank around to where the road used to be and find an easy way to scramble down to the water. Otherwise, just wind your way over to the gravel road and walk south past the park entrance to the right hand turn toward the historical village. Enter the village and follow your nose to visit the schoolhouse and the dance hall and all the rest. I would say it is more fun just to wander around to whatever piques your interest rather than to proceed in any prescribed order – it is always best to allow for a modicum of serendipity in any adventure, don’t you think? To complete the walk, head back to the trailhead the way you came.

This is a pleasant, simple stroll that almost everyone can do. Jogging strollers for infants and sturdy wheelchairs for those who need them can be used on all but the steepest parts of the upper trail. Individuals using walkers to ambulate may find the upper trail and the outer gravel road sections too difficult, but I think the flat historic village portion of the walk would be okay. Enjoy your park. It’s a blast!

And please my friends, do not litter.

The San Benito County Historical Park is open daily during daylight hours. Gates are closed at dusk. There is a modest $3 day-use fee payable at the “iron ranger” just past the bridge after you enter.

For a location map to the park from downtown Hollister, please click here.

Mudstone Ranch

Mudstone Ranch, open sunrise to sunset daily, is seven miles south of Hollister at 7800 Cienega Rd. in the Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area. In late summer, from the parking area inside the classic wooden ranch sign, the sun-scorched grasses, the faded trail markers, and the mud-cracked lower trails may not seem that inviting. But like so many other trails, something happens when you start walking. Your senses wake up to the beauty of the ranch land and its inhabitants. You are seduced by the rolling hills and the sweeping vistas. The vultures, the quail, the doves, the lizards, and the swift, unseen critters that make sudden, scurrying sounds in the knee-high grass all work their charms. Keep walking. Mudstone Ranch grows on you.

On a recent Thursday morning with local schools back in session, my hiking buddy Mike Carroll and I were the only ones at the park. We paid the Iron Ranger a $5 day use fee and, picking up a free map at the kiosk, we selected a loop hike of about four and a half miles. Neither one of us had been here before, so this would be a shakedown cruise – a relaxed initial introduction to the ranch. The trails here are multi-use. You can walk, you can ride your horse, or you can mountain bike. On this day, we did not have to worry about sharing the road with anyone.

Right away, things got interesting. After a quick gain in elevation to get our lungs working, we ran into a sign on a swing gate that read Enterin’ the Very Bad Lands, with a longhorn skull and crossbones painted underneath. Alright! A challenge! We’re in the Wild West now, buckaroos. Before long, the scenery got better and better. These “very bad lands” are bad in the very best sense, as in “b-b-b-bad to the bone.”

Turning west on the Razorback Trail, we climbed parallel to a stream drainage, entering the neighborhood of towering oaks growing tall and green out of the dry, grassy arroyos. Continuing uphill, we earned a surprise overview of a lush stock pond, a precious reminder that water is life. Mostly gentle switchbacks wound to the top of the drainage to another stand of sparse but shady oaks, a nice spot for a short breather.

Just past one of several algae-covered cattle troughs along this route, we encountered a trail intersection called the Amme Crossover. This crossroads essentially marks the crest of the route, leaving a short walk to another side trail called the Glen Loop. In my younger days, maybe even last year, I would have tromped down the switchbacks to explore this drainage, too, but on this day, still unfamiliar with the territory and favoring a gimpy knee, I decided to save that adventure for another time. Instead, we stayed with our plan and took the Road Runner Trail east back toward the truck.

This was smooth sailing, a long downhill walk toward the Historic Barn Complex on the north end of the property. On the way, we were treated to a panoramic vista of Hollister and the surrounding countryside. After adjusting to the scale from our viewpoint, we were able to pick out the water tanks on Vista Park Hill, the ag barns at San Benito High School, the solar farm behind the football stadium, Hazel Hawkins Hospital, the San Benito River, and several of the main roadways into and out of town. Cheap thrills!

The Barn Complex at the end of the Road Runner Trail is neat and compact and everything about it screams cowboy. In the water trough next to the corral, Mike spotted hundreds of tiny mosquito larvae swimming around through the algae. They were clearly the most prolific wildlife species we saw on the ranch this day, but unseen coyotes (judging by their frequent on-trail scat) might be close behind.

