Two years after the first tour of the New Idria ghost town – a 116-mile loop (14 miles on dirt over a 4,450-foot summit), four of us decided on a second trip. We drove south from the Bay Area to the "town" of Paicines (656 feet) on Sunday, Apr. 2, 2005.
We arrived at 7:55 a.m., parked in front of a ramshackle apartment and started riding by 8:02 under cloudy skies, temperatures in the high 40s. Weather Underground forecasters called for rain later in the day. They would not disappoint.
Paicines consists of a couple of buildings and a store at the junction of Highway 25 and Paicines Road 10 miles south of Hollister. A state historical marker across from the junction commemorates the New Idria Mines. The mine was named after the Idria Mines of Slovenia. Both mines were searching for mercury, used in smelting gold.
Several years ago Bruce Hildenbrand told me about the ride. While it's only an hour's drive south of the crowded Bay Area, there's just one store on the route.
We rode south on Highway 25, aptly named Airport Highway. The straight road would make an ideal emergency landing strip for a 747. Traffic consisted of the usual – trucks towing two-stroke dirt bikes headed to our destination on Clear Creek Road.
Neatly groomed vineyards and the occasional orchard broke up the grassy, oak-covered ridges. After a winter of steady rains, we're talking one giant golf course here. Small ponds next to the road had turned into small lakes. The many small hills on either side of the road are pressure ridges. This valley is part of the San Andreas Rift Zone.
The sight of a majestic barn owl perched on a fence post had us reaching for our cameras. We stopped and tried to take a photo, but the proud bird wasn't interested and flew off.
In the previous tour we continued past the Pinnacles National Monument for another eight miles before turning left at a junction to Little Rabbit Valley. On this ride we turned left onto Old Hernandez Road three miles past the Pinnacles. Brian researched the road and found out it follows the San Benito River all the way to the Little Rabbit Valley, saving a 350-foot climb over Buck Ridge.
The paved stretch is nice enough. We came across a sprawling horse ranch, with a brass stallion perched on a hilltop -- simulacra at its best.
San Benito River crossing
But back to the river. San Benito is called a river, but you could also call it a creek. When is a creek a creek and a river a river? Maybe the county decided to call it a river hoping they could get public funding for bridges. They sure could use a bridge, as we'd soon find out. Old Hernandez (we didn't see him) took us into a narrow canyon with steep hills on both sides and the river below. Much to our surprise, the road didn't follow close to the river, but strayed up and rolled along the hills overlooking the river. After about four miles the road turned to dirt at a ranch. Fortunately the road wasn't muddy or rocky, so we made good speed.
In a short distance we came to the mighty San Benito, minus a bridge, washed away by heavy rains in 1998. The county applied for and received federal funds to fix the bridge, but repairs haven't begun.
With heavy spring rains, the San Benito ran as deep and as wide as we'd probably ever see it. With no recourse but to find a way across, Jobst headed upstream and found a shallow place to ford. The rest of us chose the road crossing and removed our shoes and socks. The rocky bottom massaged our feet. Once across, we put on our dry shoes, figuring we outsmarted the elements. Wrong.
The well-graded road rolled along, passing the occasional ranch. On a long, gradual climb Brian flatted. While waiting, we took in the grand scene and pondered how a place so remote could be ours alone. No doubt the SUV crowd would be loathe to cross the swollen river.
We found our way back to pavement in 3.5 miles and after another mile of climbing we arrived at the intersection for Rabbit Valley Road. From here, it's a fairly flat ride through Lorenzo Vasquez Canyon; we passed a forest service station with a long-abandoned water fountain next to the road. On this cool day nobody was all that thirsty, but at least the sun peaked through the clouds by now.
The valley narrowed as we approached a ridge and started climbing, peaking at 14 percent, but the 900-foot climb to about 3000 feet wasn't long. We stopped at the summit; conveniently, there's a swiftly flowing stream running through a culvert. The delicious water had just a touch of arsenic sweetness.
We swiftly descended the winding road to the oak-covered Hernandez Valley, and this time we saw Henderson Reservoir in all its glory. Two years ago we wondered what happened to the lake, but the recent rains have put the reservoir to good use.
After a few more rolling miles we reached the Clear Creek Road turnoff, where there's a prominent BLM sign with a map. Jobst forded the river on bike, while once again Brian and John removed shoes and walked across. I rode.
We took a short break before starting up the dirt road, somewhat rocky from recent rains. The gradual climb brought us into the heart of the canyon where a half-century ago miners dug into the hills looking for precious metal. Mine tailings dot the steep, barren slopes as Clear Creek rushes downhill. We crossed the creek at least a dozen times, soaking our feet.
Brian flatted again about a half-mile before the crucial left turn where the steep riding begins –- grades of 10 - 12 percent. It seemed steeper this time, but this year the road may have been looser. Fortunately there weren't too many dirt bikes going this way and more than halfway up we had the road to ourselves. Tall digger pines dot the otherwise barren, rocky hills. Higher and higher we climbed, a spectacular view of the hills below us.
The 4,450-foot summit marked its presence at a BLM sign. We took the obligatory photo and headed down, around the iron gate on the left, eschewing the detour for the old road. Steep and rocky it is. We bumped downhill carefully, dismounting for a muddy rut or two.
At the bottom we went around another iron gate and headed left at the junction where we had some more gentle climbs to deal with before another long, steep descent. Along the way we passed an encampment of off-road motorcyclists, who egged us on.
Just like last time, we passed a shiny new SUV, the driver no doubt ecstatic about driving his SUV on a rocky, steep dirt road. Imagine that.
This time it was Jobst's turn to flat. Brian waited while John and I went ahead to check out an open mine shaft right next to the road with ore car rails leading inside. The canyon's steep rocky walls closed in on the road. We continued to New Idria, North America's second largest mercury mine; on the way there's a belvedere offering an excellent view of the smelter.
New Idria Mines
In New Idria, population 1, we met a big pig. The lone resident looked down at us from his house. The man's pig paid us no mind. I took some photos and checked out the forlorn mine and ghost town. Signs said this place is under electronic surveillance. Right. We checked out a fire hose mounted on wagon wheels. The mine closed in 1975.
Jobst came along with Brian and we headed off down the hill again, the wind at our backs. We left the hills behind, passing through San Carlos Creek Canyon and then Griswold Canyon. A creek or two spilled over the road.
Once out of the canyon we continued on the narrow, bumpy road with its two percent grade toward Panoche Valley. The brown hills rose out of the prairie, making this place look more like Nebraska than California. The plentiful cattle and windmills only added to the impression.
We pedaled on with blissful tailwinds most of the way. At the Y junction we continued left and five miles later reached our only stop, Panoche Valley Bar, as remote a bar as you could ever ask for. It's 28 miles to Highway 25 and more than that to Interstate 5.
We greeted the owner behind the bar. From the back wall hung hundreds of dollar bills, with people's names written on them. It's either sodas or beer. We downed some sodas and ate the free salted peanuts.
After mentioning our visit to New Idria, the subject of the giant pig came up and the owner asked with a smile, "Did you offer her a drink?" We said no. "You can pop a beer and she'll guzzle it if you let her. And she likes to have her stomach rubbed." Next time.
On our way, we encountered increasing winds for a while, but they died down as we entered another series of canyons and draws following Los Pinos Creek. The climb went quickly and with light traffic we enjoyed the views of oak-filled canyons. The climb peaked at 2000 feet, followed by a long, gradual descent into Antelope Valley.
With light fading, we arrived at the Hwy 25 junction around 6:30 p.m., the rain not far behind. By the time we reached San Jose it was pouring – wipers on full.