If you are looking for a beautiful five-mile walk on country roads with minimal inclines and a wide variety of scenery, consider this loop hike from the Hacienda de Leal in San Juan Bautista to the St. Francis Retreat Center gate and back. You will cross the San Andreas Fault (SAF) four times, a historical railroad track twice, walk through a tree tunnel, and meet three sheep, some horses, and a cute but disturbing little donkey with an all-business, deadeye stare. Seriously, don’t mess with that guy. You will also pass through some of the most gorgeous grazing and farming land in the county.
As a loop hike, locals can start and finish anywhere that is convenient, safe, and legal for parking. Visitors staying at the Hacienda, St. Francis, or the Mission Farm RV Park can simply start the walk from their front doors. I have described the route beginning at the Hacienda de Leal at the corner of The Alameda and Old San Juan Hollister Road in San Juan Bautista.
Walking east on Old San Juan Hollister Road, immediately past the Hacienda, where the sidewalk ends, you will notice a historical marker commemorating the site of the San Juan Pacific Railway. This line delivered Portland Cement from nearby Old Mission Cement Plant to Chittenden in the early 1900s. Continuing east for another few hundred yards, you will begin to notice a very rough stretch of road at the edge of a thickly-wooded area. The San Andreas Fault creeps along here at a few centimeters per year, breaking up the asphalt and causing a noticeable curve in the faded yellow dividing line in the middle of the road. Standing here and facing northwest, it is easy to see how the fault continues beneath the highway past Mission San Juan Bautista.
Passing alongside a beautiful redwood grove, you soon see the entrance to the peaceful, bucolic Mission Farm RV Park with active farm fields across the way. Continue straight to Mission Vineyard Road and turn right (south) at the stop sign. If you time it right, you will be treated to the intoxicating fragrance coming from acres of berry huts on your left. Stay vigilant, because you will soon see a slight dip in the road with en echelon northwest trending fractures indicating another crossing of that persistent San Andreas Fault. Soon thereafter, take a left (east) by the entrance to Amycel, following the sign to St. Francis Retreat.
Now look left and start counting the telephone poles. They are numbered. When you get to pole number five, the road will be exceptionally broken up. Yes, you guessed correctly, you are crossing the SAF for the third time. Turn right toward St. Francis where the signed road bends and begins a slightly uphill gradient. Your fourth SAF crossing is coming up. In about a quarter mile, where the pavement is once again extra-crumpled, you will notice a set of closely spaced poles in the ground behind the fence line. These poles are used by USGS seismologists to measure creep (slight, slow movement) along the fault. Okay, school’s out, that’s it for the science-y stuff.
The road is narrow and curvy through here, so pay attention for cars as you walk through a captivating, fairy tale, tree tunnel on your way to the retreat grounds gate. The scenery in this part of the walk is fantastic, with views in every direction of the grass and tree covered hills, grazing cattle, soaring raptors, and endless blue sky. At the St. Francis Retreat gates, it is time to turn around. Please do not enter without permission. Access to the grounds and hiking trail can be arranged in advance depending on their scheduled events. See the contact information below.
Retrace your steps back to the Amycel turnoff, but instead of going back (north) by the berry fields, go straight (west) and walk past the grazing sheep and grapevines on the right and the horses and the stone cold donkey on the left. Do not engage! Keep walking past more horses and houses and crops all the way to the crossroads, just past what is left of the San Juan Pacific railroad tracks, and turn right (north) to head back to the Hacienda. Congratulations, you have completed the loop. Food and drinks are yours right across the highway. You earned it, so grub up!
The St. Francis Retreat Center website has a map of the grounds, including two miles of hiking trails and a small pond. Visitors are welcome with advance notice as long as retreats or events are not in session. Please respect this and all private property along this route.
And please my friends, do not litter.
For a location map of this hike, click here.
For a location map of the San Andreas Fault from the Geology Café website, click here.