Visiting the Tarantula Fest at Henry W. Coe State Park

An Excellent Introduction to the Wildest Park in the San Francisco Bay Area

Tarantulas are unloved. Frequently cast as monsters in horror films, these unusually large and hairy arachnids are actually quite common in California. About 18 different species of tarantulas can be found in the state, including several species that are found in the coastal ranges of central California. Because they’re mainly nocturnal, it’s unusual to see them during the daytime – except from about mid-August to early October, when the mating season occurs and the males are active during both the daytime and at night. Unfortunately, for the male tarantulas the mating season represents a last chance to party hard, gorging on whatever food they can find and searching for a female tarantula to mate with before their short time on Earth is over. Most of the adult male tarantulas that are active during the mating season will die of natural causes within the following two months.

Located barely 30 miles south of San Jose, 89,164-acre Henry W. Coe State Park is the second-largest park in the California State Park system, and the largest state park in northern California. Despite its proximity to the teeming masses in the Bay Area, the park isn’t nearly as over-crowded as you might expect. The main reason for this seems to be that it lacks a network of paved roads within its boundaries. While you can easily drive to any one of the park’s four entrances, you’ll be on your own beyond that. While it doesn’t offer much to casual windshield tourists, Coe Park is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts, with over 250 miles of trails and old ranch roads open to hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians.

My first visit to the park was back in 1988 when I lived in Sacramento. Along with several friends, I drove to the park’s Coe Ranch Visitor Center (at the time the only developed facility in the park) and hiked an extensive loop down to Coyote Creek and Poverty Flat. Although I’d long wanted to go back, this was the first time I was finally able to return to the park. While the area around the Visitor Center hasn’t changed much over the years, the rest of the park has been significantly expanded since my first visit. Many acres of old ranch lands have been added to the park, as well as a second visitor center at Dowdy Ranch and two additional park entrances. In the northeast corner of the park, the 23,300-acre Orestimba State Wilderness provides additional protection for sensitive natural and cultural features that have somehow managed to survive the massive wave of development just over the hill in nearby Silicon Valley.

Formed in 1975, the Pine Ridge Association is a non-profit corporation that provides support to the park through a network of volunteers. PRA members provide educational and interpretive programs, assist with trail maintenance, and sponsor special events within the park. Perhaps one of the most well-known and, ah… unique events is the annual Coe Park Tarantula Fest. Usually held on the first Saturday in October, the Tarantula Fest coincides with the tail end of the annual tarantula mating season, when male tarantulas leave their burrows and set out on the prowl in search of food… and female tarantulas.

Whether tarantulas are your thing or not, the Tarantula Fest offers a wide variety of activities for adults and kids alike. Naturally, live tarantulas are on display at the park’s Coe Ranch Visitor Center, along with volunteer naturalists to answer any questions you might have about them. Unfortunately, the native tarantulas found within the park don’t do well in captivity, and don’t make good pets. So, what you’ll see instead are Chilean rose-haired tarantulas (Grammostola rosea), a species from Chile that’s commonly sold in pet stores. Visitors aren’t allowed to handle the tarantulas – just in case you were worried about that.

Chilean rose-haired tarantula (Grammostola rosea), Coe Ranch Visitor Center.

Chilean rose-haired tarantula (Grammostola rosea), Coe Ranch Visitor Center.

Besides getting up close and personal with the tarantulas, there are also several other displays of local and exotic wildlife. The Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center of Morgan Hill puts on an impressive display of several local raptors and other birds that they are taking care of. Due to their injuries, many of these birds cannot be released back into the wild. My son was particularly impressed with the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), as we see them flying over our house in northern San Luis Obispo County almost every day. Birds on display also included a Great horned owl, an American kestrel, and several others.

In the metal barn just down the road from the Visitor Center, there was a reptile display where you were allowed to hold the animals, if you wanted to. My son wasn’t the least bit squeamish, and really enjoyed holding the python. Besides wildlife displays, the Tarantula Fest also features an excellent barbeque lunch, a raffle, and live music performed by the Sada Springs Jug Band, whose members include park rangers and volunteers from the Pine Ridge Association. Docents also lead short hikes along the nearby trails radiating out from the Visitor Center to look for tarantulas.

History

The rugged corner of the Diablo Range that would eventually become Henry W. Coe State Park was originally inhabited by the Ohlone and Northern Valley Yokuts tribes. Abundant game, a virtually unlimited supply of acorns from the area’s numerous species of oak trees, and generally mild weather made it a choice location for the tribes’ semi-nomadic lifestyle. This pastoral way of life came to an abrupt end in the late 18th Century with the arrival of the Spanish missionaries and soldiers. Following the founding of Mission Santa Clara de Asis in 1777 and Mission San Juan Bautista in 1797, the native inhabitants were relocated to live at the missions and converted to Christianity. Not all went willingly, and the rugged terrain of the Diablo Range provided a secure refuge for resistors to Spanish rule.

The lands that would form the future park would later pass from Spanish to Mexican control, before eventually becoming part of the United States with the admission of California to the Union in 1850. By this time, Henry W. Coe, Sr., originally from New Hampshire, would begin acquiring lands in the area that would eventually expand to include the original core of the park. Henry W. Coe, Jr., for whom the park is named, would later inherit a portion of these lands, establishing the Pine Ridge Ranch and living there from 1905 until his death in 1943. Although his daughter, Sada Coe Robinson, had been managing the ranch with her husband since 1932, Henry’s son inherited the property and promptly sold it to the Beach Land and Cattle Company in 1948. Sada bought the property back the following year and managed it as a working cattle ranch for several years.

In 1953, Sada deeded the entire Pine Ranch property (now 12,230 acres) to the County of Santa Clara, on the condition that it be preserved in its natural state and used as a public park. The county in turn transferred ownership of the property to the State of California in 1958, and Henry W. Coe State Park was born. The park has expanded dramatically since then to its current 87,000 acres through a series of land acquisitions to the north, south, and east of the original Pine Ridge Ranch. These acquisitions include the Gilroy Yamato Hot Springs property and the Gill-Mustang, Redfern, Mahoney, Coit, and Dowdy Ranch properties. Today, the park stretches from the original Coe Ranch property eastward across the Diablo Range into Stanislaus County and nearly to the San Joaquin Valley.

Hike Summary

Distance: 2.8 miles round trip

Elevation gain/loss: +480’/-480′

Hiking time: About 1-2 hours

Permits and fees: While admission to the Tarantula Fest is free, you will have to pay a Day Use Entrance Fee (currently $8.00 per vehicle) at the Coe Ranch Entrance. Tickets for the barbeque lunch at the Tarantula Fest can be ordered online or purchased at the event. Campsites at the small campground at Coe Ranch (the only car-camping site in the park) may be reserved online. Camping overnight in the park’s backcountry requires a Backcountry Permit, which is printed on the back side of your entrance fee receipt. See the park website for more information about fees.

Maps: The best and most detailed map of the park is the Henry W. Coe State Park map published by the Pine Ridge Association. While you would need many USGS 7.5’ topo maps to cover the entire park, the Mount Sizer 7.5’ quadrangle covers the area around Coe Ranch, including the Live Oak and Corral Trails described below. Neither trail is shown on the quad, so use the GPX track provided below to print your own map!

Best time to go: The Coe Ranch entrance to the park is open year-round. If you’re coming for the annual Tarantula Fest, it’s usually held on the first Saturday in October. While this is still late summer in these parts, the park’s relatively high elevation means you’ll usually have pleasant, sunny weather that’s suitable for hiking. Autumn is generally very pleasant, although it can get quite cold at night and many of the park’s backcountry water sources have dried up by this time of year. If you come during the winter, be prepared for both the occasional winter rains and sub-freezing temperatures at night. The park is one of the very few places in the Bay Area that occasionally sees several inches of snow during the winter, although it quickly melts away. Spring is easily the best time for a visit, as the park will be green and the spring wildflower display is usually very impressive. For backcountry visitors, be aware that stream crossings can be very challenging during the winter and spring. Summers are dry and hot, although the park’s relatively high elevation alleviates this to a degree.

Trailhead

Regardless of where you’re coming from, there’s only one way to get to the park’s headquarters at Coe Ranch. From either the north or the south, make your way on Highway 101 to the town of Morgan Hill (approximately 21 miles south of San Jose, or 10 miles north of Gilroy) to the exit for East Dunne Avenue. Once off the freeway, proceed eastbound on East Dunne Avenue through Morgan Hill. The road narrows as it leaves the city limits and begins a slow, windy climb into the hills outside of town. At 12.1 miles from Highway 101, pass the entrance sign for Henry W. Coe State Park and come to a gravel overflow parking lot on your right. You’ll be parking here during the Tarantula Fest and at any other time when the parking at Coe Ranch itself is full. If parking is available at Coe Ranch itself, continue about 0.5 miles up the road to its end at the Coe Ranch Visitor Center. The drive up to the park entrance takes about 30 minutes from Highway 101.

