Each spring, the staff at San Luis Reservoir State Recreation
Area offers a guided Path of the Padres hike up secluded Los Banos
Creek, where you can follow a portion of this ancient path. I had
been aware of this hike for years, but last Saturday was the day
two friends and I decided to see what it was all about.
These days, our route from the Santa Clara Valley to the Central Valley is Pacheco Pass, but it is not the historic path between the two valleys. Native Americans, missionaries, and early Californios followed a 35-mile path from Mission San Juan Bautista that followed Los Banos del Padre Arroyo – Los Banos Creek to you and me – down the eastern slope of the Diablo Range.
Each spring, the staff at San Luis Reservoir State Recreation Area offers a guided “Path of the Padres” hike up secluded Los Banos Creek where you can follow a portion of this ancient path. I had been aware of this hike for years, but last Saturday was the day two friends and I decided to see what it was all about.
Los Banos Reservoir is a small reservoir south of San Luis Dam that retains the flow of Los Banos Creek as it reaches the valley. I met my friends at Casa de Fruta at 7:00 in order to reach the boat launch ramp there for our scheduled departure at 8:00. Sixteen of us boarded a pontoon boat and putt-putted our way up the lake toward the inlet. If you go, the day is likely to be warm, but bring something warm for this chilly early morning ride.
For the first mile or so, the river canyon is fairly narrow and the creek bed is choked with willows, cottonwoods, and tamarisk. Here, as the trail edges across the slope following the creek below, is a fine wildflower display by the side of the trail. Blue phacelia and yellow sunflower put on the gaudiest show, but watch for woodland stars, birds-eye gilia, blue dicks, tidy tips and many more.
After a mile, the creek banks diverge and we crossed a lovely flat field of poppies and birds-eye-gilia. Just beyond, we paused for a snack while Richard, our guide, showed us some acorn grinding holes left by the Yokut Indians.
Residents of Los Banos are rightly irritated when people say that the name of their town means “bathroom.” Los Banos means “the baths” and is named for the pools along the next stretch of creek we passed. No longer choked with willows, the creek bed here is open and the stream runs over monolithic rock where the water collects softly in a string of shallow and inviting “baths.”
As we approached our lunch spot, our guide offered us the option of eating by the creek or climbing the adjacent hill for a special view. It is a steep grunt up a 700-foot hill, but the view up Menjoulet Canyon alone is worth making a point to take this trip. It is a revelation.
The Diablo Range is rough corrugated country, rarely giving way to wide open spaces. Menjoulet Canyon is an immense open breach in the hills. The valley must have been nearly a mile wide and reached several miles toward the crest of the range until it disappeared from view. Los Banos Creek twists an elegant lazy path through this expanse and irrigates a breathtaking old-growth Sycamore forest – the largest in California. It is simply breathtaking. Department of Fish and Game biologists call this 576-acre Sycamore forest “the largest and most intact natural community of its kind left in California.” Whatever it’s biological bonafides, it is the most wonderful sight I have seen in our Coast Ranges.
The Path of the Padres trip is every Saturday and Sunday through April 18. There is a $12 fee ($7 for children ages 6 to 12) for the trip in addition to a $10 day-use fee. Reservations are required and can by calling (209) 826-1197. It’s a great day and a view you won’t forget.