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Walking San Benito: The Panoche Hills Badlands

This is the eighteenth in a series of articles in which local adventurer Jim Ostdick will introduce readers to the many walking opportunities throughout San Benito County.
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Technically, nature fans, the wonderful hike described herein is not really within the boundaries of San Benito County. I am fudging a little bit. The turn toward the U.S. Bureau of Land Management Panoche Hills Recreation Area from Little Panoche Road is actually about two miles into Fresno County, a minute or two after the entrance to Mercey Hot Springs. However, these badlands are so cool, so fascinating, that you simply must ignore that fact and go anyway. Furthermore, I propose that San Benito County residents adopt these badlands as our very own. Do not worry. Fresno folks will not even notice. The force is with us.

As a geological genre, badlands topography is stunning and unique. The sweeping, grassy terrain is chino brown and arid, made up of soft, eroded sedimentary rock with very little vegetation and sliced by steeply angled ravines and canyons. The Panoche Badlands were formed from uplifted marine sediments dating back to the Cretaceous period between 140 and 65 million years ago, when what is now California’s Great Central Valley was covered by a shallow sea. Mosasaur (giant reptile) fossils have been excavated from these hills by university paleontologists. If you are fortunate enough to stumble upon exposed vertebrate remains or Yokut artifacts on your hike, please report their location to the local BLM office. Be part of history by allowing your discovery to be properly catalogued and respectfully preserved for posterity.

I ventured out to the Panoche Hills on a sunny, but cold December weekday morning. The ripping north wind necessitated multiple layers of clothing, but nonetheless, the hiking was superb. A couple of miles past the BLM overlook, jeep roads and cattle trails provide easy foot access to views of the scarred, plunging slopes. There is no water, but there is a covered picnic table, a vault toilet, and a kiosk with maps. You could hike for an entire day here without getting bored.  I opted to walk high on the grassy, rolling plateaus and ridges rather than to skitter down into the canyons. Whether you ridge-walk or follow the animal paths into the abyss, the preserve is wide open and up to you.

The windswept vegetation and animals here are of the hardy desert variety. Mormon tea and annual grasses dominate, but on this day, there was no wildlife to be seen. No wonder. Kit foxes are no fools. With that howling wind, I wished I had a burrow to crawl into, too, on more than one occasion. After a couple of hours of happy wandering, collecting photographs of the gorgeous scenery, I called it quits and headed over to Mercey Hot Springs.

I learned a lot about Mercey Hot Springs from Kendra, the friendly office manager. This idyllic spot has been a natural, unspoiled resort on the old stagecoach route from the Central Valley for more than a century. In addition to the hot mineral baths and sauna, it has a cold water swimming pool, rental cabins, RV spaces, and shaded camp sites for tent campers. With 150 acres of rambling property, guests have plenty of room to hike, mountain bike, bird watch, and star gaze. There is even a very challenging disc golf course on site.  For more information and some interesting historical photographs, check out their web site here. I know they are just barely outside the county line, but can we adopt them, too?

To reach Panoche Hills from Hollister, go south on Hwy 25 to Paicines, turn left on Panoche Road and continue over Panoche Pass. Just past the Panoche Inn, turn left on Little Panoche Road, drive past the Solargen Project and Mercey Hot Springs, and turn right at the Panoche Hills Recreation Area sign. The overlook is a few miles from there. Check it out, you will be glad you did.

And please, my friends do not litter.

For a location map of the Panoche Hills Recreation Area, please click here.

Jim Ostdick

Jim Ostdick is a retired Earth Science teacher and travel writer. A resident of San Juan Bautista since 2005, Ostdick's primary interests are California geology, energy conservation, outdoor recreation, and human-powered travel. He is the author of Palomino and the Dream Machine: A Retired Dude's Bicycle Tour Around the Lower Forty-Eight United States (Amazon.com, 2015) and Palomino Nation: My 2016 Crazyass Walk Across America (Amazon.com, 2017). jim.ostdick@gmail.com Palomino Dream blog http://www.palominodream.blogspot.com Palomino and the Dream Machine http://amzn.com/B00V7OT70W Palomino Nation http://amzn.com/B075ZR65XL