Trailhead GPS Coordinates: N37-11.226, W121-33.061. Elevation 2610’. (NOTE: These coordinates are for the overflow parking lot and the start of the Live Oak Trail.)

Picnic table at overflow parking area near park entrance.

Picnic table at overflow parking area near park entrance.

Route Description

This post covers the Live Oak and Corral Trails, two very short trails near the Coe Ranch Visitor Center that give you an excellent introduction to the park’s natural features. The Live Oak Trail runs between the overflow parking area and Coe Ranch, while the Corral Trail begins across the road from the visitor center and leads east into the park’s extensive backcountry. If you’re here during the mating season (about mid-August to early October), keep your eyes peeled for male tarantulas out on the prowl. During our visit, we saw our first tarantula right next to the parking lot within a few minutes of our arrival. We also saw a female hiding in her burrow along the Corral Trail.

The Live Oak Trail runs from the lower parking lot below the Coe Ranch Visitor Center on East Dunne Avenue up to the visitor center itself. Parking is very limited up at Coe Ranch, and when the Tarantula Fest is happening, it’s reserved for volunteers helping with the event. Park visitors will be directed to the gravel overflow parking lot about a half-mile below the end of the road at Coe Ranch. Besides during the Tarantula Fest, this parking lot is also used whenever parking up at Coe Ranch is full.

View west from the Live Oak Trail, with the Santa Clara Valley in the distance.

View west from the Live Oak Trail, with the Santa Clara Valley in the distance.

At the far end of the parking lot you’ll find a single picnic table set under a live oak tree. This site offers a splendid view of the southern end of the Santa Clara Valley below you. From here, walk back up toward East Dunne Avenue and find the unsigned start of the Live Oak Trail to the right of the lot’s entrance kiosk. The Live Oak Trail runs on a mostly level course for 0.5 miles just below East Dunne Avenue, eventually terminating behind the Coe Ranch Visitor Center. Pay attention to this spot, as you’ll be returning to your car via this route at the end of your visit.

While the Live Oak Trail isn’t laid out as a nature trail, with numbered posts or signs explaining the park’s natural features, it nonetheless makes an excellent introduction to the park. Traversing through an open forest of oak trees and grey pines, the trail offers sweeping views of the surrounding countryside and introduces you to many of the more common plants that make up the park’s predominant oak woodland plant community.

A grassy meadow overlooking the Santa Clara Valley from the Live Oak Trail.

A grassy meadow overlooking the Santa Clara Valley from the Live Oak Trail.

As you’re hiking, keep an eye out on the uphill slopes above the trail, where the round openings of tarantula burrows are frequently seen. These openings are usually about two inches in diameter. The Live Oak Trail ends at a junction with East Dunne Avenue, adjacent to the Coe Ranch Visitor Center. While there isn’t much reason to hike this trail for its own sake, it’s much more pleasant than simply walking up to Coe Ranch along the side of the narrow, paved road.

If you’re here for the Tarantula Fest, you’ll want to spend some time at Coe Ranch. Check out the numerous exhibits and say hello to the tarantulas. The park docents and volunteers working the exhibits are a wealth of knowledge, and can answer any question you might have about the tarantulas and other wildlife found in the park. Check out the park’s small bookstore, where the Pine Ridge Association offers a special discount on their products. It’s a great chance to pick up maps and a guidebook to the park. Children love seeing the live animals on display (well, not all kids will like seeing the tarantulas…). The trails in this area are easy enough for them to stretch their legs and get some exercise. A barbecue lunch is also available. The Tarantula Fest usually opens at 10:00 AM and runs until 4:00 PM.

Park docents offer guided nature walks on several of the trails that begin at Coe Ranch, including the Corral Trail. While you can hike the trail on your own or as part of a guided hike, you might have a better chance of seeing a tarantula if you go with a guided trip. The docents are particularly good at spotting the tarantula burrows.

The Corral Trail begins across the road from the Coe Ranch Visitor Center.

The Corral Trail begins across the road from the Coe Ranch Visitor Center.

The Corral Trail begins, naturally enough, next to an old wooden horse corral located directly across the road from the Coe Ranch Visitor Center. The trailhead is well-signed and lists mileages for landmarks deeper within the park, such as Poverty Flat and China Hole. Remember this spot well, for the Corral Trail leads to a network of trails that run throughout the entire park. It’s theoretically possible to reach virtually any location within the vast Coe Park backcountry from here.

At its start, the Corral Trail drops below the nearby paved road and dips into a gully behind the Coe Ranch area. The narrow trail descends gradually as it undulates through a shady forest of live oaks and other trees. Slopes are very steep here, so watch your step and be careful not to fall off the trail.

The trail then levels off and enters into a more open mixed-oak woodland. Grassy slopes in this area are a brilliant green during the winter and spring, but turn to a golden light brown during the hot summers and into autumn. Fortunately, Coe Ranch lies at 2600 feet above sea level, so afternoon temperatures are fairly moderate by early October when the Tarantula Fest is held. The Ranch’s relatively high elevation also means that it occasionally receives measurable snowfall during the cold winter months. While this isn’t common, it does occur every few years.

The Corral Trail traversing a grassy hillside on the way towards Manzanita Point.

The Corral Trail traversing a grassy hillside on the way towards Manzanita Point.

The Corral Trail passes through open oak woodland.

The Corral Trail passes through open oak woodland.

At about 0.8 miles from Coe Ranch, the Corral Trail reaches a three-way trail junction in the middle of a grassy meadow. To your right, the Springs Trail leads down to the Manzanita Point Group Campground at Manzanita Point in 2.1 miles. If you were to continue straight ahead, you would quickly reach the dirt Manzanita Point Road (which you can see from here), which also leads down to Manzanita Point in 1.6 miles. Instead, turn left onto the Fish Trail and reach Manzanita Point Road in about 30 yards or so.

Three-way junction with the Fish and Springs Trails.

Three-way junction with the Fish and Springs Trails.

On the opposite side of Manzanita Point Road, the Fish Trail quickly reaches a junction with the Flat Frog and Forest Trails, on your left and right, respectively. While the Fish Trail eventually descends down to Coyote Creek, this is a good place to turn around if you’re pressed for time. Retrace your steps on the Corral Trail to return to the Coe Park Visitor Center. Manzanita Point Road also leads back to Coe Ranch, but it’s slightly longer. The road is also open to vehicles (with some restrictions) for those camping at the Manzanita Point Group Campground, as well as to park rangers patrolling this area. It’s also popular with mountain bikers.

Junction with Flat Frog and Forest Trails.

Junction with Flat Frog and Forest Trails.

Manzanita Point Road.

Manzanita Point Road.

If you’re parked down at the overflow parking lot, you’ll want to pick up the Live Oak Trail behind the Coe Ranch Visitor Center for the final leg of your return trip to your waiting vehicle.

Tips:

  • The overflow parking lot has a single picnic table and (sometimes) a portable toilet, but no other facilities. Up at Coe Ranch, you’ll find toilets, drinking water, paved parking, a small bookstore and museum, and numerous displays of equipment from the park’s days as a working cattle ranch.
  • Dogs must be leashed, and are only allowed on the Live Oak Trail, along paved roads, and within the campground. Mountain bikes are generally allowed, except within the Orestimba Wilderness. Some designated trails outside the wilderness are also closed to bicycles. Horses are generally allowed on most trails.
  • Both the Live Oak and Corral Trails are highly suitable for children.
  • As with most public parks in the coast ranges, hazards at Henry W. Coe State Park include ticks, rattlesnakes, and poison oak. Wild pigs and mountain lions also inhabit the park, but are rarely seen. The park’s tarantulas aren’t considered hazardous, but can inflict a painful bite if aggravated.

Also in the Area

The two trails described here provide just a brief introduction to the park. There are also many other hiking trails that begin from Coe Ranch, allowing for long day hikes or extended backpacking trips deeper into the park’s backcountry. Popular destinations that are suitable for day hikes include Frog Lake, Poverty Flat, China Hole, and Madrone Soda Springs.

Car-camping is available right at the campground at Coe Ranch, and this location makes an excellent base camp for day hikes starting from the ranch. The campground has twenty sites, ten of which are tent-only and ten that are suitable for either tents or a small RV (25 feet or less). Amenities include picnic tables, fire pits, drinking water, and toilets. Some sites have cabanas for shade, while others are shaded by oak trees. Showers are not available.

Other than the barbeque lunch provided during the Tarantula Fest, food is not available within the park, so be sure to bring everything you need. Morgan Hill has the usual assortment of fast-food joints, restaurants, and grocery stores.

Further Information

The official California State Parks website for Henry W. Coe State Park has a lot of useful information about the park, including the latest conditions. Sites at the park campground may be reserved through Reserve America. The Pine Ridge Association website is also filled with plenty of information about both the park and the Tarantula Fest.

