The Griswold Hills Recreation Area, near Panoche in far southeastern San Benito County, is more than fifty miles away from my home in San Juan Bautista, but well worth the effort to get there. The winding route on Panoche Road past the Paicines wineries and through the slide areas to Panoche Pass (el. 2,250 feet) is stunning, with long views of pristine cattle ranches and rocky, steep canyons along the way. Crumbing slopes of serpentinite (California’s state rock) and greenstone shine with a black and deep green hue, passing into dipping layered beds of chocolate brown shale. East of the pass, the rocks are Cretaceous in age, uplifted remains of a time when the valley was the edge of the continent, once covered in a shallow sea.
Griswold Hills is under the jurisdiction of the U. S. Bureau of Land Management and has long been used by target shooters and game bird hunters. Hikers in this area should make themselves visible with bright colors and utilize good common sense. Braided cattle trails wind up toward the ridge, providing steady, challenging climbs past the beautiful, sometimes vertical, sedimentary rock formations. The brush can get pretty dense in places and the canyons narrow as you gain elevation, so watch your step and don’t get yourself in a jam. Climb as high as you can safely navigate and pause frequently to enjoy the awesome views.
I hiked the canyon solo on a cool autumn Thursday when my erstwhile hiking buddy Mike was out of commission with a broken arm. I took two extra precautions which I highly recommend for folks heading out this way. One was I notified a set of friends about my plans, letting them know I would be out of cell phone range, info on the vehicle I was driving, and when to expect to hear from me next. The second precaution was to wear a bright orange vest over my jacket to make myself very visible. I had the usual stuff – water, food, headlamp, first aid kit, rain gear, tick spray, etc. – packed inside my daypack. And I carried a hiking pole to help me to descend. On hillsides, the more points of contact with good ole Ma Earth, the better.
My favorite parts of this hike were the stark quietness of the setting, the visual contrast between the valley and the surrounding canyons, the grainy texture and erosive features of the dominant sandstone, and the simplicity and hardiness of the desert-like flora. I was surprised at what little wildlife I encountered, mainly very small grey/brown birds which I and my childhood friends used to call “chi-chi” birds (finches of some sort, perhaps?) plus some very far away crows.
My least favorite thing was all the ammo litter I found just about everywhere. I have absolutely nothing against hunting and target shooting. When I was younger I did a little of both. But I was always taught to pick up after myself, including targets, shells, and spent rounds. On the way back to my truck, I filled a large garbage bag full of cans, bottles, shotgun shells, ammo boxes, and cardboard targets and took them home to the trash bin. Maybe if we all did that each visit, and stopped adding to the problem while we were having fun, we could get this place back in shape.
The no-fee Griswold Hills Day Use Area has a covered picnic table, a kiosk stocked with BLM brochures, a parking lot, and a clean pit toilet. It’s a great place to hike, responsibly take target practice, or hunt in season. Primitive camping is allowed, but it is limited to fourteen days. Be sure to bring your own water.
To get there, turn south from Panoche Road on the road to New Idria, keep right, and look for the BLM sign on the left. On the way home, be sure to stop at the Panoche Inn for a sandwich and refreshments. You’ll love it!
And please, my friends, do not litter.
For a location map to Griswold Hills Recreation Area, please click here.