The 114-mile loop, going through Panoche Valley, was pioneered by Bruce Hildenbrand.
We headed into a mild breeze with temps in the mid-40s at 7:50 a.m. and a brilliant sunshine that strained the eyes on this last day of winter. We seem to be doing this ride earlier in the year, mainly due to the drought. Even with the early departure date this would be our warmest ride, temps in the high 70s.
At mile 10.8 we crossed Willow Creek bridge on Highway 25 and took an immediate left onto Willow Creek Road, 112 in the San Benito County registrar of roads. Whether or not it’s still public remains to be seen (I have a question in to the county).
The pavement ended after a mile as we continued on a good dirt road, passing a ranch and several barns next to the road, nobody around.
The sun highlighted brilliant green hillsides and a flat valley where cattle grazed behind barbed-wire fences. Wildflowers put on a show in some locations, but it’s still early. As I looked down I found a clam shell fossil, evidence that this land was once under the ocean.
Willow Creek Road deadend
After about three miles of riding on the undulating dirt road, which varied from smooth to a bit bumpy, we arrived at a fork, the well-used left going steeply uphill at about a 20 percent grade. We saw a road going straight, overgrown with grass, and then noticed a barbed-wire fence across the road.
We didn’t want to risk a potentially long walk ahead, assuming this was Willow Creek Road, probably washed out years ago in the narrow canyon ahead, so we turned around. John noticed a well-worn dirt road going uphill and figured that would take us back to Hwy 25, which it did.
A mile of some fairly steep climbing took us to a ranger station where we saw a parked helicopter, about two miles south from where we turned off at Willow Creek Road. We burned 45 precious minutes on a ride that usually ends just before dark (10 years ago we finished at 6:30 p.m. and left at 8 a.m., so age is catching up).
I thanked my lucky stars I brought a headlight and tail light, as did John.
Rush hour traffic over, we saw only the occasional car. We motored along the relatively flat road, passing Pinnacles National Park and after a mile climb coasted downhill to Old Hernandez Road and hung a left. In a mile we came to the junction with Willow Creek Road, where we had hoped to come out.
San Benito River crossing
Passing private property signs, obviously put there by the land owner, we headed onto the dirt road that follows an alluvial plain created by the once mighty San Benito River, now a healthy creek.
Once again we had to figure a way across the river without getting our feet wet. Using the skills of cave men, we tossed large rocks into the water hoping we could create a stepping-stone path. It worked, sort of.
We continued south on the fine dirt road that follows the San Benito River for another four miles before finding more pavement and riding another four miles or so to Coalinga Road.
From here the road continued through a wide canyon cut by the San Benito River, reminding me of the backside of Mt. Hamilton.
We passed a shuttered ranger station as I began wondering if two water bottles would be enough for this long ride. It wasn’t, but fortunately John brought plenty of GatorAde.
After the climb to the Sweetwater Spring camp with a 14 percent grade, we plunged down and climbed steeply again before the final descent and flat ride to Clear Creek Road, marked as always by the American flag. Nearby Hernandez Reservoir was nowhere to be seen, a victim of the drought.
BLM permits for Clear Creek Road
We had excellent traction on Clear Creek Road, a big improvement over last year when a road grader had just plowed the muddy, wet road.
Last year we saw a couple of off-road motorbikes, but this year we saw nothing. The only sounds we heard were chirping crickets and the trickling Clear Creek.
The road is gated about three miles up. Motorists who pre-register are given a combination to open the gate. After checking with the BLM, I learned that there is no charge for bicycles to use the road. A $5 fee applies only to motorized vehicles. Anyone using the road, cyclists included, must register online.
To break the routine of a long climb up a narrow canyon lined with mine tailings, we rode through Clear Creek at least eight times. At a junction where the road turns steeply uphill to the left we began the challenging 2.6-mile climb to the 4,450-foot summit, with a grade of 10-12 percent and loose dirt.
It went much more smoothly than last year when my rear wheel constantly jammed with mud at the brake bridge (had the brake bridge raised). We reached the summit around 3 p.m., barely halfway into the ride.
The steep road down to New Idria, with some sections of 20 percent, gets worse every year, to the point that I had to walk in numerous sections. We reached the toxic holding pond in one piece and took a left at the junction. Now the road became more civilized, but some sections have become so rutted that more walking was called for.
The hard riding doesn’t end at New Idria, where the lonely rusted out town has only a few buildings standing. No water or facilities of any kind here. Even the friendly pig and its owner are gone.
The next mile of steep descending has become a real test of bike and rider, with insanely deep ruts to negotiate. It was with welcome relief that we reached the better paved road and continued the long ride to Panoche Valley and our one stop at Panoche Inn.
The ride complexion changed dramatically with New Idria behind us. Spectacular views of the distant Panoche hills were replaced by broad vistas of ranchland and grazing cattle. The occasional windmill interrupted the otherwise featureless countryside.
We made good speed with only gentle headwinds on occasion. The road is a patch-quilt of repairs, except one stretch of signed experimental county road. The county tried out a machine that grinds up the old road and immediately uses that material to create the new roadbed. I have no idea about the fate of the project, but it sounds like a great idea.
With about 10 miles to Panoche Inn my inner thigh started cramping. A quick stop to take some Advil and stretch staved off further cramping, and we even picked up the pace with a nice tailwind.
Panoche Inn ice cream treat
Once onto Panoche Valley Road it’s only about four miles of mostly flat riding to the inn. Larry, the owner, who used to live in Menlo Park, served us some cold drinks and we purchased one of their specialties — ice cream in a big sugar cone served by Larry’s wife. It hit the spot!
While we would have liked to hang out at the friendly bar and hear more stories about the area, we had to leave. It was already 5:30 p.m. and we still had 28 miles of riding ahead. A quick calculation told me we would be riding in the dark since the sun set at 7:15 p.m.
Even after 90 miles or hard riding, the last 28 miles has to be the most enjoyable in my years of cycling. There is almost no traffic on a weekday evening and the road winds up and down through oak-covered hills. There’s nothing like riding through cool air and seeing the hills turn hues of gold and brown as the sun sets in the west.
We kept a strong pace back to Paicines riding in darkness on the empty road, arriving at the car at 7:50 p.m. with 119 miles behind us.