One of the best hiking trails in San Benito County is Trail L1 in the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area on Coalinga Road fifty miles southeast of Hollister. From the parking lot in the Laguna Mountain Campground, the trail takes you 2.5 miles into “The Gorge” along Laguna Creek deep in Miller Canyon. Near the end of the trail, the creek cuts a perpendicular line through a steeply plunging serpentinite ridge. Depending on rainfall, time of year, and your rock scrambling abilities, you might be lucky enough to climb down and witness a series of small waterfalls with their corresponding idyllic wading pools. Notice I said “might.” Don’t get mad at me if you expend all that energy and it’s just a teeny dribble. Even without the falls, though, the trail itself is still a fun hike.
The first half mile or so of the walk is on a fire road that leads up to Laguna Mountain. If you want to climb the 4,462 foot peak, stay on the fire road for a couple of miles to its end and scramble to the top as best you can. There are cairns marking the way, but it is not really a trail. Trail L1, however, is clearly marked as an all-purpose trail (hiking, mountain biking, equestrian – no motor vehicles) veering to the right off the fire road. From there, it switches back through the chaparral and serpentinite rubble down to the creek and continues on its opposite bank. On a cold January morning, I was glad that the flow was calm and the crossing was an easy rock hop. I would have splashed through anyway, but it was nice to keep my feet dry for a while on a chilly day.
The well-maintained path follows the creek upstream for another half mile or so. Here, a left hand fork in the trail leads to a poorly-located fire ring near another stream crossing. Beyond the crossing is a primitive campground on a flat grassy area. Every Boy Scout or Girl Scout can tell you that fire rings and camp sites should be at least 200 feet from a stream. Why some adults fail to observe the Leave No Trace principles that pre-teens learn in scouting is a mystery to me.
Back on the trail, you climb gently through oak forest above the steepening gorge toward the end of Trail L1. One option for a longer hike would be to connect to Trail L2 here and hike that one to Trail L3 which leads down to the Upper Sweetwater trailhead. That would leave you a steep-ish mile and a half walk on Coalinga Road back up to the Laguna Mountain Campground. That hike did not appeal to me on this day. I came to hunt for the waterfalls, so I plunged down into The Gorge, scrambling off trail toward the sound of what I hoped was falling water. I could clearly hear it, but the brush was so thick and the slope was so steep that I could not see the stream from the top.
Here is the “teaser” part, folks. For safety reasons, I will not tell you exactly what I saw or show you a picture of the possibly majestic Laguna Falls. The truth is that the off trail scramble is probably not a good idea if you are a senior or a young kid, so make a good decision, okay? For everyone else in good health, just be careful and realize the tick and poison oak potential, not to mention the risk of falling on your noggin. Ignoring my own advice, I bushwhacked through the brush and trees to spend several delightful minutes climbing upstream over slick boulders and sampling the cold, rushing water with my feet (precise location and tantalizing, prosaic wilderness description omitted).
Whether you are fortunate enough to see the falls on your visit or not, The Gorge and the stream are great fun to witness up close. As the afternoon began to wane, I decided to head back along the opposite side of the stream, off trail. This is the kind of adventure I like best, walking, observing, and picking my way along a sun-dappled creek. Deer tracks, gurgling water, and conversations with lone, curious blue jays were my rewards. Eventually, my wandering led me back to the primitive campsite I referred to above. There I crossed the creek, rejoined Trail L1, and retraced my steps back to the truck. I love this place and so will you. If you go and if you’re lucky, you just might find a gorgeous little waterfall or two to put a big smile on your face.
To get there from Hollister, take highway 25 south past the Pinnacles to Coalinga Road, turn left, and continue about 14 miles. It’s a beautiful drive, but take it easy around the curves and over the cattle guards, watching for range cattle and possible wet creek crossings. Laguna Mountain Campground has five tent sites with covered picnic tables and fire rings, plus a vault toilet and kiosk, but there is no water, so bring your own.
And please, my friends do not litter.
For information on Leave No Trace wilderness principles, please click here.
For a location map of the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area, please click here.