For more information about the other hiking opportunities within the park, the best guidebook available is The Trail of Henry W. Coe State Park, written by Winslow R. Briggs and published by the Pine Ridge Association. This incredibly detailed guide covers most of the trails radiating out from Coe Ranch. It also includes a ton of information about the park’s natural history. Another excellent guidebook is South Bay Trails, by Jean Rusmore, Betsy Crowder, and Frances Spangle. It includes an excellent chapter on Henry W. Coe State Park, and describes ten hikes in both the original Coe Ranch area and also the more recent expansions.

NOTE: This year’s Tarantula Fest will be held on Saturday, October 1, 2016. See you there!

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Soberanes Fire Prompts Closures and Evacuations in Northern Big Sur

After five years of unrelenting drought in California, it was pretty much a safe assumption that the 2016 fire season would be one of the worst in recent memory. Although it’s only late July and the wildfire season still has many more months to run, that assumption has proven largely correct so far. Here on the Central Coast, the largest and most significant wildfire is the Soberanes Fire burning in the northern reaches of Big Sur in Monterey County.

The fire began in the Soberanes Canyon area in Garrapata State Park on July 22, 2016. As of today (July 27th), it’s already burned 23,688 acres, destroyed 20 homes, and, tragically, resulted in one fatality. The fire is currently only 10% contained, although hopefully this will improve quickly over the next few days. While the bulk of the fire is burning in the uninhabited Big Sur backcountry, the fire has nonetheless also resulted in numerous evacuation orders and warnings for residents in the area, including the southern portion of Carmel Highlands. Smoke from the fire has drifted over a large area, including down the Salinas River valley all the way to my home in Paso Robles – 85 miles away.

For hikers, campers, and other visitors, this is simply not a good time to come to Big Sur – at least not the northern part of the area. While Highway 1 and the many local businesses along it remain open, most state parks and a good portion of the Monterey Ranger District of the Los Padres National Forest are currently closed, and will probably remain so for quite a while even after the fire is fully contained.

Current closures:

Los Padres National Forest: There is an Emergency Closure Order for the Monterey Ranger District that covers all of the National Forest lands from the Pine Ridge Trail north to the northern boundary of the forest. Be sure to check the current Emergency Closure Order map before visiting.

California State Parks: ALL state parks between Point Lobos State Natural Reserve near Carmel and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to the south are currently closed, including the following:

Information sources:

As with any wildfire, the situation on the ground can change rapidly and information is updated frequently. For the latest information, consult the following official sources:

  • InciWeb (US Forest Service)
  • Cal Fire (California State Parks and other non-federal lands)

Stan Russell’s Big Sur blog is also an excellent source and is updated frequently with the latest information.

Also, here’s an interactive map of the current fire perimeter:

Finally, I should note that the southern portion of Big Sur, including Limekiln State Park and the Silver Peak Wilderness, are currently open with no restrictions. While it’s unlikely that the Soberanes Fire will burn far south enough to affect these areas, the potential for a new fire can’t be ruled out. Call ahead to confirm the current conditions before your visit, and be sure to follow the current fire restrictions.

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Lodging Review: Tuolumne Meadows Lodge in Yosemite National Park

An outstanding base camp for exploring the Tuolumne Meadows area

Yosemite National Park is, of course, one of the crown jewels of the US National Park system, and an extremely popular destination for California residents and visitors alike. While most of the crowds pour into the justifiably world-famous Yosemite Valley, savvy travelers seeking to avoid the traffic jams in the Valley head to the Tuolumne Meadows area in the eastern part of the park. Located about one-and-a-half hours’ drive from the Valley, Tuolumne Meadows is the largest subalpine meadow in the Sierras. Trails radiate out from the Meadows in all directions, but only one road (the seasonal Tioga Pass Road) accesses the area. Nonetheless, the Meadows offer a host of services, including a visitor center, gas station, general store, and even a post office. Due to its remote location, most visitors will want to spend the night. Overnight accommodations are limited to just two options: 1) the Tuolumne Meadows Campground, or 2) the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge.

The name Tuolumne Meadows Lodge might easily conjure up visions of a rustic (but luxurious), log-cabin style lodge with a huge stone fireplace and a grand dining room filled with exquisite wooden décor. Maybe like one of those lodges built by the CCC back in the 1930s that are found in so many national parks… That’s, ah, not quite what you get. Instead, the accommodations consist of canvas tent cabins equipped with wood-burning stoves for heat. The main lodge building, which houses the front desk, dining room, and a small library is a hybrid structure with wood-frame walls and a canvas roof. Luckily, the central bathroom facility is a more-or-less permanent structure.

The main building at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge. Front desk, store, and dining room are located here.

The main building at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge. Front desk, store, and dining room are located here.

Why is this so? Well, at 8,775 feet above sea level, the Tuolumne Meadows area is usually covered by a deep blanket of snow for over half the year. The Tioga Pass Road, which is the only road that accesses the area, is only open during the summer months, usually from around Memorial Day until sometime in late October. Opening and closing dates for the road can vary greatly from year to year, and are dependent on seasonal variations in snowfall. The area receives a tremendous amount of snow in most years, and with such a short season it’s easier and more cost-effective to set up the tent cabins before the season starts and then pack them back up when the season ends with the first major snowfall. Mid-July through the end of August are the safest bets when planning your visit. So, about those tent cabins… There are 69 to choose from, and each cabin can sleep up to four people. The tent cabins are erected over a bare concrete pad, but some carpeting is provided to make them a little more comfortable. The bedding will be instantly recognizable if you’ve ever served in the military: twin mattresses, stiff white sheets, and a somewhat itchy olive green wool blanket. At least you won’t have a drill sergeant telling you to make your bed in the morning. The bedding also includes a nice, thick, synthetic-fill comforter, which is essential for sleeping comfortably at this altitude. Temperatures routinely drop into the mid-30s at night, and you will get cold if your wood-burning stove goes out in the middle of the night (which it will). Bringing extra blankets might be a good idea if you’re a particularly cold sleeper.

Interior of the tent cabins at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge.

Interior of the tent cabins at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge.

The wood-burning stoves in each cabin do an excellent job of keeping the interior of the tent cabin warm at night. The problem is that the stoves are small enough that they’re virtually guaranteed to go out… usually around 3:00 in the morning. Keep an ample supply of fire wood near the stove, and plan on having to get up in the middle of the night to add some wood to the fire. You’ll only have to do it once, but you’ll be glad you did. Firewood, matches, and fire starter are provided in your room, and the staff will gladly give you as much firewood as you need. Don’t make the mistake we did and buy firewood over at the Tuolumne Meadows Store. The tent cabins also include a small table and a tiny clothes closet. A lantern is provided, but you might want to bring your own for extra lighting if you think you’ll need it. That’s about it. If you haven’t guessed already, there’s no electricity or running water. There’s also (oh, the horror!) no cell service or Wi-Fi. Welcome back to the Twentieth Century… Fortunately, there is a communal power strip near the front desk, so you can charge your electronic devices while you’re eating breakfast or dinner in the dining room.

Map of Tuolumne Meadows Lodge. You'll definitely need this, especially on your first visit!

Map of Tuolumne Meadows Lodge. You’ll definitely need this, especially on your first visit!

While you won’t find a luxurious bear-skin rug stretched out in front of a fireplace, there are plenty of real, live black bears in the woods around the Lodge. Because of this, you’ll be subject to the same rules and restrictions that campers in the nearby Tuolumne Meadows Campground have to follow. Basically, this means that you aren’t allowed to have either food or toiletries in your tent cabin, or in your car. You’ll be assigned a bear locker out in the parking lot, which is where you’ll want to store any food that you brought along with you. Toiletries go in a smaller set of lockers just outside the restrooms. This is actually a pretty convenient arrangement – just make sure that you collect all of your stuff after you check out.

These cabins behind the main lodge building are just steps from the Dana Fork Tuolumne River.

These cabins behind the main lodge building are just steps from the Dana Fork Tuolumne River.

Dana Fork of the Tuolumne River, adjacent to the Lodge.

Dana Fork of the Tuolumne River, adjacent to the Lodge.

Restrooms are housed in a single, central facility just uphill from the main lodge building. They’re rustic, but clean and comfortable. The opportunity for a hot shower after a long day of hiking is one of the more attractive features of staying at the lodge. Surprisingly, the restrooms were never crowded during our visit, despite the large number of people who were staying at the lodge.

The dining room is open for breakfast and dinner, but not lunch. Since most people will be out hiking or sightseeing in the park around lunchtime, the lodge offers a boxed, picnic-style lunch that you can take with you on your adventures. Boxed lunches currently (as of 2015) run $10 each. If you’re thinking that you could put something similar together yourself for less money by stocking up at the nearby Tuolumne Meadows General Store, you’re probably right. It is a convenient option, though.