Mudstone Ranch, in the foothills of the Gabilan Range west of the San Andreas Fault, was designed as a buffer zone between nearby residential development and the off-highway vehicles area. No motorized vehicles are allowed on the ranch. Dogs must be kept on a leash. Standard trail etiquette applies: hikers yield to horses and bicyclists yield to horses and hikers. A restroom is located on site in the parking lot. Absolutely no smoking or fires are allowed. If you go, be sure to bring water and snacks.

And please, my friends do not litter.

For a location map of Mudstone Ranch, please click here.

Hollister Parks Loop 1

Most of us, if we had our druthers, would prefer to walk in a giant Sequoia forest on soft pine duff with the fresh scent of autumn and the sound of cawing magpies in the air. But family, employment, school, and other important responsibilities often conspire to keep us close to home. How can we balance our need for exercise and nature within our busy time constraints? One way is through urban hiking adventures to our local parks.

Try this five-mile loop that links McCarthy, Veterans’ Memorial, and Dunne Parks in Hollister. Look up as you are walking. You will probably see someone you know.

Last Saturday, I parked near Off the Chain Bikes at 101 McCray Street to start my walk at McCarthy Park. Right now there isn’t much to this park, but the city recently announced plans to completely revamp the whole thing. Until then, it is one of the only unlocked places in San Benito County where you can shoot hoops outdoors. We need more hoops!

From the park, head east to Chappell Road, walk south to Meridian Street, and hang a left. See those sidewalks? They are for walking! Pass along behind the neighborhood homes toward Memorial Drive, noticing the newly improved landscaping and the neat, proud campus of Marguerite Maze Middle School. Go Hawks!

When you get to Memorial Drive, turn right. The cross streets are all orchard streets, named after fruit trees. If you keep your eyes peeled, you will see many imaginative lawn decorations. My personal favorite is the side yard with all the colorful frog statues – stay classy, frog house, you are awesome.

Soon you will reach the sprawling playfields of Veterans’ Memorial Park at Meridian Street and Hillcrest Road. In addition to honoring the loyal men and women of our county who have served in the nation’s military, this is where local baseball, soccer, and skating legends are born. Is there anything more entertaining than watching little ones in shiny numbered jerseys chase a soccer ball around the bright green pitch on a sunny September Saturday morning? I think not.

The baseball diamonds were not in use on this particular Saturday, but there were some skater and bike kids at the park honing their skills. This is a more serious, independent bunch. There is an air of competition and daring about skate parks that is different from the organized and supervised team sports. It’s fun, but it’s also “chill.” You have to be pretty focused to do this sport without eating some serious concrete.

From the skate park, continue south on Memorial to Sunnyslope and turn right. Coast down past all the streets with the World War II names like Versailles and Calais and Verdun and Black Forest. Cross Airline Highway and turn right by the Walgreens to McCray Street. Look to your left as you pass the playing fields to see grownups running or walking laps on the track and still more kiddie soccer games. Circling around the block on East Park Street, you will come to the front of Rancho San Justo School. Go Broncos!

From there, go straight to Nash Road and turn right to Monterey Street and the front of San Benito High School. One of my favorite trees in Hollister is the huge, mighty pine directly in front of the band room on Monterey Street. That tree, like most of the Baler band kids I have met, is smart and strong and full of good character. Go Balers!

Keep walking north until you get to Haydon Street and turn left to West Street, where you hang a right toward Dunne Park. The Joshua Inn at 712 West Street is a bed and breakfast in a beautiful house just across Seventh Street from the park. If you are staying at the Inn, of course, this would be the logical start and end point for your loop walk.

Dunne Park has tennis courts and a nice grassy lawn with a noticeable dip where the Calaveras Fault slices between Sixth and Seventh Streets. Years ago, there was a fault-related sag pond located in the low spot of the park where today’s tennis courts are. As homes filled in around the historical district, the pond was drained and the park was engineered to prevent its re-occurrence.

From Dunne Park, walk north past the San Benito County Historical Society Museum to Fourth Street and turn right. Pass the San Benito County Courthouse, the Masonic Temple Clock Tower, and Bill’s Bullpen on your way back to McCray Street and Off the Chain Bikesto finish the hike. Good one!

And please, my friends do not litter.

For a location map of this loop hike, please, click here.

Quien Sabe Rd.

Note: Please be aware of the high fire danger in all grassland or brushy areas of San Benito County. Activities like idling vehicles along county roads, mowing dry grass, using motorcycles and 4-wheelies in dry areas can endanger the whole community.

