Mudstone Ranch, open sunrise to sunset daily, is seven miles south of Hollister at 7800 Cienega Rd. in the Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area. In late summer, from the parking area inside the classic wooden ranch sign, the sun-scorched grasses, the faded trail markers, and the mud-cracked lower trails may not seem that inviting. But like so many other trails, something happens when you start walking. Your senses wake up to the beauty of the ranch land and its inhabitants. You are seduced by the rolling hills and the sweeping vistas. The vultures, the quail, the doves, the lizards, and the swift, unseen critters that make sudden, scurrying sounds in the knee-high grass all work their charms. Keep walking. Mudstone Ranch grows on you.
On a recent Thursday morning with local schools back in session, my hiking buddy Mike Carroll and I were the only ones at the park. We paid the Iron Ranger a $5 day use fee and, picking up a free map at the kiosk, we selected a loop hike of about four and a half miles. Neither one of us had been here before, so this would be a shakedown cruise – a relaxed initial introduction to the ranch. The trails here are multi-use. You can walk, you can ride your horse, or you can mountain bike. On this day, we did not have to worry about sharing the road with anyone.
Right away, things got interesting. After a quick gain in elevation to get our lungs working, we ran into a sign on a swing gate that read Enterin’ the Very Bad Lands, with a longhorn skull and crossbones painted underneath. Alright! A challenge! We’re in the Wild West now, buckaroos. Before long, the scenery got better and better. These “very bad lands” are bad in the very best sense, as in “b-b-b-bad to the bone.”
Turning west on the Razorback Trail, we climbed parallel to a stream drainage, entering the neighborhood of towering oaks growing tall and green out of the dry, grassy arroyos. Continuing uphill, we earned a surprise overview of a lush stock pond, a precious reminder that water is life. Mostly gentle switchbacks wound to the top of the drainage to another stand of sparse but shady oaks, a nice spot for a short breather.
Just past one of several algae-covered cattle troughs along this route, we encountered a trail intersection called the Amme Crossover. This crossroads essentially marks the crest of the route, leaving a short walk to another side trail called the Glen Loop. In my younger days, maybe even last year, I would have tromped down the switchbacks to explore this drainage, too, but on this day, still unfamiliar with the territory and favoring a gimpy knee, I decided to save that adventure for another time. Instead, we stayed with our plan and took the Road Runner Trail east back toward the truck.
This was smooth sailing, a long downhill walk toward the Historic Barn Complex on the north end of the property. On the way, we were treated to a panoramic vista of Hollister and the surrounding countryside. After adjusting to the scale from our viewpoint, we were able to pick out the water tanks on Vista Park Hill, the ag barns at San Benito High School, the solar farm behind the football stadium, Hazel Hawkins Hospital, the San Benito River, and several of the main roadways into and out of town. Cheap thrills!
The Barn Complex at the end of the Road Runner Trail is neat and compact and everything about it screams cowboy. In the water trough next to the corral, Mike spotted hundreds of tiny mosquito larvae swimming around through the algae. They were clearly the most prolific wildlife species we saw on the ranch this day, but unseen coyotes (judging by their frequent on-trail scat) might be close behind.
Mudstone Ranch, in the foothills of the Gabilan Range west of the San Andreas Fault, was designed as a buffer zone between nearby residential development and the off-highway vehicles area. No motorized vehicles are allowed on the ranch. Dogs must be kept on a leash. Standard trail etiquette applies: hikers yield to horses and bicyclists yield to horses and hikers. A restroom is located on site in the parking lot. Absolutely no smoking or fires are allowed. If you go, be sure to bring water and snacks.
And please, my friends do not litter.
For a location map of Mudstone Ranch, please click here.