By DENNIS WYATT
SANTA NELLA — The rancher slowed down his pickup as he neared me as I made my way up the hill.
As he leaned a bit out his window he offered some advice.
“You’d better have some rocks in your pockets or the wind on top of the hill is going to blow you over,” he offered in a mischievous tone.
“Isn’t life great?” I smiled as I shot back with a grin on my face prompting the rancher and his wife riding shot gun to break out with infectious laughs.
We then waved at each other as they headed back to their ranch and I trudged onward toward Spikes Peak.
They were the first — and last — folks I’d encounter for the next six or so hours as I hiked the trails crisscrossing one of California’s hidden gems, Pacheco State Park.
The 6,890 acres of endless rolling hills has 28 plus miles of trails. It is one of four good excuses I can think of for hopping in your car and spending a little over an hour driving south on Interstate 5 to the Santa Nella area. They include Pacheco State Park that has a Hollister address as it is just over the San Benito County line, San Luis Reservoir State Recreation Area, the San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery to pay respects to those that have secured our freedoms, and Pea Soup Andersen’s where you can enjoy the best split pea soup in California, if not the West.
Andersen’s, by the way, has full breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus. But their niche is their soup that in a typical year they serve more than 2 million bowls. Take it from me, it’s that good.
Even if you’re not up to hiking the hills of Pacheco State Park or partaking in the boating, fishing, hiking, and other outdoor activities that are abundant at San Luis Reservoir and nearby a drive to Santa Nella for lunch or dinner at Andersen’s is a pleasant way to spend a few hours. There is something that resets everything simply driving south of the Interstate 205 cutoff to Santa Nella given it’s a vast panorama of seemingly endless fertile farmlands to the east and near pristine rolling hills to the west.
And if you’re looking for solitude, you’d be hard pressed to beat Pacheco State Park. It’s located off of Dinosaur Point Road — a left turn from Highway 152 as you climb up toward Pacheco Pass. You realize just how low key the park is when you reach the entrance that seems more like that of a cattle ranch. That’s because it is what remains of the original 48,000-acre parcel granted by the Mexican governor of California in 1843 to soldier and wagon maker Francisco Perez Pacheco who immigrated to the territory from Mexico in 1820. Much of that original land grant was taken via eminent domain to construct San Luis Reservoir. Paula Fatjo, a fifth generation Pacheco descendant who inherited the land, eventually decided to deed the last 6,890 acres of the ranch to the State of California. It was a selfless gift driven by a desire to make sure others had the chance to share her love for the land’s history, solitude, and beauty.
Pacheco State Park is designed to accommodate hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians. There are restrooms and picnic tables at the trailhead. There is no water available at the park. The cost for day use is $10 per vehicle and is by the voluntary self-pay system. There are park maps available but you’d be wise to download and print — or snap a smartphone photo — of the park trail map from the Internet before you leave home given there may not be any in the holders when you arrive.
Just like regional parks in the East Bay as well as a liberal share of state parks, livestock grazing is licensed within the park’s boundaries to promote best range management practices. That means you will likely encounter cattle in the park. It’s no big deal as they either ignore you or mosey away if your hiking path takes you near them. Just remember whenever you pass through a gate to secure it.
My trip two weeks ago was magical. Despite three other vehicles being in the parking lot and the encounter with the rancher and his wife, I did not come across another soul during my six hour visit. There were a few cows at one spot as well as hawks navigating the seemingly endless winds and a few squirrels but other than that it was solitude.
It explains why I paused a lot during an 11-mile hike that allowed me to make a loop from the trail head to the southern park boundary while taking detours to three different small lakes.
It is hard to explain being in what seems as the middle of nowhere soaking in everything on the horizon that offers no signs of civilization unless you are near a primitive barbwire fence or happen to have a view to the park’s southeast side where a stand of wind turbines are given life from the winds that never seem to cease.
The rancher was right. The winds were strong along ridge crests as well as at Spikes Peak that at 1,927 feet is 141 feet below the heights of Pacheco Pass where Highway 152 snakes its way through the Coastal Range. While the area is one of California’s more consistent spots for winds most of the time you are at Pacheco State Park the winds aren’t a steady 30 mph with gusts.
A visit in the coming weeks will likely still yield lush green rolling hills although the creeks and small streams that normally flow during winter will probably be dry. Most of the trees had yet to bud. Wildflowers are likely to be more abundant given the park is considered by many who search each spring for nature’s reawakening to be a must to visit. On the hike I took there were only a couple of handfuls but that didn’t matter to me. That’s because I saw my first California Golden Poppy of 2018 braving the wind near the top of a ridge. It was one of five I saw that day.
The California Golden Poppy is my favorite flower. Even if I’m having a miserable hike, which is nearly impossible for me to experience, seeing them makes my day whether it is near the Pacific Ocean, in the hills ringing the Bay Area, on hills overlooking the edge of the Mojave Desert or fairly high in the Sierra poking up from between granite slabs.
Pacheco State Park is well suited for hikers of all abilities and tastes. There’s enough distance and elevation change to satisfy hiking junkies and enough shorter paths to tailor to a low key hiker. Unlike East Bay regional parks’ hiking areas that Pacheco State Park might remind you of, there are seemingly endless trails crisscrossing the landscape between the perimeters allowing you to carve out the mileage that is best for you.
And even though trail markings might be a bit lacking as you near the southern boundary fence and you really do get a sense of being in the middle of nowhere, it is virtually impossible to get lost.
As for whether I’d go back, answer is a resounding yes. The reasons are four-fold. Unlike heading into the Bay Area to find similar hiking terrain, heavy traffic to get there complete with stoppages is virtually a non-issue. It is also an hour and 15 minutes away from Manteca — seven minutes less from Turlock. It offers do-able hikes in spring, summer, winter or fall. And if I need a hike where I won’t encounter many other people without having to take a week off to head to Death Valley or drive to Sonora Pass, Pacheco State Park will more than meet that need.
For more information go to ca.parks.gov and search for Pacheco State Park.