Breakfast is first-come, first-served, but you will need to make a reservation for dinner. It’s a good idea to make your dinner reservation in the morning when you show up for breakfast. With table space at a premium, the lodge’s restaurant will seat random groups of people together. This is an excellent opportunity to meet and get to know your fellow guests. We found that many of the people we met during our meals were repeat visitors who enjoyed the experience of staying at the lodge so much that they came back every year or so.

Meals at the lodge’s restaurant were quite good, and featured such High Sierra staples as trout, beef stew, and hamburgers. Because of the lodge’s remote location, the menu is necessarily somewhat limited, but you shouldn’t have any trouble finding something enjoyable. Prices are comparable to what you would expect to pay back home in a decent three- or four-star restaurant. In other words, it’s not exactly a bargain. It is, however, very much in line with what you can expect to pay at most restaurants in the national park system. Service is excellent, and it’s a real treat to talk to the employees who live full-time in the lodge’s tent cabins during the season when the lodge is open.

Hiking is the main attraction at Tuolumne Meadows, and there are a variety of trails to choose from. The closest trail, which starts right from the lodge’s parking lot, connects to both the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails and quickly reaches some truly spectacular scenery along the Dana and Lyell Forks of the Tuolumne River. The very popular trail to Lembert Dome and Dog Lake starts from a large trailhead about a mile back down the access road from the lodge. For trails farther afield, you’ll either have to drive or use the free Tuolumne Meadows Shuttle bus which runs between Olmstead Point and Tioga Pass on Highway 120, with a stop in the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge parking lot. Trail maps and bus schedules are available at the lodge’s front desk.

Trailhead for the lateral trail to the John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail, on the south side of the Lodge's parking lot.

Trailhead for the lateral trail to the John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail, on the south side of the Lodge’s parking lot.

Twin Bridges over the Lyell Fork Tuolumne River on the John Muir Trail.

Twin Bridges over the Lyell Fork Tuolumne River on the John Muir Trail.

Although it’s not a “hike” per se, you definitely do not want to miss a visit to the Miller Cascade on the Dana Fork of the Tuolumne River. Simply walk a few minutes uphill on an informal trail behind the main lodge building, and you’ll find yourself at the base of the Cascades, a series of small waterfalls that are very impressive, even after four years of drought. A brief scramble to the top of the Cascade rewards you with a nice view of nearby Lembert Dome, less than a mile to the west.

Miller Cascades on the Dana Fork Tuolumne River, just a short walk up from the Lodge.

Miller Cascades on the Dana Fork Tuolumne River, just a short walk up from the Lodge.

Early morning at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge.

Early morning at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge.

Overall, it’s easy to give Tuolumne Meadows Lodge a glowing recommendation. With a spectacular setting, comfortable (if not exactly luxurious) accommodations, excellent meals, and a wide variety of outdoor activities in the immediate area, it’s an excellent choice for an overnight stay in this corner of the park. Just be aware that the law of supply and demand is in full effect here. As the only non-camping option for an overnight stay in Tuolumne Meadows, and both the starting point and finish of the very popular Yosemite High Sierra Camps loop, it’s a very popular place to stay. Make your reservations early, as the lodge is frequently booked solid, especially on weekends during its short operating season. Rates are on the high side – about what you would normally pay for a regular hotel room. While the rates for tent cabins in Curry Village down in Yosemite Valley are significantly lower, you won’t enjoy the sense of privacy that you’ll find at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge. If you’d prefer a solid roof over your head (and solid walls), the only other option in the area would be the rustic cabins at the Tioga Pass Resort just outside the park on Highway 120. Rates are only slightly higher, but you’ll have your own bathroom, and you won’t have to get up in the middle of the night to put another log on the fire. The trade-off is that you’ll have to drive back to Tuolumne Meadows during the day to access the recreational opportunities there.

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Cuesta Fire Forces Temporary Closure of Santa Lucia Wilderness

If you live in San Luis Obispo County, you’re probably already aware of the Cuesta Fire, which has been burning near Santa Margarita for the past several days. Due to the spread of the fire, the Los Padres National Forest has issued a closure order for a portion of the forest that is affected by this fire.

The Cuesta Fire was sparked by a suspected vehicle fire along Highway 101 on Sunday, August 16, 2015. The fire originated on the Cuesta Grade just north of San Luis Obispo and quickly spread, crossing over Cuesta Ridge and threatening the town of Santa Margarita to the north. As of today (August 22, 2015), the fire has burned 3,500 acres, mostly on Los Padres National Forest land.

Here’s the good news: the fire is currently 55% contained, and full containment is expected by Wednesday, August 26th. The threat to the town of Santa Margarita has been eliminated and roads in the area have been re-opened. Air tankers that were dropping on the fire earlier this week have been released, and the fire is now being fought with ground crews and water-dropping helicopters.

Now for the not-so-good news: The fire has burned into the Santa Lucia Wilderness, and the Forest Service has issued a temporary closure order for the area in the interest of public safety and to allow firefighters better access to the area. The closure order goes into effect today (August 22nd), and runs through October 1, 2015. You can read the full text of the order here.

So, what areas of the forest are affected by the closure order? Basically, everything from Cuesta Pass southeast to the border of the Garcia Wilderness. This includes the following trails and facilities:

Here’s a map of the closure area boundaries. Note that this map does not show the areas that have actually burned, which are much smaller and clustered near the western boundary of the closure area:

FO 15-10 Cuesta Fire Closure Order map

A map of the Cuesta Fire Closure Order boundaries.

Now, it should probably be noted that late summer is not the best time of year for outdoor recreation in this area, fire or no fire. Daytime temperatures are normally in the 90s, and can reach well over 100 degrees on occasion. Water sources are few and far between, and with the current drought situation most water sources in the backcountry have dwindled to muddy potholes or dried up altogether. Nonetheless, if you’re looking for a day hiking opportunity in the local area, I’d recommend the Cerro Alto Trail network or the West Cuesta Ridge Road.

Here are some additional resources for further information about the Cuesta Fire:

If you have any further questions about the Cuesta Fire or the closure order, post them in the comments below, or contact the Santa Lucia Ranger District office in Santa Maria at (805) 925-9538.

UPDATE 1: As of today (Monday, August 24th, 2015) containment is now up to 80% and the acreage burned remains at 3,500. Full containment is still expected by Wednesday, August 26th, 2015.

UPDATE 2: The Cuesta Fire was declared 100% contained on Friday, August 28, 2015. Due to better mapping, the number of acres burned was reduced from 3,500 to 2,446. The Closure Order remains in effect to allow for mop-up and restoration efforts, but will expire on October 1, 2015.

UPDATE 3: On September 10, 2015, the Los Padres National Forest issued an updated Closure Order, #15-11. This new order reduces the size of the closed area by re-opening areas in the eastern portion of the original order that were not affected by the fire. Areas in the western portion of the original order remain closed. The order also extends the closure through December 1, 2015. Locations that remain closed include the following:

  • Big Falls Trail (14E02)
  • East Cuesta Ridge Road (30S10)
  • Hi Mountain Campground
  • Hi Mountain Road (30S05)
  • Hi Mountain Lookout
  • Hi Mountain Lookout Road (30S11)
  • Little Falls Trail
  • Sulphur Pot Trail Camp
  • Upper Lopez Road (31S06)
  • Upper Lopez Trail (15E03)
  • Upper Lopez Trail Camp

The following locations are now re-opened:

Here’s a map of the revised Closure Area:

FO 15-11 Cuesta Fire Closure Order map

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E-book Review: Paddler’s Secret Places, Where to Kayak in San Luis Obispo County, by Andee Allen and Ashala Taylor

Paddler's Secret Places coverSan Luis Obispo County is, of course, a great place for hiking enthusiasts. With generally mild weather year-round, an abundance of public lands, and a delightful combination of coastal and mountain ecosystems, it’s an ideal destination for everything from short day hikes to longer backpacking trips. These same qualities make it an ideal location for kayaking as well. Featuring about 100 miles of coastline along the Pacific Ocean and numerous lakes, ponds, and streams in the county’s interior, it’s a excellent place to get out on the water in a kayak.

Up until recently, though, it’s been something of a challenge to find detailed information on many of the best places to put your kayak in the water throughout the county. Paddler’s Secret Places, Where to Kayak in San Luis Obispo County, written by Andee Allen and featuring photography by Ashala Taylor, solves this problem by offering a thorough guide to all of the publicly-accessible kayaking locations in the county.

Available as an e-book on Amazon, Paddler’s Secret Places covers 25 different locations throughout San Luis Obispo County. Kayaking routes range from placid freshwater streams, lakes, and ponds to more challenging saltwater routes along the Pacific coast. Most of the locations profiled are found within the area’s numerous state and local parks, while a few (such as Franklin Ponds in Paso Robles) are on private property that is usually open to the public.

Each area described in the book includes detailed driving directions to the put-in, parking information, and a description of the route itself, where applicable. The book also presents valuable information about topics such as kayak safety and the use of tide tables. The book’s appendices include a general overview of California’s boating laws, other points of interest within the county (of which there are many), and useful contact information for each of the public parks where kayaking is available.

