Fast forward nine years and once again we're headed to the Paicines crossroads 10 miles south of Hollister for an adventure ride in the wilds of San Benito County. Destination – New Idria on a 115-mile loop.
Sadly, this time Jobst Brandt was not along for the ride, but we carried on his tradition of finding wild and scenic roads to ride just for the fun of it.
We arrived at 8:05 a.m. and prepared for what would be a cool start on Thursday, March 29, 2014, temperature 48 degrees and cloudy.
Yesterday's quarter-inch of rain had soaked the countryside, bringing forth green grasses and the occasional wildflower in this the worst drought year in recorded California history.
Paicines has a few rustic wooden houses and a store that never seems to be open. But further investigation reveals the nearby historic Paicines Ranch just to the west.
In operation since the 1860s, the property is home for cattle ranching and wildlife galore. The San Benito River courses through the land, supplying the Paicines Reservoir, hidden from view off Highway 25, Airline Highway.
The reservoir was built in 1913 along with a ditch to tap into the river. The San Benito is also dammed upstream by the more substantial Hernandez Dam, built in 1930s.
We would see San Benito River up close and personal 30 miles into the ride.
Our route headed south on the wide two-lane Airline Highway passing ranch land and the occasional vineyard.
Ten miles into the ride, much to our dismay, we missed the planned left turn onto Willow Creek Road. Brian had high hopes for taking the road, but a no trespassing sign and lack of familiarity with the exact location caused us to carry on believing we had not found the right entrance.
Brian will check with San Benito County on the road's status. The Google Car followed the paved Willow Creek Road from the Old Hernandez Road intersection for a couple of miles before turning around.
The road mostly follows a wide valley with hills to the east and west. We made good time, with gentle rollers adding some variety.
Pinnacles National Park (formerly Monument) intersection marked the beginning of a more substantial climb of around 8 percent.
Highway 146 goes for several miles to the park headquarters and then ends. It picks up off Highway 101 in Soledad and goes to the park's west entrance.
Old Hernandez Road
In a few more miles we reached the Old Hernandez Road intersection, unsigned, and turned left on the ancient paved road.
Brian suggested we take it in 2005 and we preferred it over going south and picking up the Coalinga Road with its steep climb.
We entered the San Benito River drainage at the base of the impressive Pine Ridge with its 3,600-foot peaks to the east.
At the Willow Creek Road junction we headed right staying on Old Hernandez Road and passing the remote Jefferson School.
Burst Water Bottle
It was shortly past the school that disaster struck. I reached down for my 24-ounce water bottle and as I was about to take a drink it shattered in my hands, spilling water all over me and the ground.
I hadn't used that particular water bottle in years, so obviously the plastic had deteriorated. Fortunately Brian Cox, Bob Walmsley and John Woodfill had plenty of liquids so I borrowed one of Brian's nearly full water bottles.
There is one store on the 115- mile ride, Panoche Valley Inn some 27 miles from Paicines. In a pinch one could beg for water at one of the infrequent ranches along the way.
We continued along the river for a couple of miles on the paved road, passing the occasional ranch. When the pavement ended we crossed through what appeared to be a private road with signs indicating private property ahead, although the road itself is still county-maintained.
The well-maintained dirt road hugged the hillside overlooking the San Benito River.
In another couple of miles we crossed Smoker Canyon Creek where recently work had been done to improve the road by installing large concrete blocks.
It was here that we passed another much more threatening sign that boldly announced the road was closed and that we were entering private property.
However, the ranch owner who lived at the entrance had just passed us in his red truck and did not say a word. No doubt the signs are put there to dissuade the casual driver from continuing because what's ahead is the San Benito River with no bridge.
The approach to the river is an interesting pancake-flat flood plain.
A "Road Closed" sign greeted us at the river's edge. This year the river didn't offer much of a barrier, but in wet years it could pose a formidable challenge to cross by bike.
We dismounted and gingerly made our way across, hardly getting our feet wet.
We had climbed since leaving Paicines (675 feet) to 1,585 feet, and we had more gradual climbs to reach Coalinga Road.
There's a substantial ranch house with assorted machinery lying about near the intersection where water could probably be had.
The road continues along the river floodplain, which reminds me of the backside of Mt. Hamilton in places and farther along, the western Carmel Valley Road climb.
We passed the Beaver Dam Fire Control Station where one might also find water, although we didn't stop to investigate. The place looked to be closed.
The climbing began in another couple of miles as we entered Lorenzo Vasquez Canyon. It's a gentle slope before tilting up at a more serious grade in the last mile, with short stretches of 13 percent.
We stopped briefly at the summit where there's a hiking trail to Sweetwater Spring and other interesting locations on Black Mountain.
In years past we stopped for a drink at Sweetwater Spring near the summit, but this year it was a trickle.
Jobst liked to say that the water tasted so sweet due to arsenic. He may have only been half-joking because arsenic is found in the area.
We enjoyed a fast descent into Hernandez Valley, 2,600 feet, where we did not see water in Hernandez Reservoir due to the ongoing drought.
We had one more brief climb before arriving at our next turn. We admired a beautiful wide green valley occupied by the Bar B Ranch with its private landing strip.
The only thing missing was the wildflowers. About noon we arrived at the Clear Creek Road turnoff where we found the American flag still waving.
We crossed the San Benito River, barely a trickle this year, on the paved roadbed.
BLM Rescinds Road Closure
It was at this location on May 4, 2008, that Jobst and friends had to turn back as a Bureau of Land Management truck and its ranger blocked the road.
