Sunday, 30 April 2006, Brian Cox, Bob Walmsley and I drove south on
US101 past Gilroy under high fog, that gradually became dense low fog
needing windshield wipers as we took HWY25 to Hollister and on to the
Paicines grocery store (680ft) at the intersection of Panoche Rd. We
parked the car just before the store opened at exactly 07:30. We
stocked up on what turned out to be a bit too little food for the ride
but we managed.
Heading south on SR25, "The Airline Highway", made out first climb at
Willow Creek where the highway avoids narrows on the San Benito river
that causes land slides as it changes its course in the narrow canyon.
Past The Pinnacles State Park we turned east to the site of the former
town of San Benito on Old Hernandez Road, a small road with no traffic
in the San Benito riverbed. We got back onto pavement and joined
county RT109 that comes down from HWY25 west of old Hernandez Rd.
Near the junction with county RT109 we crossed the main obstacle to
traffic (beside the ROAD CLOSED sign), an 18 inch deep ford through
the swiftly flowing San Benito River. We carried our bicycles across,
taking various paths in an effort to find the shallowest route. The
track where a car would travel was about two feet deep. This is why
we met no vehicles on this otherwise firm road, smoothly graded, and
in excellent condition except for a few places where recent grading
left loose rock.
By now the fog had cleared to expose a cloudless blue sky. Along this
valley, in the San Andreas Rift Zone, were many colorful wildflowers
amidst lush spring greenery, including Owls Clover, Paintbrush,
Buttercups, Larkspur, California Poppies and orange Western
Wallflower, and all colors of Lupine, while Large stands of rich pink
tamarisk lined the river.
As in other areas in the state, there was an amazing high quality of
finely manicured vineyards with vines perfectly trimmed on support
wires. I can't imagine that there is such high demand that this
acreage will be competitive with established wine growing regions.
Besides wildflowers we saw California Quail, Yellow Billed Magpies,
Acorn Woodpeckers, Orioles, Meadowlarks, Horned Larks, Bluebirds,
Kestrels, Red-tailed Hawks, Turkey Vultures, Blue Herons, and many
Western Kingbirds, Cliff Swallows, and Wild Turkeys.
We had encountered many cattle guards that were announced as "One Lane
Bridge", I suppose because they are one lane wide and just "Cattle
Guard" would not convey the one way concept. Later in the ride we
were surprised to see such a sign actually followed by a one lane
bridge. After about 16 miles we were back on pavement and joined
Coalinga Road (RT109), where we would have been had we stayed on
HWY25. We continued south along the San Benito River before climbing
up Lorenzo Vasquez Canyon to a small steep pass at 2840ft.
At the summit, a clear ice cools brook came out of the mountain giving
us the opportunity to refill our water bottles and take a deep drink.
At this point I opened my 16oz Pepsi that I had frozen the day before.
It was still full of ice slush and was a great refresher. From here
we descended to Hernandez Reservoir that full to the top from recent
heavy rains (2400ft).
We crossed the San Benito river through one of the well paved concrete
fords and headed east up Clear Creek County RT109 to the site of the
former town of Hernandez (2472ft). on it's way to New Idria the road
runs along the bed of Clear Creek and crosses it through fords about a
dozen times. The creek lives up to its name and was running swiftly
through this canyon that is home to a large off road vehicle park.
Although some of the dozen or more fords are paved, the road is not
and is about as rough as unpaved mining roads get except that most of
the rock is firmly embedded. The road climbs in fits and jerks with
one longer steep section before leveling off again to moderate
climbing to the summit at 3380ft where it leaves Clear Creek to climb
steeply to the New Idria summit. This year there were only a few
two-stroke dirt bikes and as before, ATV's and truckers were civil and
shared the narrow road courteously. I wish all drivers were as these.
The terrain is unusual and striking, with warnings about asbestos in
the soil (and dust) and mercury, which is what was mined at the New
Idria mine of San Benito County, the original Idrija being in Slovenia
where mercury was mined from 1850 to recent times. Some of the slopes
above Clear Creek are barren domes of what looks like grey brown
gravel, but they are fairly solid, so much so that motorcycle tracks
going straight up, in hillclimb fashion, do not leave more than a
trace and these form no gullies from rainwater.
The road gradually levels off as it approaches the 4441ft summit where
Roads head north and south while the main route, down to New Idria, is
open only to motorcycles and bicycles. BLM considers it too hazardous
so it is closed to cars. We rode around the gate and realized that
this would be a tough ride in the other direction, the road being
steeper (up to 20%) and looser, with tighter curves.
The road apparently hasn't been graded in years and has whoop-de-doos
two feet deep. Motorcyclists all stand in this road even though some
have 12 inches or more suspension travel. Of course we do likewise,
having no suspension on our road bicycles. This is not a trifling
descent and requires some dirt road skills and judicious braking.
The view into San Carlos Creek is striking for the canyon steepness
and depth, with mine tailings here and there. The first view of New
Idria is shocking. The rusting hulk of a Smelter building and all the
buildings in town together with a huge junkyard of cars, trucks, and
mining machinery make this an obvious toxic waste site of grand
proportions, much more so than the New Almaden mines in Santa Clara
County. Almaden is in Spain and also started mercury production in
Descending into New Idria (2500ft) where we were on the paved main
street of County RT119. The New Idria mine began operations in 1854
and closed in 1971. Today the boarding house and general store look
untouched since the mine shut down. With lack of heavy traffic the
weathered and rough pavement of the main street was without holes.
Next to the factory, a large cinnabar-red (Chinese red) pond drains
into Carlos Creek making it a stream of tomato soup for many miles.
Huge piles of cinnabar (mercury sulfide) ore surround the town.
The New Idria road, although paved, has major cessations from earth
movement that give it large unpaved whoop-de-doos after which a
gradual descent along Vallecitos Creek at about 1600ft. Although we
had a cooling headwind up to the summit the wind seemed to turn around
for the rest of the ride as a 15mph headwind as we turned northwest.
This year, although we were a couple of weeks later than our previous
ride here, fields were still lush green but soon this will all be
uncomfortably warm, turning the pastures California brown. The road
gradually climbs to 2000ft through a broad valley with sparse
vegetation with herds of beef graze these fields to keep McDonald's
and Wendy's, etc. stocked.
Besides "The Aermotor Chicago" windmills, most no longer in use,
dotting the landscape, a few oil wells were slowly pumping their
wealth into tanks not far from the road. Gradually descending along
Griswold Creek, the road turns north into Griswold Canyon where we
rolled into to the Panoche valley (1200ft). The road turns west and
climbs gradually past the Panoche School and on up to Llanda (1420ft)
where we stopped at the Panoche Inn, (open 10AM to 10PM Wed--Sun) for
some food and drink. Above the bar, the owner had a collection of
more than 1000 autographed one dollar bills hanging from the ceiling
along with of lots of other memorabilia.
After a few miles farther, the road enters Payne Canyon along Panoche
Creek and begins its climb to Panoche Pass (2100ft), a broad summit in
Antelope Valley. With the light headwind, the descent was hard to
detect at first but it beat climbing into the wind. We were getting
into greener landscape as we rode along Tres Piños Creek.
The narrows of the canyon required that the road make a few climbs on
the way Paicines. We did alright and rolled into Paicines at about
19:00 for the drive home. On the radio we heard that warmer weather
was coming and we were glad that we had it so good, even with the
This is an interesting ride, that for me was mainly the Clear Creek
and New Idria experience. The total of 7550ft of climbing in 114mi
does not reveal the effort. The Old Hernandez Road is a bit longer
but had less climbing than the HWY25 route.
Palo Alto CA