One notable missing ingredient is that there are no maps included with the book. Fortunately, most of the routes are short enough that you won’t really need a map, and the directions to the put-in are clear enough to get you where you need to go. I’ve included an overview map below of the put-ins as described in the book to help you find them.

As previously noted, kayaking routes in San Luis Obispo County include a broad mix of both freshwater and ocean locations. While the routes along the Pacific Coast are subject only to seasonal weather changes and the tides, freshwater routes are a different story. Although it may appear remarkably green and lush during the winter and spring, inland San Luis Obispo County nonetheless has a generally semi-arid climate, with most locations receiving relatively little annual precipitation, even in “normal” years. Also, the Santa Lucia Mountains of the Coast Range that bisect the county are  only a few thousand feet high. Snowfall is rare, even at the highest locations, and so there is essentially no snowpack to recharge the area’s rivers and streams in the spring and summer as there is in the Sierra Nevada.

As a result of these climatic conditions, freshwater kayaking opportunities in the county are confined to a handful of manmade reservoirs and ephemeral streams. As an example, what should be the largest freshwater stream in the county, the Salinas River, is almost completely dry except after sustained, heavy rains. The stretch of San Luis Obispo Creek that runs along the Bob Jones City-to-Sea Bike Trail down to Avila Beach is one of the more (relatively) reliable stretches of freshwater in the county, and the book’s authors caution that it is usually only passable in late winter and early spring after significant rainfall.

It’s also a good idea to do some research before you attempt any of the routes in this book, as the current unprecedented drought has severely impacted some of the freshwater routes mentioned in the book. Water levels at reservoirs such as Nacimiento Lake are at historic lows. As an extreme example, Atascadero Lake in Atascadero dried up completely in the summer of 2014, and will almost certainly be dry again this summer.

2013-06-08 Atascadero Lake Park-01_edited-1

Atascadero Lake, before the Great Drought.

Note that while this book is specifically geared towards kayakers, many of the routes are also suitable for other types of boats, rafts, and stand-up paddle boards. While the freshwater routes described in the book are suitable for an open-cockpit touring kayak, you’ll usually need a closed-cockpit kayak with a spray skirt if you plan to attempt any of the saltwater routes along the coast. Be sure that you’ve received proper training and know how to safely exit your boat in the event it capsizes before venturing out onto the open ocean.

2012-02-18 San Simeon Pt hike-31_edited-1

San Simeon Cove — One of the easiest and most spectacular ocean kayaking routes in San Luis Obispo County.

For the freshwater routes, a long touring kayak with an open cockpit (or possibly a canoe or rowboat) is all you’ll need. Inflatable rafts can also be used, although you’ll want to check that the water depth is sufficient to prevent possibly striking a submerged obstacle, such as a tree branch,  and instantly deflating your raft. (Been there, done that. Not recommended.)

2012-07-25 Oso Flaco Lake hike-05_edited-1

Oso Flaco Lake is another easy freshwater kayaking spot in southern San Luis Obispo County.

Don’t have a kayak? You’re in luck, as many of the places mentioned in the book have kayak rentals available at or close to the put-in. Popular spots such as the Morro Bay Estuary and San Simeon Cove at William Randolph Hearst Memorial State Beach have rental kayaks available just a few steps away from the water. These kayak rental businesses are also a great source of up-to-the minute information about local conditions as well as possible hazards. Most kayak rental shops also offer classes to help you build up your kayaking skills before taking on one of the more advanced routes. For other, less well-known spots, such as Oso Flaco Lake in Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, you’ll have to either bring your own kayak or rent one in town and transport it to the put-in.

Paddler’s Secret Places is currently only available as an e-book, and only on the Kindle. If you’re interested in going kayaking in San Luis Obispo County, but don’t have a Kindle, consider downloading the free Kindle for PC app available on Amazon.

If you’re interested in more extensive kayak journeys along the coast, the book’s authors highly recommend the book ‘Adventure Kayaking – Trips from Big Sur to San Diego,’ by Robert Mohle. Mohle’s book covers a larger area, but sticks to saltwater routes along the Pacific coast. It includes a number of challenging, extended coastal tours along the San Luis Obispo County coast, as well as coastal routes north into Monterey County and as far south as San Diego.

Here’s a useful overview map of most of the main kayaking locations described in the book:

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National Park Fee-Free Days for 2015

It’s a new year and the National Park Service is continuing its popular Free Entrance Days program on select holiday weekends and special anniversaries. For the dates listed below, the normal entrance fees at national parks that charge them are waived. Whether you’re planning to visit a new park for the first time, or return to an old favorite, planning your visit for one of the Free Entrance Days is a great way to save a little money on your trip. Here are the dates for 2015:

  • January 19 (Martin Luther King Jr. Day);
  • February 14-16 (Presidents Day Weekend);
  • April 18-19 (Opening weekend of National Park Week);
  • March 4 (75th Anniversary of Kings Canyon National Park – Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks ONLY)
  • August 25 (the National Park Service’s 99th birthday);
  • September 25 (125th Anniversary of Sequoia National Park – Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks ONLY)
  • September 26 (National Public Lands Day); and
  • November 11 (Veterans Day).

Note that only the entrance fees are waived — all other fees, such as campground reservation fees, are still in effect. Nonetheless, this is still a good deal, particularly if you just want to make a day trip to a nearby park and not have to pay for a seven-day pass. In California, the following national parks participate in the fee-waiver program:

Cabrillo National Monument (Normally $5.00 per vehicle for seven days)
Death Valley National Park (Normally $20.00 per vehicle for seven days)
Joshua Tree National Park (Normally $15.00 per vehicle for seven days)
Lassen Volcanic National Park (Normally $10.00 per vehicle for seven days)
Lava Beds National Monument (Normally $10.00 per vehicle for seven days)
Muir Woods National Monument (Normally $7.00 for adults and free for children 15 years of age and under)
Pinnacles National Park (Normally $10.00 per vehicle for seven days)
Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks (Normally $20.00 per vehicle for seven days)
Whiskeytown National Recreation Area (Normally $5.00 per vehicle for one day or $10.00 per vehicle for seven days)
Yosemite National Park (Normally $20.00 per vehicle for seven days)

Note that Yosemite National Park is currently proposing to increase its entrance fee to $30.00 per vehicle for seven days. This increase, if approved, will probably go into effect sometime in early 2015.

Parks not listed above, such as Channel Islands National Park, Mojave National Preserve, and Point Reyes National Seashore don’t normally charge an admission fee. The National Park Service website has a complete  listing of all National Park Service units in California that includes a handy interactive map to facilitate planning your visit.

If you’re planning to visit a national park outside of California, there’s also a complete by-state listing of participating national parks available.

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Hilltop, Inn, and Zinfandel Trails – Opolo Vineyards

A rare hiking opportunity in heart of the Paso Robles wine country

Here’s something a little different for your hiking pleasure: a chance to hike on the grounds of a working vineyard nestled in the pastoral Adelaide Hills west of Paso Robles.

While there are literally hundreds of wineries dotting the landscape around the Paso Robles area in northern San Luis Obispo County, Opolo Vineyards is perhaps the only winery in the area that also features a signed network of short trails on its grounds. Opolo Vineyards is located along Vineyard Drive in the bucolic Adelaide Hills west of Paso Robles, a short drive from Highway 101. The winery features a tasting room, outdoor patio (with lunch available on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays), a three-room bed and breakfast inn, and three short hiking trails: the Hilltop, Inn, and Zinfandel Trails. The Hilltop and Inn Trails overlap for part of their length and can be combined to form a short, satisfying loop. The Zinfandel Trail is a separate loop that explores the vineyards to the west of the tasting room. All three trails can be completed in about an hour, leaving you with plenty of time afterward for wine tasting and a post-hike pizza at the tasting room.

Don’t expect the kind of pristine wilderness experience that you can find in the Central Coast’s larger parks and wilderness areas: this is a working vineyard and you’ll be walking along orderly rows of planted wine grapes for most of your journey. Nonetheless, this short trail network offers some truly inspiring views of the surrounding Adelaide Hills (particularly in the spring), and you’ll probably see a lot more wildlife than you were expecting on such a “civilized” hike. Mule deer are commonly seen along the trail, and there’s a flock of wild turkeys living in the riparian corridor along Summit Creek that you’re very likely to see (and hear).

History

California is world-famous for its wine-growing regions, and so it might come as a surprise that none of the numerous varieties of grapes used in winemaking are actually native to the state. European wine grapes were originally brought to the New World by the Franciscan friars who established a series of missions along the California coast in the late 18th Century, when most of present-day California was still part of Mexico, then a Spanish colony. Wine grape-growing in the Paso Robles area dates to about 1790, when the first plantings were made at the Santa Margarita de Cortona Asistencia, now located on private property on Santa Margarita Ranch, just outside the town of Santa Margarita. Early grape planting activity also occurred at Mission San Miguel, which was established in 1797.