The road was officially closed on May 1, according to the BLM, to protect us and the off-road motorcyclists from asbestos dust.
It took five years for San Benito County supervisors to generate enough support to re-open the road, but not for off-road recreation.
The county said "You can't close our road." The BLM backed down and agreed to re-open just Clear Creek Road.
BLM has already cordoned off the campgrounds used by weekend off-road recreation vehicle owners out to enjoy the many trails in the area, some of them created by miners prospecting for mercury in the late 1800s.
The BLM officially opened the Clear Creek Management Area to limited use on March 14, 2014. It says nothing about bicycles.
Fortunately we saw nobody. After stopping for a bite to eat at BLM's administrative site we headed up the canyon on the rocky dirt road.
It climbs gradually for a mile with Clear Creek on the right. Much to our dismay the road had only recently been graded, perhaps even that morning.
Recent rains turned the road muddy in a few spots, but it was otherwise rideable.
This is a geologically interesting area with all varieties of rock outcroppings and mine tailings everywhere from a century of digging. There's really nothing that compares.
This part of the ride is marked by at least a half-dozen Clear Creek fords, most of them with a concrete bed.
Even with the dry winter, the creek was running. After several steep pitches of 15 percent and the occasional short downhill we regrouped at the left turn that heads steeply uphill via two large switchbacks to the 4,450-foot summit.
We only had about 1,077 feet of climbing remaining, in a short span of 2.5 miles, which seems like 12 percent.
The grader had also plowed here and it made the going tough. We tried to stay on the hard sections but every 50 yards deep, loose dirt could not be avoided.
Only a really strong rider could make it without stopping. In years past even I found it rideable non-stop, but not today.
While we had challenging road conditions, at least the weather cooperated, with temperatures in the high 50s and rapidly dissipating cloud cover.
We took the obligatory group photo at the summit and then headed down the steep (650-foot drop in 0.9 miles) Clear Creek Road that goes left.
Keeping right would also work, taking the Aurora Cutoff to Mexican Lake Road. The road seems like 20 percent all the way down with nothing but wheel ruts. Fortunately traction was ideal so we had no serious issues descending.
At the junction we turned left at New Idria Dam with its toxic green water, altitude 3,700 feet.
As we discussed our next steps we looked up to our right and saw it – the grader. It was probably the one that had graded Clear Creek Road earlier in the day. It may have been a county grader, but it was hard to tell from below.
The road offers the cyclist some relief after the steep descent, although it still requires your full attention with many ruts and rocks threatening a sudden dismount.
This section of road has its rewards. At the many overlooks it's easy to see across Panoche Valley to the chalk-white Panoche Hills glistening in the sun.
The temperature had warmed to the low 60s and based on the parched earth it had not rained here in some time.
About a mile from New Idria we stopped to check out a mine entrance. Quicksilver had been mined here until the late 1960s and refined down the hill at a smelter, which still stands.
We bumped our way into what is left of New Idria, which has many fewer structures since my last visit in 2005. A fire took care of that.
Gone also was the pig.
We continued downhill but before reaching pavement we stopped to converse with a driver and his female companion driving up in an SUV.
We talked briefly and, because I was the one without water, I begged and they gladly offered us 12 ounces. It came in handy.
At that point several dirt motorbikes passed us, the first ones we had seen all day.
The road descended and then went through a canyon cut by San Carlos Creek, breaking out into the open and crossing Vallecitos Valley.
How much longer New Idria Road will survive is anyone's guess, but it has seen better days. We preferred riding on the hard-packed dirt over the bumpy pavement.
A southwest wind slowed us slightly, along with a gradual climb of about 2 percent.
A recently paved stretch of "test" pavement came as a welcome surprise. Caught up in the moment and watching nearby birds, Bob and John lost track of their positions and collided in a way that can only be called freakish.
Bob's right handlebar end slipped into a leather pocket strap on the left side of John's saddle bag, knocking Bob to the ground.
As he lay there thoughts of "what now?" came to mind. No cell phone, no cars.
Fortunately Bob wasn't hurt and we resumed our ride.
Our spirits picked up as we entered Griswold Canyon where a tailwind helped the pace. This beautiful canyon following Griswold Creek is one of my favorite roads.
By the time we emerged from the canyon into Panoche Valley we were spinning easily at 20 mph.
Panoche Valley Inn
Things changed on Panoche Road as we turned into more of a head- and sidewind. That was OK though because we only had a few miles to reach our food stop at Panoche Inn, time 5:05 p.m.
The owner we saw in 2005 is still there and so are the dollar bills hanging from the ceiling, although there don't seem to be quite as many as before.
The owner said they've had 2 inches of rain this season; he added that they can have as many as 17 inches in a year, so it varies.
Fortified with energy drink and a bite to eat, we headed off at 5:15 knowing that once we reached Panoche Pass summit at 2,250 feet it was "all downhill," as the proprietor told us. We knew better.
My altimeter only registered 1950 feet and USGS maps show it closer to that than the sign.
There's not much better cycling than the run in to Paicines on County Route J1, especially on a fine spring day as the sun sets in the west. As long as you're feeling strong, that is.
We powered our way up the short hills and enjoyed the long downhills where speeds passed 35 mph on gentle curves. With the sun just setting, we reached Paicines at 7:15, 115 miles and 8,000 feet of climbing behind us.
Thanks to Bruce Hildenbrand for telling us about this ride he pioneered.