This is Halloween season and few critters in nature are as spooky as big ole hairy spiders. Specifically, I am talking about tarantulas and even more specifically, I am talking about big ole hairy male tarantulas out looking for a mate.

I am kidding, of course. Tarantulas are not that threatening. They really won’t bother you unless you are dumb enough to approach them from above to try to pick them up with your hand. They will sense that as an action by one of their natural predators, like a hawk swooping down from the sky. If, however, you place your hand palm down on the ground in front of a tarantula, it will probably crawl right over it. Depending upon how squeamish you are, that will either tickle a little or it will make you scream. But really, the tarantula won’t be able to tell the difference between your hand and a chicken burrito. Stay calm and get tickled. You can scream later.

On the first Sunday of October, driving up to the cattle guard at the peak of Quien Sabe Road, I saw a few tarantulas crossing the sun- warmed, two- lane pavement. During the fall mating season, that is a pretty common sight in the countryside away from city traffic. I elected not to mess with them, hoping to see some again after I parked to go for a walk.

On a pleasant, sunny, autumn day, Quien Sabe Road is a beautiful, quiet place to hike, as long as you stay on the road and respect the fenced-in ranch land. The steep-ish grade down to Santa Ana Valley Road and back will challenge your lungs and thighs while the views up to nearby Cibo Peak and faraway Fremont Peak will please your eyes.

Cibo Peak, like many of the peaks of the Diablo Range, is made of basalt. It formed as part of a volcanic island arc on the ocean floor and was scraped off, or accreted, onto the edge of the continent back when the Farallon Plate was being subducted beneath North America. As subduction ceased, the volcanoes went extinct and the tops of them began to erode. They are still visible as the mostly cone-shaped peaks seen on the eastern skyline of San Benito County today. The tan-colored, dirty sandstone you see exposed on the side of the road is greywacke, a jumble of old ocean and beach sediments that geologists call the Franciscan Formation. You can see those rocks practically everywhere in our part of the Coast Ranges if you look for them.

I had another goal in mind that Sunday besides getting in my miles and looking for spiders. Our ambitious friends from Off the Chain Bikes in Hollister were taking on a really big challenge – the San Benito Death Ride – and they needed some sag support. So after my walk, I waited up at the top with cold drinks and snacks while these crazy, but otherwise respectable people climbed their third peak of a one hundred mile ride. They began that morning at the bike shop in Hollister, rode to San Juan Bautista, climbed Fremont Peak, rode back to Hollister, and climbed to the top of Lone Tree Road. Then they rode over Santa Ana Valley Road and up to the top of Quien Sabe, down to Tres Pinos to Southside Road, and back to the bike shop. Insane! My hiney hurts just thinking about it.

If you want to take part in next year’s Death Ride, contact Brian or Chris at Off the Chain Bikes. If you would rather simply beat your feet for a couple of hours on a country road, give this Quien Sabe hike a try.

And please, my friends do not litter.

For directions to the top of Quien Sabe Road, please click here.


Griswold Hills

The Griswold Hills Recreation Area, near Panoche in far southeastern San Benito County, is more than fifty miles away from my home in San Juan Bautista, but well worth the effort to get there. The winding route on Panoche Road past the Paicines wineries and through the slide areas to Panoche Pass (el. 2,250 feet) is stunning, with long views of pristine cattle ranches and rocky, steep canyons along the way. Crumbing slopes of serpentinite (California’s state rock) and greenstone shine with a black and deep green hue, passing into dipping layered beds of chocolate brown shale. East of the pass, the rocks are Cretaceous in age, uplifted remains of a time when the valley was the edge of the continent, once covered in a shallow sea.

Griswold Hills is under the jurisdiction of the U. S. Bureau of Land Management and has long been used by target shooters and game bird hunters. Hikers in this area should make themselves visible with bright colors and utilize good common sense. Braided cattle trails wind up toward the ridge, providing steady, challenging climbs past the beautiful, sometimes vertical, sedimentary rock formations. The brush can get pretty dense in places and the canyons narrow as you gain elevation, so watch your step and don’t get yourself in a jam. Climb as high as you can safely navigate and pause frequently to enjoy the awesome views.

I hiked the canyon solo on a cool autumn Thursday when my erstwhile hiking buddy Mike was out of commission with a broken arm. I took two extra precautions which I highly recommend for folks heading out this way. One was I notified a set of friends about my plans, letting them know I would be out of cell phone range, info on the vehicle I was driving, and when to expect to hear from me next. The second precaution was to wear a bright orange vest over my jacket to make myself very visible. I had the usual stuff - water, food, headlamp, first aid kit, rain gear, tick spray, etc. – packed inside my daypack. And I carried a hiking pole to help me to descend. On hillsides, the more points of contact with good ole Ma Earth, the better.

