San Benito Mountain • Highpoint: San Benito County
• Range Highpoint: Diablo Mountains

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Date: December 18, 2000 • Elevation: 5,241 feet • Prominence: 3,481 feet • Distance: 2 miles • Time: 1.5 hours • Gain: 600 feet • Conditions: Clear and breezy

I started today lying in bed at the "Motel-9" in Maricopa, barely able to move after yesterday's 12-hour, 32-mile hike-&-bike up Big Pine Mountain in Santa Barbara County. And this was a day after a 17-mile hike up Caliente Peak in San Luis Obispo County. Eventually I would transfer my sore bones into my truck for the day's drive north to the Bay Area, planning to stay a couple days with my sister in San Francisco.

From Maricopa, I followed state route CA-33 northbound, instead of the faster Interstate-5. I have driven the interstate many times, and the stretch along the southern San Joaquin Valley is the dullest stretch of highway on the planet. So today, I wanted to try something different and follow parallel CA-33.

This highway runs below the foothills of the Coastal Ranges as well as of the Diablo Range, the hills and mountains that border the San Joaquin Valley on the west. The highway passes through a series of small cities such as Taft, Avenal and Coalinga, which either derive their income from oil, or from prisons. Each city seems to have one. The land here is drier and more desert-like, the mountains forming an effective rain shadow. Traffic was light and I enjoyed the leisurely drive.

In Coalinga, the highway starts a bend toward the interstate, meeting it a few miles north of the city. There are big dairy and cattle pens up here. The smell of poo is pervasive. After a couple hours of driving along CA-33, I was now on the Interstate, but not for long. I exited at Little Panoche Road and aimed west, passing through Mercey Hot Springs and into the Diablo Range and the hinterlands of San Benito County.

My goal was the county's highpoint, San Benito Mountain. The drive there was fascinating. This literally is a part of the state no one goes to. I followed Little Panoche Road for 20 miles to Panoche Road (County Road J-1), then left on Panoche Road to New Idria Road. The area out here is hilly, with low grasses and few trees, and is mainly cattle ranch property. I think I saw two other vehicles the whole time.

Now on New Idria Road, the sign said New Idria was 22 more miles. The road itself was paved but in abysmal condition, appearing to be abandoned by the state and county. I drove it slow and avoided potholes, some big enough to park in. New Idria was the site of an old quicksilver (mercury) mine, one of the world's largest. When it was in business, the town of New Idria was a fully-functioning city of workers, support staff and their families. The mine closed in 1972, and the town was abandoned. But not everyone left.

As I drove in, I started encountering sign after sign put up by the locals about gun rights and of similar themes, the kind of signs that have too many words on them, as if anyone is actually going to stop and read them. I rolled into "town". Buildings from the mine still stood, as did a few homes. A couple seemed inhabited. One had two dogs penned in small enclosures. I saw one guy walking a road. Man, what a creepy place. If you needed to hide out from society, this would be a good place to start. It was pushing noon when I arrived.

I was looking for the main road out of town that goes up into the mountains. I found it, and it was rough at first, but improved as I gained elevation. Now I had another 8 miles to drive to get close to the peak. I hoped to park close, as I was in no mind for another long hike. The ground here features natural asbestos and the roads are often closed when it's dry, as the dust can be deadly.

I was able to get to the base of the spur road that goes to the top. This was close enough. I parked at this junction and walked 600 vertical feet to the top, a mile each way. At the top, the summit is full of radio towers, but the natural tippy-top is in a jumble of rocks nearby, which I scampered up to tag. I spent a few minutes inspecting the top, admired the views, but then got moving down not too much later.

I drove down the dirt road into New Idria once again, slowly passed through town, and bumped my way out New Idria Road to where it re-met with Panoche Road (J-1). This road is in fine shape and I proceeded west toward Hollister, the drive meandering through hilly rangeland. My truck was low on gas (I was slightly concerned I'd run out somewhere back there near New Idria) so I gassed up, then drove more into San Hosey where I scored the last room at a Motel-6 for the evening.

The next day, I'd eventually end in San Francisco, with a side trip to attempt Long Ridge in San Mateo County (in which I didn't succeed), and later in the day, a visit to Mount Davidson in the city (and county) of San Francisco, then visit my sister in town.

(c) 2000, 2016 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience.