Jobst Brandt, Brian Cox, and I had never ridden south on Highway 25 in San Benito County. We were about to experience yet another mountain venue as we set out from Paicines (675 feet), six miles south of Hollister, on Sunday, April 27, 2003, at 8:15 a.m. under hazy skies.
Paicines (see map right) consists of a gas stop and food store and a couple of houses at the junction of Highway 25 and Panoche (pronounced Pa-No-Key) Road.
The idea for the 115-mile loop over the Mt. Diablo Range on a dirt road came from Bruce Hildenbrand, a local rider with whom we rode in the Sierra years gone by. He told me about the ride at the top of Mt. Hamilton in March and I was immediately intrigued — a long ride with a climb on a dirt road over a 4,500 foot pass, no traffic.
Most of the vehicles we saw on Airline Highway — Highway 25 — were towing dirt bikes headed to our destination — Clear Creek Road, an off-road playland managed by the BLM. Highway 25 rolled mostly flat between the Gabilan Range to the west and the Diablo Range to the east.
Early in the ride we passed some vegetable fields, but they quickly gave way to grasslands and the occasional vineyard. In the spring, the valley's bountiful wildflowers paint the fields with dashes of red, yellow, and blue. Wild grass moist from recent rains reminded us this was a wet spring. Standing out in fields of green were stacks and stacks of white boxes — man-made honey bee colonies. In a few more weeks the grass would turn brown and I wondered what the bees would do for food.
At about 15 miles we came to the first significant climb, a 7 percent grade that went on for a half-mile or so before leveling out. After the climb we passed the entrance to Pinnacles National Monument on our right.
We went right by the road junction where Old Hernandez Road took off to the left, a route that we had considered trying because it follows the San Benito River. According to the topo map, the road turns to dirt and then dead-ends.
Shortly after passing the junction, Jobst saw a huge black pig foraging on the eastern hillside. We saw several more pigs in the distance.
A few miles later Jobst spied a half-dozen prong-horned antelope nestling in the grass to the west where cows grazed. Shortly, we saw a rancher repairing some fence and stopped to ask about the antelope. He confirmed that someone had imported them, but poaching keeps their numbers down.
In another eight miles we came to a sign at a T junction, which told us we were headed the right direction as we continued south on a less traveled road through Little Rabbit Valley. Our next climb came in a couple of miles and this one was fairly steep at 10 percent, according to my Specialized Speed Zone Pro cyclometer.
Little Antelope Valley
After considerable climbing we descended into a narrow valley, following San Benito River. We passed the Old Hernandez Road junction. Traffic was light on 25, but here we didn't see any vehicles for miles at a time.
The oak-covered hills reminded me of the eastern slope of Mt. Hamilton. As the road began climbing into the hills, Beaver Dam Fire Station came into view, its water fountain unfortunately out of commission.
Our third major climb began gradually, but soon turned steep at 14 percent in some short sections. After what seemed like enough steep climbing, the road cooperated and peaked. We stopped here and drank from a cold, clear stream.
We headed off and quickly dropped into Hernandez Valley, but missed seeing Hernandez Reservoir (2,400 feet) that showed on the map. It was out of sight just to the north.
A cool breeze under sunny skies made for comfortable riding.
Clear Creek Road stop
At about 45 miles we reached the Clear Creek Road junction on our left and rode through the creek, the first of about a dozen crossings of Clear Creek on smooth concrete. We stopped to eat and took photos of a field crowded with California poppies.
Clear Creek Road was probably been paved in the 1930s, judging from remnants of asphalt we saw.
The canyon got narrow as we headed upstream. Side roads and pullouts were occupied by pickup trucks hauling dirt bikes. Jeep and bike trails fanned out from Clear Creek Road, although we had no difficulty discerning the road from branch trails.
The road was rocky, but not gravely, so we managed a decent pace. The occasional swarm of dirt bike riders passed us going the other way. Farther into the canyon the hillsides became an endless series of mine tailings streaked with a rusty hues of red. The miners arrived here in the 1850s looking for cinnabar, the ore of mercury, used for separating gold ore. They found plenty (second only to the New Almaden Mines) and in the process left behind a toxic Superfund site at the New Idria Mine on the eastern slope. In addition to mercury, there's plenty of asbestos here. Asbestos is a generic term for a fibrous rock.
