Getting Out: Old Stage Road

A view up San Juan Canyon

As I read a recent e-mail from a reader in Hollister asking
about hiking destinations in that area, I realized I didn’t have an
adequate answer.
In the Bay Area, where greater development pressure has prompted
land protection efforts, land trusts and government agencies have
created parks and preserves for us to visit. As one of the most
sparsely populated counties in California, San Benito County, at
once, contains a vast reach of wild open space, but, as far as I
know, few places to explore it.
As I read a recent e-mail from a reader in Hollister asking about hiking destinations in that area, I realized I didn’t have an adequate answer.

In the Bay Area, where greater development pressure has prompted land protection efforts, land trusts and government agencies have created parks and preserves for us to visit. As one of the most sparsely populated counties in California, San Benito County, at once, contains a vast reach of wild open space, but, as far as I know, few places to explore it.

Of course, the easy answer to the question is Pinnacles National Monument, but that is quite a drive – an all day affair; not a handy getaway. Pacheco State Park and Fremont Peak State Park are close, but, in such wide open country, it seems that there must be many interesting places to discover.

A companion on our New Year’s morning hike told me of an excellent first stop on my discovery of lands south. Her favorite walk is along Old Stage Road, which begins just outside of San Juan Bautista. I decided to check it out this week.

A couple of miles after turning onto U.S. Highway 156 from U.S. Highway 101, turn right at the only stop light in San Juan Bautista. In a half mile, the road forks – left to Fremont Peak State Park; right to San Juan Grade Road. Exactly at the fork, you will see a Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail sign. Follow this side road between the fork a half mile to a gate blocking the road.

Renee and I had arranged to meet our friend, Dave Sellers, at the gate. Besides being a good campanion, Dave has walked this road many times and always has great local knowledge.

Starting on the valley floor, the road begins a steady climb up the flank of Fremont Peak. This is cattle country, and each side of the road is fenced pastureland. As we rose higher, our first views were out toward the ranches and the beautiful valley traced by San Juan Grade Road, which follows a lower route through the hills to Salinas. About a mile out and a little higher up, we crested at spur ridge. Just underneath us was San Juan Canyon, and a sweeping view across the valley to the Hollister Hills was beyond.

According to Dave, it was not that many years ago that the gate was put in place, and the road was closed to vehicular traffic. It had been a favorite place to bring his easel and do some plein air painting. His loss is the gain of hikers, bikers, equestrians and people looking for a place to take their dogs.

Dave also told us that this road is the setting of John Steinbeck’s novel, “The Wayward Bus.” It is the story of a group of people brought together on a bus taking them away from their pasts and toward a fresh start. They travel down the coast highway through familiar sounding San Juan de la Cruz, where road trouble and close quarters give Steinbeck a juicy setting for drama. I look forward to following their predicament with an image of this road in mind.

According to my map, Old Stage Road eventually crosses the Gabilan Range, drops into the Salinas Valley and follows the foothills all the way to Gonzales. We walked just two miles before turning back. Though we never saw the Salinas side that must lie ahead, we had a great day walking through coast live oaks, grasslands and chaparral. The views are lovely but not spectacular.

For a long haul or a short stroll, Old Stage Road is a great place near Hollister and San Juan to get out. Bring your dog; Ollie gave it a big thumbs up.

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