Near the southern end of San Benito County, just west of Hernandez Reservoir along Coalinga Road, lies the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area, operated by the U. S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This area includes three trailheads and two free campgrounds from which to stage your fun, non-motorized adventures. Last week, on a cool, sunny mid-December morning, I explored two of them, the Short Fence Trail (aka Trail L5) and the Upper Sweetwater Trail (aka Trail L3).
BLM maps of the recreation area are available at the trailhead kiosks, along with vault toilets and picnic tables. Be sure to bring your own drinking water and pack out all of your trash when you leave.
The Short Fence Trail is designed for foot traffic only, cutting through oat grass and oak forest for a little over a mile before petering out near seasonal Fox Spring. This trail is steep at first, narrow, not especially well-tended, and does not appear to be frequently used. That means there is a good bit of ducking under branches and stepping over blowdowns involved, so pay attention to where you put your feet and head, unless you happen to be an agile, furry hobbit or a wee little elf. All those yoga stretches and burpees you have been doing for flexibility and core strength will come in handy on this hike.
I was glad for the exercise, but I would not describe the Short Fence Trail as non-stop grins and giggles. Much of the time I was in thick cover, with only a few opportunities for the long mountain views and rock outcrops that I enjoy the most. There were lots of intersecting game trails along the way, but no deer or pigs or cats made themselves visible and the ground was too cold for reptiles to be out and about. Most of the wildlife sightings were of the airborne variety, jays and crows and sparrows, plus skittering, drumming coveys of California quail. Our state bird is thriving in southern San Benito County.
I was back at the truck in forty-five minutes after this easy warm-up hike. I made myself a note to try Trail L5 again in the springtime, when the trees would be greener and there would be running water (and maybe critters) in the stream.
Just up the road a mile or two is the parking area for the Upper Sweetwater Trail L3. This is a multi-use trail for hikers, equestrians, and mountain bikers. After a mile and a half or so, it connects to Trail L2, a dirt and gravel fire road that leads to seasonal Laguna Falls and Trail L1 to the Laguna Mountain Campground. The Upper Sweetwater Trail has well-marked, well-groomed dirt tread that appears to get a lot of use. There are terrific views of the mountains surrounding Hernandez Reservoir and large, shady oaks interspersed along the way. You can stretch your legs and pick up the pace on this trail, a brisk, open one-hour walk to L2 and back.
Sweetwater is a great place to bring your horse or your mountain bike. Just remember the universal courtesies that apply to right-of-ways on all multi-use outdoor trails: hikers go first, then horses, then bikers. There is ample parking and turn-around space for trailers at the entrance to the Sweetwater Campground across the road from the trailhead. The campground itself is clean, remote, and beautiful, with six campsites for tenting or for RVs (no hookups). There is no water and stays are limited to fourteen days. Each camp has a fire ring, but bring your own wood, campfire permit (see link below), a shovel, and sufficient water to drown the coals.
After this fun scouting trip, I decided to return next time to do a loop hike. Starting from the Laguna Mountain Campground, I will walk the Laguna Mountain Trail L1 to Laguna Falls, down the Trail L2 fire road to Trail L3, then down to the Upper Sweetwater Trailhead and back on the road to the Laguna Mountain start. That will be a good one. I hope there is still some water in the falls!
To get to the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area, head south on Highway 25 from Hollister. About 12 or so miles past the entrance to Pinnacles National Park, turn left on Coalinga Road. The Short Fence Trailhead is 13 miles ahead on the right. There are several one lane cattle guard bridges along the route, so take it easy and stay alert.
And please, my friends do not litter.
For a location map of the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area, please click here.
For information about hiking, camping, hunting, and target shooting in the Laguna Mountain Recreation Area, please click here.
For a free California Campfire Permit, please click here.