Did you know that about 120 miles from Silicon Valley there’s a place that few know about, but is worth a drive for the adventurous?
Head south on Highway 101, then turn left on Highway 25 at Gilroy; pass through Hollister (which is not a beach town, nor “just” a clothing store for teens)…and keep going until you see broken pavement, cows in the road and your phone signal is long gone!
The Paicines General Store http://www.yelp.com/biz/paicines-general-store-and-restaurant-paicines is an indication you’ve “gotten away from it all”! It’s the last stop on the way to the east entrance of Pinnacles National Park. http://www.nps.gov/pinn/index.htm http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pinnacles_National_Park
Turn left (not towards Pinnacles!) and keep going and you’ll find the Panoche Inn. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panoche,_California
http://www.yelp.com/biz/panoche-inn-paicines It’s a popular watering hole for motorcycle clubs and other wanderers (and the place is “For Sale”!)
Just past the Panoche Inn is a left turn onto “Little Panoche Road” and 8 miles later is http://www.MerceyHotSprings.com
http://www.yelp.com/biz/mercey-hot-springs-firebaugh Hot soaks, sauna, swimming, camping and a few cabins (oh, and free satellite WiFi!)…plus a huge view of the Milky Way! Make sure you bring food and water. They have a few snacks for sale, but that’s it… (It is possible to drive here from I-5 to the east. It’s the better way if you’re not coming from Silicon Valley.)
Over 100 “Long-Eared Owls” migrate here each winter, where they are easily spotted if you ask which trees to look in. They have hundreds of square miles to hunt for rodents, with very little other wildlife in the area except for a few birds and rabbits I saw.
About 1/4 mile further to the north is the “Panoche Hills” BLM area. http://www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/hollister/recreation/panoche.html From November to April you can drive up the hill and see some VERY dry and desolate hills, a few towers and navigation beacons, and some random folks who do target shooting. It wasn’t quite the super-cool mountain biking area I had hoped, but it was worth a look. (An easy 2WD drive when the gate is open and the roads are dry. It’s well-graded gravel, with no deep ruts until after the big white navigation beacon.)
The next morning, a quick trip to New Idria was in order! (“only” 30-something miles of broken pavement away…) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Idria,_California http://www.new-idria.org/ http://yosemite.epa.gov/r9/sfund/r9sfdocw.nsf/84e3d3f7480943378825723300794f02/4d99072d0c3ba0ce8825784f00067c90!OpenDocument The land is very dry, with some places being almost completely barren, save for a few cottonwood trees eeking out a bit of water from a dry creekbed. In late october they were brilliant yellow!
This historic mercury mining town of New Idria is mostly a few ruins now, and a few locals living nearby. You shouldn’t leave the public roadway, lest you get scolded.
Beyond New Idria are 4WD roads into the back (northern) entrance to Clear Creek. Clear Creek is officially closed due to naturally occurring asbestos in the soil, but there are many motorcycles and ATVs playing around there with no visible enforcement of the closure. (I understand the main Clear Creek entrance is closed with a gate. There is no gate from New Idria.) http://www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/hollister/clear_creek_management_area.html
After some chin-scratching about returning some day with a 4WD or more time to do a bikepacking trip on my mountain bike (and maybe looking for some Benitoite at night with a short-wave UV light), I headed home.
Though I didn’t get much aerobic exercise, it was a great weekend road trip. Mercey Hot Spring is a neat little place to camp, stargaze, owl-watch and hang out. “I’ll be back!”
More photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/59666465@N00/sets/72157637225943593/