My favorite parts of this hike were the stark quietness of the setting, the visual contrast between the valley and the surrounding canyons, the grainy texture and erosive features of the dominant sandstone, and the simplicity and hardiness of the desert-like flora. I was surprised at what little wildlife I encountered, mainly very small grey/brown birds which I and my childhood friends used to call “chi-chi” birds (finches of some sort, perhaps?) plus some very far away crows.

My least favorite thing was all the ammo litter I found just about everywhere. I have absolutely nothing against hunting and target shooting. When I was younger I did a little of both. But I was always taught to pick up after myself, including targets, shells, and spent rounds.  On the way back to my truck, I filled a large garbage bag full of cans, bottles, shotgun shells, ammo boxes, and cardboard targets and took them home to the trash bin. Maybe if we all did that each visit, and stopped adding to the problem while we were having fun, we could get this place back in shape.

The no-fee Griswold Hills Day Use Area has a covered picnic table, a kiosk stocked with BLM brochures, a parking lot, and a clean pit toilet. It’s a great place to hike, responsibly take target practice, or hunt in season. Primitive camping is allowed, but it is limited to fourteen days. Be sure to bring your own water.

To get there, turn south from Panoche Road on the road to New Idria, keep right, and look for the BLM sign on the left. On the way home, be sure to stop at the Panoche Inn for a sandwich and refreshments. You’ll love it!

And please, my friends, do not litter.

For a location map to Griswold Hills Recreation Area, please click here.

Laguna Mountain Doubleheader

Near the southern end of San Benito County, just west of Hernandez Reservoir along Coalinga Road, lies the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area, operated by the U. S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This area includes three trailheads and two free campgrounds from which to stage your fun, non-motorized adventures. Last week, on a cool, sunny mid-December morning, I explored two of them, the Short Fence Trail (aka Trail L5) and the Upper Sweetwater Trail (aka Trail L3).

BLM maps of the recreation area are available at the trailhead kiosks, along with vault toilets and picnic tables. Be sure to bring your own drinking water and pack out all of your trash when you leave.

The Short Fence Trail is designed for foot traffic only, cutting through oat grass and oak forest for a little over a mile before petering out near seasonal Fox Spring. This trail is steep at first, narrow, not especially well-tended, and does not appear to be frequently used. That means there is a good bit of ducking under branches and stepping over blowdowns involved, so pay attention to where you put your feet and head, unless you happen to be an agile, furry hobbit or a wee little elf. All those yoga stretches and burpees you have been doing for flexibility and core strength will come in handy on this hike.

I was glad for the exercise, but I would not describe the Short Fence Trail as non-stop grins and giggles. Much of the time I was in thick cover, with only a few opportunities for the long mountain views and rock outcrops that I enjoy the most. There were lots of intersecting game trails along the way, but no deer or pigs or cats made themselves visible and the ground was too cold for reptiles to be out and about. Most of the wildlife sightings were of the airborne variety, jays and crows and sparrows, plus skittering, drumming coveys of California quail. Our state bird is thriving in southern San Benito County.

I was back at the truck in forty-five minutes after this easy warm-up hike. I made myself a note to try Trail L5 again in the springtime, when the trees would be greener and there would be running water (and maybe critters) in the stream.

Just up the road a mile or two is the parking area for the Upper Sweetwater Trail L3. This is a multi-use trail for hikers, equestrians, and mountain bikers. After a mile and a half or so, it connects to Trail L2, a dirt and gravel fire road that leads to seasonal Laguna Falls and Trail L1 to the Laguna Mountain Campground. The Upper Sweetwater Trail has well-marked, well-groomed dirt tread that appears to get a lot of use. There are terrific views of the mountains surrounding Hernandez Reservoir and large, shady oaks interspersed along the way. You can stretch your legs and pick up the pace on this trail, a brisk, open one-hour walk to L2 and back.

Sweetwater is a great place to bring your horse or your mountain bike. Just remember the universal courtesies that apply to right-of-ways on all multi-use outdoor trails: hikers go first, then horses, then bikers. There is ample parking and turn-around space for trailers at the entrance to the Sweetwater Campground across the road from the trailhead. The campground itself is clean, remote, and beautiful, with six campsites for tenting or for RVs (no hookups). There is no water and stays are limited to fourteen days. Each camp has a fire ring, but bring your own wood, campfire permit (see link below), a shovel, and sufficient water to drown the coals.

