Daniel Galligan races his motorcycle through a creek  (Photo by: Nick Thompson)

Dan Galligan learned to ride a bike when he was six years old.  But it wasn’t just any bike. He bypassed the training wheels most of us learn on and went straight to motorcycles.           

“I remember watching my dad work on his bikes and riding. We had a mini-bike that I rode. I started racing when I was about 12.”

Galligan, 19, lives in San Juan Bautista and is one of thousands of dirt bikers who flock to off-road parks like Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area (HHSVRA) every year to enjoy the outdoors, spend time with friends and family, and get dirty on trails that wind through San Benito County’s scenic parks and private ranches.

“It’s a great way to stay in shape, spend time outdoors and have fun with my friends,” Galligan said.  “It’s also something I can do with my dad that we both enjoy.”

According to the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA), there are more than 615,000 registered motorcycles in the United States. Forty-one percent are for off-road riding. Founded in 1924, the AMA is a non-profit 501(c)(4) corporation that advocates “for motorcyclists’ interests in the halls of local, state and federal government, the committees of international governing organizations, and the court of public opinion.” They push for safety standards and work to educate the public on the recreational and economic benefits of biking.

In San Benito County, the sport brings in revenue through hundreds of thousands of annual visitors to Hollister Hills who camp and spend money at local stores and restaurants. At its peak, in 2009, the park was attracting more than 228,000 annual visitors. Today, those numbers have declined.

“On average we have 102,888 visitors per year and our average revenue was $425,063 per year,” said Sam Hamilton of the California State Parks, San Andreas District, Hollister Hills Sector. 

Although HHSVR is still popular among riders from all over the state, some critics point to a decline in visitors – and revenue – because of the 2009 closure of the 63,000-acre Clear Creek area, which has been mired in a debate between local and federal officials. The park also hosts just one American Motorcycle Association District 36 (the one San Benito County is in) race a year. According to the Bureau of Land Management, the Clear Creek area is unsafe to ride motorcycles.   BLM officials say the closure is meant to protect people from naturally-occurring asbestos in the area.Their website lists a warning:

The risk of exposure to airborne asbestos exists within Clear Creek year -round. Visitors should take measures to reduce exposure to dust while in the area. Children are most at risk from exposure. Recommendations to reduce exposure include: avoid the area during dry or dusty conditions, avoid opening vehicle doors until visible dust has cleared, keep windows closed and ventilation on recirculate, wash vehicles before returning home, launder clothing separately, use HEPA vacuum to clean vehicle interior.

Legislation to re-open the area was introduced by Sam Farr originally and again by Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-CA) earlier this year but has yet to pass.

“As a Californian on the Natural Resources Committee, it is important to me to protect and preserve California’s public lands for future generations. This bipartisan bill not only bolsters our area’s conservation efforts, it also promotes recreation and tourism in our region,” Rep. Panetta stated on his website. “When this bill passes, locals and visitors will no longer be restricted from enjoying all that Clear Creek Management Area has to offer.”

The bill, H.R. 1913 cleared the House in July, yet awaits passage in the Senate. Park officials say they don’t know if Clear Creek is the cause of a decrease in visitors.

 “I am not sure that we have experienced a decrease in visitation due to the closure of Clear Creek,” Hamilton said. “In the immediate aftermath of the closure, we had an influx of visitation, but we have had a steady decline in the past few years.” 

The local Hollister Hills Offroad Association (HHORA) works with the park to maintain trails and host races. 

“HHORA is a cooperating nonprofit association designed to support Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA). The Board of Directors is made up of volunteers that support and implement activities and events for the Association,” its website says. “HHORA assists the park in a wide variety of ways ranging from sponsoring special projects and staff training, to holding special events for club members.”

Hollister Hills offers riders several unique trails that run through formerly private California ranches and enable the public to experience some of the state’s most beautiful backcountry. Park elevations range from 660 feet to 2,425 feet and include creeks, wildlife, and fauna.

Dan Galligan rides all over the state and competes on cross-country trails, called “hare scrambles,” that are set up with obstacles to test riders’ skills on difficult terrains. Hare scrambles vary in distance and time, with the riders completing multiple laps around a marked course through wooded or other rugged natural terrain. Unlike “enduro,” races where riders compete on a longer course, hare scramble riders are in a single class, start on the same row and the event is an all-out race to the finish.

“You earn points based on your time,” Galligan explained.

Galligan is currently ranked as a Class A rider, having worked his way up over five+ years from the beginning Class C.  He took two years off while he was playing football at Monte Vista High School, but started riding again as soon as he could. A broken wrist also kept him off his bike for a few months but didn’t stop him from riding.

“Racing is all about focusing on trying to get better and faster,” he said. “You race against other guys, but it’s also about getting better yourself.”

Cross-country riders wear a radio-frequency switch on their helmets and are electronically timed as they cross each station on the course. Those with the best time are awarded points and move up the chain of Classes.

“Each lap can last anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes and you do the lap several times,” he said.  The courses take time and commitment not only from the riders but their parents.

“It really is a family activity,” said Tim Galligan, Dan’s father, and fellow rider. “There’s a whole bunch of us who like to ride together and the kids love it.”

The AMA monitors and runs the competitions, held all over the west. Bikes are not cheap, a new one starts at about $10,000. Galligan recommends borrowing a friend’s bike for people who are interested in riding but not quite ready to make the investment. He’s worked his way up from the mini-bike he learned on at age six to a KTM 250.

Today Galligan is a sophomore at Cabrillo College studying mechanical engineering. He said he plans on transferring to a four-year university and would like to someday work for a company designing products.

“You can do anything with a mechanical engineering degree,” he said.

“All the products you see: planes, cars, your phone all of them were designed by a mechanical engineer.” He said he’s interested in the agriculture sector, maybe designing processing equipment. With a few years to go before he’ll be in the job market, he has time to think about it. Asked about his dream job, though?

“Designing motorcycles.”


SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS: Do you ride at Hollister Hills? If so, why there? If not, why not? Let BenitoLink know if you’ve been affected by the closure of Clear Creek? Share your photos and stories about motorcycle riding. BenitoLink wants to know!   You can comment at the bottom of this story or email Leslie David at lesliedavid@benitolink.com. 


For more information:

American Motorcycle Association website

Campsite reservations, maps and trails at HHSVR website

Hollister Hills Offroad Association website