During the Mission Era, the present-day city of Paso Robles did not exist, although a Rancho El Paso de Robles in the same area was established in 1828. The City of El Paso de Robles (which means ‘The Pass of the Oaks’ in Spanish), was incorporated in 1889, long after the secularization and subsequent decline of the missions. Small-scale wine production in the area dates to the 1870s. York Mountain Winery (established in 1882) is the oldest winery in the area that is still in business, although it is now operated as Epoch Wines. Wine production in the Paso Robles area began expanding dramatically in the late 1980s to early 1990s, and today there are over 180 established wineries in the area.

On December 22, 2003, the 6.5-magnitude San Simeon earthquake rattled the area, causing extensive damage in downtown Paso Robles and resulting in two fatalities. Mission San Miguel also suffered serious damage during the earthquake, and restoration efforts continue to this day.

Opolo Vineyards, established in the late 1990s by two businessmen from Camarillo, is a relative newcomer to the Paso Robles wine scene. The larger vineyard, a 200-acre parcel, is located east of Paso Robles. The smaller, 80-acre parcel on the West Side is where you’ll find the tasting room and the hiking trail network described below. Because the West Side property is relatively small, the trails are short and never venture too far from the tasting room. In fact, you’ll still be within sight of the trailhead for most of the way. Nonetheless, the hiking is pleasant, the views of the surrounding countryside are outstanding, and there’s more wildlife to see than you might expect.

Hike Summary

Distance: 1.4 miles loop trip (Hilltop/Inn Trails), 1.2 miles loop trip (Zinfandel Trail)

Elevation gain/loss: +200’/-200′ (Hilltop/Inn Trails), +80’/-80’ (Zinfandel Trail)

Hiking time: About 30 minutes for each trail

Permits and fees: None required. Trails are only open to the public during business hours (10:00 AM – 5:30 PM Friday & Saturday, 10:00 AM -5:00 PM Sunday-Thursday, closed for Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve & Christmas Day).

Maps: A free trail brochure, available at the tasting room, is the only map you’ll need. The York Mountain 7.5’ USGS quadrangle is useful for locating some of the nearby peaks visible from the trail, although neither the winery nor any of the trails are depicted.

Best time to go: All of the trails at Opolo Vineyards are accessible year-round. Spring is probably the best season for a visit due to mild temperatures and abundant spring greenery. Summers are dry and very hot, although the trail is still pleasant in the morning. Winter brings cool (but not particularly cold) weather and frequent rains. Avoid the trail during rainstorms or within several days after a significant rainfall due to muddy conditions.

Trailhead

The quickest approach to Opolo Vineyards from Highway 101 in Paso Robles is to take the Highway 46 West exit (signed for Cambria and Hearst Castle) on the south end of town. Turn left onto Highway 46 West and drive 4.6 miles to Vineyard Drive, on your right. Continue 4.4 miles on Vineyard Drive, where you will reach the well-signed entrance to Opolo Vineyards. Turn right onto a long, paved driveway that leads to a parking area in front of the winery’s tasting room and outdoor patio. All three trails start from here.

If you’re coming from the north, a slower, but very scenic alternative route is to take the Highway 46 East exit (signed for Fresno and Bakersfield) on the north side of town. At the bottom of the ramp, turn right onto 24th Street. Your route passes through town, becoming Paso Robles Road (County Road G14) on the outskirts of the city. After 2.3 miles, bear left onto Adelaida Road. Follow this road for 9.1 miles to the north end of Vineyard Drive (across from the entrance to Halter Ranch Vineyard). Turn left onto Vineyard Drive and continue 4.6 miles to the entrance to Opolo Vineyards on your left.

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  N35-35.498, W120-48.946.  Elevation 1210’.

All three trails start from the parking lot in front of the tasting room.

All three trails start from the parking lot in front of the tasting room.

Route Description

All three of the trails at Opolo Vineyards start near the front of the tasting room. After finding a place to park, your first stop should be at the tasting room, where you can pick up a free copy of a map and brochure for the trail network. The folks at the tasting room can also give you the latest information about the condition of the trails and any special events that might be going on at the winery. If it has rained recently, you’ll want to know if the trails have dried out yet, or are still a muddy mess. The Hilltop Picnic Area is occasionally used for wedding ceremonies, so you might want to avoid hiking up there if a wedding is scheduled during your visit.

For the Hilltop and Inn Trails, walk back down from in front of the tasting room to the gravel parking lot below and to your left, just across unseen Summit Creek. This gravel lot is used for overflow parking and also accesses The Inn at Opolo, a three-suite bed and breakfast, which you can see in front of you on a hillside overlooking the tasting room.

A wooden sign marks the start of the Hilltop and Inn Trails.

A wooden sign marks the start of the Hilltop and Inn Trails.

At the far side of the gravel lot, look for an elaborate wooden trail sign that identifies the start of both trails. The Hilltop and Inn Trails follow the same path here, climbing gradually up a wide gravel road. As you climb, stop occasionally and turn around to admire the increasingly scenic views out over the vineyards and the oak-studded Adelaide Hills that surround them. Also, be on the lookout for vehicle traffic along this road, which allows vineyard workers easy access to this part of the property. The Inn at Opolo also uses this road from time to time to take guests on a driving tour of the vineyards.

The Inn Trail branches off from the Hilltop Trail near the crest of a ridge.

The Inn Trail branches off from the Hilltop Trail near the crest of a ridge.

Shortly before reaching the crest of a ridge, you’ll come to another wooden sign that marks the junction of the Hilltop and Inn Trails. While the Hilltop Trail continues straight ahead on the gravel road you’ve been walking on, the Inn Trail branches off to the right, heading out into the vineyards themselves.

The Hilltop Trail features great views of the vineyard and the Adelaide Hills.

The Hilltop Trail features great views of the vineyard and the Adelaide Hills.

If you’re doing the recommended combination loop of both the Hilltop and Inn Trails, continue straight on the gravel road, which climbs to the top of the ridge and then curves left to end at a large, open gravel parking lot. At the far end of the parking lot, several picnic tables mark the location of the Hilltop Picnic Area. Although unshaded, the spectacular views to the west make this a very attractive place to take a break. Most of the Opolo property is visible from here, and beyond Vineyard Drive you can see numerous other vineyards and patches of oak woodlands in the rolling Adelaide Hills. Out of sight beyond the western horizon, the Pacific Ocean is only about seventeen miles away. Despite the close proximity to the ocean, the Adelaide Hills effectively block the cool, moist coastal air, creating a microclimate that is only slightly cooler and more humid than the hot, dry conditions found down in the Salinas River Valley and the area east of Paso Robles. You’ll notice that the area is greener than down along Highway 101, with actual forests of oak trees rather than scattered, grassy oak woodlands. This microclimate is also ideal for growing wine grapes, which is why the west side of Paso and the area along Vineyard Drive in particular has become so popular with winemakers.

The most expansive views are found at the Hilltop Picnic Area.

The most expansive views are found at the Hilltop Picnic Area.

When you’re done enjoying the sweeping views from the Hilltop Picnic Area, return back down the Hilltop Trail to the signed junction with the Inn Trail. Make a sharp left turn here and pick up the Inn Trail, which runs west along a fence line. Don’t be alarmed if it seems like there’s no trail here – the route of the Inn Trail simply follows an informal path between the fence on your left and the rows of grapevines on your right.

The Inn Trail doesn't look much like a trail where it runs along the fenceline.

The Inn Trail doesn’t look much like a trail where it runs along the fence line.

The Inn Trail climbs a short, but steep hill while running along the fence line, then descends to reach the back of the Inn at Opolo. Near a small outbuilding just behind the Inn, another wooden sign directs you to turn left onto a gravel driveway that passes around the rear of the Inn.

A wooden sign directs you around the backside of The Inn at Opolo on the Inn Trail.

A wooden sign directs you around the backside of The Inn at Opolo on the Inn Trail.

The trail continues downhill, curving right to follow along the edge of a lovely oak forest. A small flock of wild turkeys calls this forest home, and there’s a good chance you’ll see and/or hear them during your visit. The trail continues curving to the right, passing below the front of the Inn and soon reaching the gravel parking lot where your loop trip began. Continue uphill back to the tasting room to finish the hike.

Wild turkeys are a common sight on the Inn Trail.

Wild turkeys are a common sight on the Inn Trail.

Now that you’re back at the tasting room, it might be tempting to head in and enjoy some wine tasting. However, there’s still one more trail that you’ll want to hike, and it’s short enough that it won’t delay your wine tasting plans for too long. The 1.2 mile Zinfandel Trail forms another loop, this time around the western part of the vineyard. The trail starts at the edge of another gravel parking lot, this one on the right side of the tasting room (as you’re facing the entrance). Again, there is no formally maintained trail, but there are signs along the way to keep you on the correct route. Find the start of the Zinfandel Trail at another wooden sign on the edge of the gravel parking lot.