On a brief descent, Jobst flatted. I stopped and took pictures while he fixed the flat and Brian rode ahead. A BLM ranger driving a pickup truck stopped and during our conversation we learned two valuable pieces of information. First, there was a bar in Panoche Valley with food and drink. Second, at the summit we could ride around a green gate and head down to New Idria rather than taking the detour.
Once riding again, the climbing took on a decidedly less friendly slope, with one section around 14 percent. However, it lasted only a short distance and leveled out again. Crossing Clear Creek for the 8th time, two mountain bikers passed us going downhill and expressed surprise at seeing "roadies."
When we caught up to Brian, he was standing at a BLM notice board where the road forked, turning sharply uphill or going straight up the canyon. Brian surmised that we needed to take the turn based on the paddle marker, and my topo map confirmed that we were now beginning the serious part of the climb from about 3,200 feet.
Fortunately the climb never got steeper than 12 percent, and mostly hovered at between 8 and 10 percent. We encountered only two dirt bikes coming down the hill.
As we climbed out of the canyon we saw a bizarre landscape of fine white rock mixed with the occasional tall digger pine and brush. Even though showers had fallen here over the past week, the ground was dry.
Summit rest stop
I kept an eye on the altimeter, expecting to reach the summit at 4,500 feet, but it turned out to be about 40 feet shy. We found the green gate and, after taking some photos in the cool breeze, headed down a steep, dusty, rocky road. Descending required intense concentration, so I didn't catch the gradient, but I suspect it was about 15 percent, too steep to ride up for all but the strongest mountain bike rider.
At the bottom of the hill about a mile and a half later, we took a left at the T junction, where there was a pond. The wide dirt road followed the hillside with the occasional up and down until we rolled up to a belvedere with a view of breathtaking proportions. We could see for 100 miles to the east — a bleak range of barren gray hills and Panoche Valley. Jobst climbed up on the hillside to take a photo with my camera.
Belvedere over New Idria Mines
We continued down the bumpy road at a slow pace, passing an elderly lady driving a new Lexus SUV uphill. She smiled and waved, obviously pleased to be using her SUV off-road.
New Idria Mines
The road turned to pavement at the New Idria Mines and ghost town. The mine was closed in 1972. Next to the rusting hulk of the ore processing plant we saw a reddish pool of toxic wastewater that for 30 years has been seeping into San Carlos Creek.
With about 60 miles behind us, we headed steeply downhill following Los Pinos Creek. After a few miles we entered a wide valley where the grass was already dry. Ranchers raise cattle here despite the dry weather.
The prairie made way for the occasional windmill and oil well. All of the creekbeds were dry. Only two cars passed us for the next 15 miles on the narrow, bumpy road. A headwind and 2 percent climb slowed us to 12 miles per hour.
At 70 miles we pulled over and had a bite to eat at a cattle pen. Fortunately Jobst had some spare Pepsi. I had drunk my 20 ounces of GatorAde already. I was coming down with the flu, which explained my increased thirst.
We carried on a short distance before beginning a long, gentle descent through Griswold Canyon, a dry creek to our left. Once out of the canyon we entered Panoche Valley. This broad, flat open space has the occasional ranch house, but is otherwise empty, a refreshing change from the crowded Bay Area. (Road junction near Panoche Inn)
Before the automobile, wagons loaded with mercury must have stopped for water and perhaps food from a nearby ranch in the "town" of Panoche, a scattering of houses. There's even a school next to the road.
Panoche Valley's town center is the Panoche Inn, a bar with a few tables. We filled up with soda and water and stepped outside to sit on the store bench. While drinking our sodas, we took in this wide, flat valley and pondered life's meaning.
Leaving Panoche Valley, the ride continued flat for about five miles, when we came to an abrupt climb into the oak-covered hills. In a couple more miles we entered a canyon cut by Tres Pinos Creek. A series of climbs took us to 2,100 feet in staircase fashion. Salt Creek and Las Agilas Creek also feed into the steep-walled canyon.
The descent gave me a chance to rest my badly cramping legs, They gave out after 100 miles. Jobst stopped and offered me the last of his Pepsi and that small sip of sugar helped me get over the final short climbs.
After 10 hours and 30 minutes of riding — 8000 feet of climbing — we arrived at Highway 25 and Paicines. The temperature had dropped to 65 degrees, and by the time we reached the Bay Area a light rain was falling.
The flat parts got to be a bit tedious, but it was well worth a day's ride to see remarkably diverse terrain so close to home.