Tuesday, 03 April 2007, John Woodfill, Brian Cox, Bob Walmsley and I
drove south on US101 past Gilroy under clear skies, and took HWY25
(the airline highway) to Hollister and on to the Paicines grocery
store (680ft) at the intersection of Panoche Rd. We parked the car
and got ready to shove off, the store not yet opening until 9:00 (new
hours). The sign on the highway says no services for 80 miles, so it
is a good idea to take plenty of whatever you need for a HARD day's
Heading south on SR25, "The Airline Highway", made our first climb at
Willow Creek where the highway avoids narrows on the San Benito river
and its landslides as it changes its course in the narrow canyon.
Past The Pinnacles State Park (21 miles from the start) we turned east
to the site of the former town of San Benito and Old Hernandez Road,
road that serves a few cattle ranches and has as good as no traffic as
it follows the San Benito river. This time, due to almost no rain
last winter and good road grading, we could ride through the gravel
ford across the river. Only about half of this 15 mile road is
unpaved making a pleasant shortcut in contrast to HWY 25 that climbs
in the hills. We got back onto pavement and joined county RT109 that
comes down from HWY25 that heads off to King City to the west.
It may just be the time of year, but we noticed many dead snakes on
the road that had probably come out to get warmed up by the first warm
weather and picked a bad place for sun bathing. Turkey vultures were
working on roadkill ground squirrels and cottontails at various
places. On top of that we came across a bob cat that crossed the road
at the wrong time.
Along this valley, in the San Andreas Rift Zone, in past years there
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. This time, we met with
mostly last summer's dry grass and few flowers in shady spots.
We continued south along the San Benito River before climbing up
Lorenzo Vasquez Canyon to a small steep pass at 2840ft, the summit
having a cold clear creek from Sweetwater Spring with shade and a good
place to relax. From here we descended to Hernandez Reservoir that
was not much more than a puddle near its dam at the end of a large
grassy lakebed, from lack of rain (2400ft).
Some of these were doing well but not in the profusion we had seen in
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 plenty of Wild Turkeys.
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 this
unpaved road runs along the bed of Clear Creek and crosses it through
twelve concrete paved fords. Near the beginning of the road a sign
proclaims "End of County Road" and then it gets rough. The creek
lives up to its name and was running swiftly through the canyon that
is home to a large off road vehicle park.
The road is about as rough as unpaved mining roads get except that
most of the rock is firmly embedded. After leaving the river at the
thirteenth ford, it climbs in fits and steep 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. The parking lots were empty but for a couple of
pickup trucks whose riders I guess were the ones we met coming down
the road as we rode to the top.
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.
At this point I opened my 16oz Pepsi that I had frozen the day before.
It had melted and was fresh and ice cold, making a great refresher.
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
three feet deep. Motorcyclists all stand on 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
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. This time the
headwind turned into a crosswind but the thin high overcast kept
temperatures in the comfort zone.
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
(87miles), (open 10AM to 10PM Wed--Sun) for some food and drink.
We could do this even though the bar was closed because the operator
lives there and told us that he sometimes has more customers on closed
days than others. He told us that as an interior department
contributor, measuring rainfall was his business and that this year
there was four inches total while on prior years we had 19 inches of
rain. Those were the wildflowery years. He is a great collector and
has lots of interesting memorabilia. From here it is another 27 miles
back to the start.
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 as we descended
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.
This is an interesting ride, that for me was mainly the Clear Creek
and New Idria experience. The total of 7400ft 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.