The Zinfandel Trail starts from the gravel parking lot behind the tasting room.

The Zinfandel Trail starts from the gravel parking lot behind the tasting room.

Hike uphill on a wide path that runs between the vineyard on your left and a fence on your right. The fence keeps you from wandering down into the riparian corridor that runs along Summit Creek, but it’s probably just as well due to the abundant poison oak found in this area. At the crest of a small hill, the “trail” turns sharply left to follow along another fence line. Follow the fence line west, enjoying wide views of the vineyards and the surrounding countryside. Owl boxes, mounted on long poles, have been placed here to provide nests for the local owl population.

The Zinfandel Trail circles around the winery's zinfandel grape vines.

The Zinfandel Trail circles around the winery’s zinfandel grape vines.

The route follows an undulating course along the fence line, gradually climbing and descending before reaching a sign for the Zinfandel Trail under a large oak tree. While it appears that the trail continues west toward Vineyard Drive, you will actually want to turn left to walk down a wide, grassy pathway between the rows of grapevines.

A wooden sign marks an important turn on the Zinfandel Trail.

A wooden sign marks an important turn on the Zinfandel Trail.

As you’re descending the grassy pathway toward the paved entrance driveway that leads into Opolo Vineyards from Vineyard Drive, look for a small ‘picnic table’ sign about halfway down. The sign directs you on a brief detour to your left over to a picnic table. Located under a huge, ancient oak tree, the Zinfandel Picnic Area has a single picnic table. Although it’s relatively close to the driveway, this spot is nonetheless very secluded and quiet. If no one else is using it at the time, it makes a perfect spot for a quick lunch or rest break.

The single picnic table at the Zinfandel Picnic Area.

The single picnic table at the Zinfandel Picnic Area.

Returning to the main route, continue down to a crossing of the entrance driveway. On the other side of the road, turn right and walk along the driveway back out to the Opolo Vineyards entrance gate. Here, turn left and pick up a path near the fence line, walking south. The route here runs parallel and quite close to Vineyard Drive, so it’s a little noisier than what you’ve experienced so far.

The Zinfandel Trail runs next to Vineyard Drive before returning to the trailhead.

The Zinfandel Trail runs next to Vineyard Drive before returning to the trailhead.

As you’re walking along this part of the trail, look for the intriguing Willow Creek Mennonite Cemetery on the opposite side of Vineyard Drive. Dating back to 1911, the cemetery still serves the Mennonite community in the Paso Robles area. At the end of the open field you’ve been walking through, the route makes a sharp left turn near the property boundary. Staying near the trees on your right, the route gradually climbs uphill along the edge of the Summit Creek riparian corridor. Mule deer frequent this area, and you have a good chance of seeing them here. The route eventually climbs up and curves left to intersect the winery’s paved entrance driveway again. Cross the road and turn right, continuing along the left side of the driveway. You’ll soon reach the tasting room and your vehicle. Now it’s time to enjoy a well-earned glass of wine!

Tips:

  • There is ample parking near the tasting room, including a number of paved parking spots and two gravel parking lots. Opolo Vineyards is a popular stop for bus and limousine tours on the weekends, but most visitors head straight to the tasting room. You’ll usually have the trails all to yourself.
  • The trails at Opolo are very well suited for small children due to their short length and easy grade. Be sure children (and adults!) stay on the trail.
  • Potential hazards include gopher holes, rattlesnakes (!) and poison oak. While you’re unlikely to encounter a rattlesnake, there is a lot of poison oak in the riparian corridor along Summit Creek. It’s easily avoided by staying on the main trail.
  • Wear sturdy footwear that’s appropriate for hiking. The Inn and Zinfandel Trails in particular have some rough stretches where they run through the vineyards, so you’ll want to wear trail-running shoes or lightweight hiking boots at a minimum.
  • Be sure to pick up a copy of the trail map at the tasting room before starting your hike. While you really can’t get lost and you’ll rarely be out of sight of the trailhead, there are a few confusing junctions where you might miss a turn.

 Also in the Area

Looking for other hiking opportunities while you’re in the area? Unfortunately, you won’t find anything very close to Opolo Vineyards. That’s kind of a shame, since the Vineyard Drive area is really quite beautiful. For better or worse, almost all of the area is private property, much of it committed to wine making, farming, and ranching. If you’re staying in the area for a while, there are several trails available on public land that aren’t too far away. The closest is the Salinas River Parkway, located back in downtown Paso Robles. The parkway is a multi-use path suitable for hiking or biking. It’s mostly paved, but there are some sections that are dirt. The Salinas River Parkway is now also a designated section of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail. It’s about 12 miles and 20 minutes’ driving time from Opolo.

Farther afield, but still within a relatively short drive is the Santa Rosa Creek Trail, located on the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria. This short, but lovely trail near the ocean seems a world away from Opolo due to the differences in microclimates, but it’s only 26 miles and about 35 minutes’ driving time away. There are other trails on Fiscalini Ranch if you have extra time.

Last but not least, Lake Nacimiento, operated by Monterey County Parks, offers a few hiking trails in addition to a plethora of camping and water sports activities. The 4.6-mile Shoreline Trail and the 1.5-mile Oak Knoll and Quail’s Roost Trail provide excellent views of the lake and are lightly used. Note that as of this writing (September 2014) the lake level is extremely low due to the ongoing drought. Lake Nacimiento is 22 miles and 45 minutes’ driving time from Opolo.

Car-camping opportunities are likewise very limited in this area. Although there are a couple of RV resorts in Paso Robles, the nearest place to car-camp is at Lake Nacimiento. If you’d prefer to camp closer to the ocean, I highly recommend the San Simeon Creek Campground at Hearst San Simeon State Park, just north of Cambria. It’s 30 miles and 40 minutes’ driving time from Opolo.

If you’d prefer to have a solid roof over your head and enjoy a little more luxury, The Inn at Opolo, a three-suite bed and breakfast, is located right on the grounds of Opolo Vineyards. While it’s quite pricey, the rates are comparable to most of the other winery-sponsored B&Bs in the area. Don’t need a remote-controlled fireplace to make your stay complete? Not to worry — there are dozens of other hotels to choose from back in Paso Robles. Check Trip Advisor or Yelp to find one that best matches your needs. Be aware that many of the more popular hotels are booked solid on the weekends, and may be completely sold out during any of the city’s numerous wine-themed festivals. The Harvest Wine Weekend (usually in mid-October), the Zinfandel Festival (mid-March), and the Paso Robles Wine Festival (mid-May) are the busiest times of the year, so plan ahead!

For a post-hike meal, you can’t beat the convenience of having food and drink available right at the trailhead. On Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, Opolo offers their Pairings on the Patio, where you’ll have a choice of either one of several varieties of wood-fired pizza, or cevapi, a Croatian sausage. Meals are paired with a glass of Opolo wine, of course. For a full-course meal, head back into town. For a town of only 30,000 people, Paso Robles has an incredible variety of restaurants and cuisines from which to choose. Everything from simple, hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurants to elegant five-star dining is available.

Of course, you wouldn’t want to go hiking at a winery without stopping by the tasting room to sample Opolo’s selection of wines. Opolo offers a broad variety of estate-grown red and white wines. Their zinfandel, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon selections are made from grapes grown on the vineyard you’ve just been hiking on, as these grapes do best in the west side microclimate. Opolo currently charges a $5.00 tasting fee, but you’ll get to taste a lot of different wines for this price. Also, the tasting fee is waived with a two-bottle purchase.

To gain a better understanding of the region’s early history, be sure to include Mission San Miguel on your itinerary while you’re in the area. Nestled in the tiny town of San Miguel just north of Paso Robles, it has the distinction of being the only mission in the United States that still retains its original fresco paintings. Although restoration efforts to repair the damage from the 2003 San Simeon earthquake have yet to be completed, most parts of the mission have re-opened to the public. The mission is 20 miles and 30 minutes’ driving time from Opolo Vineyards.

Another highly recommended special attraction while you’re in the Paso Robles area is River Oaks Hot Springs & Spa, nestled out of the way in a quiet residential neighborhood on the northeast side of town. River Oaks features a complete set of spa services, including private outdoor tubs (fed by natural hot springs on the property) that feature sublime views out over the vineyards adjacent to the spa. Although you’re unlikely to be sore after hiking the trails at Opolo, soaking in the tubs is the perfect way to end a full day of hiking and wine tasting. River Oaks is 15 miles and about 25 minutes’ driving time from Opolo Vineyards. Be sure to call and reserve a tub ahead of time, as they can get very busy on the weekends.

Further Information

For more information about Opolo Vineyards and their network of trails, contact the winery directly:

Opolo Vineyards
7110 Vineyard Drive
Paso Robles, CA 93446
Phone: (805) 238-9593
Fax: (805) 238-9594

While there aren’t any published guidebooks that cover the trails at Opolo, The California Directory of Fine Wineries: Central Coast: Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles is an excellent coffee table-style book that includes a chapter about Opolo Vineyards and several other notable wineries in the Paso Robles area.