After this fun scouting trip, I decided to return next time to do a loop hike. Starting from the Laguna Mountain Campground, I will walk the Laguna Mountain Trail L1 to Laguna Falls, down the Trail L2 fire road to Trail L3, then down to the Upper Sweetwater Trailhead and back on the road to the Laguna Mountain start. That will be a good one. I hope there is still some water in the falls!

To get to the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area, head south on Highway 25 from Hollister. About 12 or so miles past the entrance to Pinnacles National Park, turn left on Coalinga Road. The Short Fence Trailhead is 13 miles ahead on the right. There are several one lane cattle guard bridges along the route, so take it easy and stay alert.

And please, my friends do not litter.

For a location map of the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area, please click here.

For information about hiking, camping, hunting, and target shooting in the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area, please click here.

For a free California Campfire Permit, please click here.

Laguna Falls Teaser

One of the best hiking trails in San Benito County is Trail L1 in the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area on Coalinga Road fifty miles southeast of Hollister. From the parking lot in the Laguna Mountain Campground, the trail takes you 2.5 miles into “The Gorge” along Laguna Creek deep in Miller Canyon. Near the end of the trail, the creek cuts a perpendicular line through a steeply plunging serpentinite ridge. Depending on rainfall, time of year, and your rock scrambling abilities, you might be lucky enough to climb down and witness a series of small waterfalls with their corresponding idyllic wading pools. Notice I said “might.” Don’t get mad at me if you expend all that energy and it’s just a teeny dribble. Even without the falls, though, the trail itself is still a fun hike.

The first half mile or so of the walk is on a fire road that leads up to Laguna Mountain. If you want to climb the 4,462 foot peak, stay on the fire road for a couple of miles to its end and scramble to the top as best you can. There are cairns marking the way, but it is not really a trail. Trail L1, however, is clearly marked as an all-purpose trail (hiking, mountain biking, equestrian – no motor vehicles) veering to the right off the fire road. From there, it switches back through the chaparral and serpentinite rubble down to the creek and continues on its opposite bank. On a cold January morning, I was glad that the flow was calm and the crossing was an easy rock hop. I would have splashed through anyway, but it was nice to keep my feet dry for a while on a chilly day.

The well-maintained path follows the creek upstream for another half mile or so. Here, a left hand fork in the trail leads to a poorly-located fire ring near another stream crossing. Beyond the crossing is a primitive campground on a flat grassy area. Every Boy Scout or Girl Scout can tell you that fire rings and camp sites should be at least 200 feet from a stream.  Why some adults fail to observe the Leave No Trace principles that pre-teens learn in scouting is a mystery to me.

Back on the trail, you climb gently through oak forest above the steepening gorge toward the end of Trail L1. One option for a longer hike would be to connect to Trail L2 here and hike that one to Trail L3 which leads down to the Upper Sweetwater trailhead. That would leave you a steep-ish mile and a half walk on Coalinga Road back up to the Laguna Mountain Campground. That hike did not appeal to me on this day. I came to hunt for the waterfalls, so I plunged down into The Gorge, scrambling off trail toward the sound of what I hoped was falling water. I could clearly hear it, but the brush was so thick and the slope was so steep that I could not see the stream from the top.

Here is the “teaser” part, folks. For safety reasons, I will not tell you exactly what I saw or show you a picture of the possibly majestic Laguna Falls. The truth is that the off trail scramble is probably not a good idea if you are a senior or a young kid, so make a good decision, okay? For everyone else in good health, just be careful and realize the tick and poison oak potential, not to mention the risk of falling on your noggin. Ignoring my own advice, I bushwhacked through the brush and trees to spend several delightful minutes climbing upstream over slick boulders and sampling the cold, rushing water with my feet (precise location and tantalizing, prosaic wilderness description omitted).

Whether you are fortunate enough to see the falls on your visit or not, The Gorge and the stream are great fun to witness up close. As the afternoon began to wane, I decided to head back along the opposite side of the stream, off trail. This is the kind of adventure I like best, walking, observing, and picking my way along a sun-dappled creek. Deer tracks, gurgling water, and conversations with lone, curious blue jays were my rewards. Eventually, my wandering led me back to the primitive campsite I referred to above. There I crossed the creek, rejoined Trail L1, and retraced my steps back to the truck. I love this place and so will you. If you go and if you’re lucky, you just might find a gorgeous little waterfall or two to put a big smile on your face.