For general information about visiting the Paso Robles region and its many wineries, the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance website is your best one-stop source of information. It includes a calendar of local events and a directory of all of the region’s participating wineries, with links to each winery’s website. This is one site you’ll want to bookmark and refer to often when planning your visit to Paso Robles.

For more photos of this hike, see the complete set on Flickr.

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Celebrate National Park Week With Free Admission to Your Local National Park This Weekend (April 19-20, 2014)

To kick off the start of National Park Week, the National Park Service is waiving entrance fees for all national parks this weekend (April 19-20, 2014). While you’ll still have to pay for campground reservations, this is nonetheless a great deal  — especially for California residents who only want to spend the day in their local national park and neither want nor need a seven-day pass. California is blessed with a wide variety of national parks throughout the state, so there’s probably a beautiful national park somewhere near you!

In planning your visit, be aware that the waived entrance fees aren’t exactly a well-kept secret, and that plenty of other people will also be taking advantage of this generous offer. Another consideration is that this weekend also falls during the Spring Break for many California school districts, which will undoubtedly add to the number of people visiting the parks. Here are some tips to help you avoid the crowds:

  • Consider visiting a less-crowded park. For example, in Central California, Sequoia/Kings Canyons National Parks attract far smaller crowds than the better-known Yosemite National Park to the north.
  • Get there early. If you can enter the park before 9:00 AM, you’ll avoid waiting in line at the entrance station, and it will also be much easier to find a parking spot at any of the scenic attractions along the roads. You’ll also have more time for hiking.
  • Hit the trail. For better or worse, most national park visitors rarely wander more than a few hundred yards from their cars. While you’ll rarely experience complete solitude, especially on the more popular trails, you will usually find that the number of people you meet on the trails drops dramatically once you’ve gone a mile or so from the trailhead.
  • Seek out the lesser-known, “secret places” in the parks. Even in high-traffic parks like Yosemite, there are plenty of not-so-well-known trails that attract few visitors. Your chances of solitude are much higher in places like these. Just be aware that the less popular trails in the national parks are less popular for a reason — they often lack the dramatic scenery and stunning views that makes the other trails so popular in the first place. At the same time, having fewer people on the trails often means you’ll see more of the local wildlife. Hiking guidebooks (and, of course, the internet) are good sources of information in seeking out the “hidden gems” in the national parks.

California national parks that are fee-free this weekend include the following:

Cabrillo National Monument (Normally $5.00 per vehicle for seven days)
Death Valley National Park (Normally $20.00 per vehicle for seven days)
Joshua Tree National Park (Normally $15.00 per vehicle for seven days)
Lassen Volcanic National Park (Normally $10.00 per vehicle for seven days)
Lava Beds National Monument (Normally $10.00 per vehicle for seven days)
Muir Woods National Monument (Normally $7.00 for adults and free for children 15 years of age and under)
Pinnacles National Park (Normally $5.00 per vehicle for seven days)
Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks (Normally $20.00 per vehicle for seven days)
Whiskeytown National Recreation Area (Normally $5.00 per vehicle for one day or $10.00 per vehicle for seven days)
Yosemite National Park (Normally $20.00 per vehicle for seven days)

Parks not listed above, such as Channel Islands National Park, Mojave National Preserve, and Point Reyes National Seashore don’t normally charge an admission fee. The National Park Service website has a complete  listing of all 26 National Park Service units in California that includes a handy interactive map to facilitate planning your visit.

If you’re planning to visit a national park outside of California, there’s also a complete listing of participating national parks available.

Finally, there are three more opportunities in 2014 to enjoy free admission to the national parks. Entrance fees will also be waived on the following dates:

  • August 25 (the National Park Service’s 98th birthday);
  • September 27 (National Public Lands Day); and
  • November 11 (Veterans Day).

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Enjoy Free Admission to California’s National Parks and Forests This Veterans Day Weekend

In honor of Veterans Day, the National Park Service is waiving entrance fees for all national parks this Veterans Day weekend (November 9-11, 2013). This will be the last fee-free weekend of 2013, so get out there and enjoy your national parks! Campground reservation fees still apply, of course, but this is still a great deal  — particularly if you are planning to make a day trip to your favorite local national park. California is blessed with a wide variety of national parks throughout the state, and most Californians live within a few hours’ drive of one or more national parks.

Here’s a list of California national parks that are fee-free this weekend:

Cabrillo National Monument (Normally $5.00 per vehicle for seven days)
Death Valley National Park (Normally $20.00 per vehicle for seven days)
Joshua Tree National Park (Normally $15.00 per vehicle for seven days)
Lassen Volcanic National Park (Normally $10.00 per vehicle for seven days)
Lava Beds National Monument (Normally $10.00 per vehicle for seven days)
Muir Woods National Monument (Normally $7.00 for adults and free for children 15 years of age and under)
Pinnacles National Park (Normally $5.00 per vehicle for seven days)
Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks (Normally $20.00 per vehicle for seven days)
Whiskeytown National Recreation Area (Normally $5.00 per vehicle for one day or $10.00 per vehicle for seven days)
Yosemite National Park (Normally $20.00 per vehicle for seven days)

NOTE: Parks not listed above, such as Channel Islands National Park, Mojave National Preserve, and Point Reyes National Seashore don’t normally charge an admission fee. The National Park Service has a complete  listing of all 26 National Park Service units in California that includes a handy interactive map to facilitate planning your visit.

If you’re planning to visit a national park outside of California, there’s also a complete listing of participating national parks available.

It’s also worth noting that Giant Sequoia National Monument (administered by the US Forest Service) and Carrizo Plain National Monument (administered by the Bureau of Land Management) don’t charge entrance fees, either.

Finally, as an added bonus California’s National Forests are participating in the fee-free weekend, too. In southern and central California, this means that the  Adventure Pass won’t be needed in most areas of the Angeles, Cleveland, Los Padres, and San Bernardino National Forests. There are a few exceptions — you’ll still need the Adventure Pass at the Lower Santa Ynez Recreation Area in Los Padres National Forest, for example.

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Los Padres National Forest Implements Level IV Fire Restrictions [UPDATE: Lifted December 11, 2013]

UPDATE: Now that we’ve had some rain here along the Central Coast, Level IV fire restrictions for the Los Padres National Forest have been lifted. A California Campfire Permit is still required to build a campfire outside of a designated Campfire Use Site. Details of the relaxed fire restrictions now in effect can be found on the Los Padres National Forest website. Be aware that wildfires can occur at any time of year in the Coast Range, including during the winter months. Also, total rainfall for the current season is still well below normal, meaning that we’re potentially entering a third consecutive year of drought unless the rains pick up considerably over the next few months. If this happens, you can anticipate that Level IV restrictions will be re-imposed again next summer, probably at an even earlier date.

Here’s the original post:

You know it’s turning into a really bad wildfire season when this happens. As of July 23, 2013, the Los Padres National Forest is imposing Level IV Fire Restrictions on the entire Forest, including all five ranger districts.

What are Level IV restrictions? Put simply, it means that no wood or charcoal fires of any kind are allowed anywhere in the National Forest, including in designated campgrounds (even if you have your California Campfire Permit). However, gas camping stoves may be used if (1) you’re in a designated Campfire Use Site, and (2) you have a California Campfire Permit. On the other hand, if you’re camping anywhere else in the Forest (i.e., in the backcountry or at an informal site along the road), you can’t have a fire or use your stove. In other words, leave the stove at home and plan on cold meals.

These restrictions may seem pretty draconian, but given the extremely dry conditions in the forest at the moment and the fact that new wildfires are breaking out just about every day, they’re absolutely necessary. Some considerations:

  • While the use of camp stoves is still allowed in official campgrounds, designated backcountry campsites, such as Buckeye Camp on the Trout Creek Trail, are not included.
  • If you’re car-camping at one of the designated Campfire Use Sites, be sure you have your California Campfire Permit if you want to use your stove. The Forest Service is planning to strictly enforce these restrictions, and you can expect that most of the enforcement activity will take place in the popular campgrounds.
  • This order only affects the Los Padres National Forest. If you’re visiting a different national forest, check their website for the current restrictions. The national parks and California State Parks also have their own separate restrictions, so check with them for the latest information. This tip is particularly relevant if you’re going to the Big Sur area, where separate state park and national forest facilities are found in close proximity to each other.
  • Fire restrictions are usually lifted (or relaxed) in the fall after the first significant rain storms have occurred and the danger of wildfire is much lower.

Resources:

Level IV Fire Restrictions Announcement

Forest Order No. 13-05

List of Designated Campfire Use Sites (Complete list of campgrounds and day-use areas where stoves may be used)

InciWeb (The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC)’s website with information on current wildfires on federal lands)

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