To get there from Hollister, take highway 25 south past the Pinnacles to Coalinga Road, turn left, and continue about 14 miles. It’s a beautiful drive, but take it easy around the curves and over the cattle guards, watching for range cattle and possible wet creek crossings. Laguna Mountain Campground has five tent sites with covered picnic tables and fire rings, plus a vault toilet and kiosk, but there is no water, so bring your own.

And please, my friends do not litter.

For information on Leave No Tracewilderness principles, please click here.

For a location map of the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area, please click here.

Pinnacles National Park Chalone Peak Trail

The hike to North Chalone Peak in Pinnacles National Park is all about the views. My advice? Stop frequently and drink in the long vistas in every direction, ridge after ridge of stunningly colorful volcanic boulders, plunging ravines, uplifted and eroded spires - the whole magnificent, sprawling landscape sparsely covered in juniper, madrone, and pine. Described as “strenuous” in the park brochure, the nine mile round trip from the Bear Gulch parking lot is definitely a challenge. But who is to say that you have to do every bit of it to have fun? Want to visit the tower up on the peak? Go for it if you like, or go as far as it suits you if not. The views along the way are just as rewarding as those from the tower. Bring plenty of water and snacks no matter what you decide.

Winter is a great time to take this hike, especially on a weekday when crowds are sparse. The cool morning yields to pleasant temperatures in the midday sun. Like many of the hikes in the park, this one begins and ends in the parking lot near the Nature Center at Bear Gulch. Clean restrooms and a drinking fountain are right next to the trailhead and maps can be found at the kiosk by the Nature Center. My hiking buddy Mike and I opted to skip the Bear Gulch Cave this time, taking the Rim Trail around and up to the Reservoir. Conditions were perfect to photograph reflections in the calm, still water.

The Chalone Peak Trail begins on the far side of the dam, edging up toward the iconic Three Sisters pinnacles, a favorite with skilled climbers. Mike pointed out another formation across the trail which appeared to be smiling at nothing in particular, or maybe everything in general. I christened that one “Baby Brother.” Of course, you are free to improve on that if you like.

The wide, well-groomed trail climbs steadily up through the chaparral, robbing your lungs of any spare air, reminding you to breathe deeply and to pace yourself. Very soon you get what you came for – fantastic overlooks down into the boulder-strewn, jagged countryside for which the park is named. Off in the distance, you can see the long, linear trace of the San Andreas Fault slicing horizontally across your view, dividing the peaks and plateaus of the far-off Diablo Range from the canyons and spires of the Pinnacles. You wonder, amazed that this place where you are standing was once far away to the southeast near Neenach, close to Lancaster. What patience and dedication it took the thousands of geologists who worked for decades to understand this crunched up puzzle we call California.

Along the way, we began to notice thin, delicate vines winding up the gnarled branches of the junipers and madrones. These vines bore some kind of odd-looking flower (we thought) that was straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. What the heck is this? A truffula tree from The Lorax? I took a photo of it for future reference and subsequently learned it was a seed pod of sorts from a Clematis vine. Later in the year, these vines will sprout beautifully colored flowers along the trail. If you happen to be there for that event, please send me a picture.

Just about the time when you need a snack and your hips start to ache a little bit on this hike, you look up at the horizon from the trail and see the North Chalone Peak tower way, way up there. You still have a little more climbing to do if you want to take that I-was-there picture. Full disclosure: Mike and I did this hike three years ago, before either of us was a full-fledged Medicare recipient, and the close-up picture included here is from that hike. This time we stopped short of the peak and settled for a seven-mile hike with twenty-mile views. That was fine by me. I had my mind set on sitting on the rocks by the Bear Gulch Reservoir, admiring the reflections, and scarfing down my peanut butter and banana sandwich.

I highly recommend this hike if you feel like stretching your legs and seeing the park from on high, but be please careful about doing it in the summer time. You will need a wide-brimmed hat, plenty of water, and lots of salty snacks. If I was doing this walk in July or August, I would definitely use a sun umbrella to keep my cool.

Enjoy! And please, my friends do not litter.

For a location map of Pinnacles National Park, please click here.  To read all the BenitoLink "Walking San Benito" articles by Jim Ostdick, use "Walking San Benito" in the website search box.