San Benito Mountain
San Carlos Peak
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San Benito Mountain later climbed Thu, Feb 14, 2013|
San Carlos Peak later climbed Thu, Feb 14, 2013
I had planned to drive further south after Laveaga to climb San Benito Mtn, another county highpoint, so it looked like that might be my only consolation for my early morning failure (btw, this has to go down as my record for quickest failure on a peak attempt). It was still overcast when I drove off, but over the next hour the clouds began to dissipate the further inland I drove. San Benito Mtn is the highpoint of the county by the same name and at 5,241ft it is also the highpoint of the entire Diablo Range. It lies buried deep in the state, and just getting to it requires a good bit of driving. Just past Tres Pinos on SR25 I turned left on Panoche Rd (County road J1) - from there it's 54 miles to New Idria along a lonely, narrow stretch of road. In summer the entire stretch has blazing temperatures and is highly inhospitable. I was lucky to find a day with the temperatures never exceeding 75F, thanks to a cool ocean breeze that kept up most of the day (in fact it became downright windy by the time I got home). Several dozen ranches and some farmland are found along the long stretch of road, but mostly it is a the classic scenes of the Diablo Range - dry, barren, and bleached on the east side, chaparral covered on the west side, trees at the higher elevations and on the north slopes. The creeks were mostly dry by this time, but the scoured gorges and canyons reveal the power the waters carry in flood times, worked on the earth over eons.
At Panoche there is a small school, its yard shaded by some of the few trees growing in the flat valley. A store advertising cold beer and a small inn are all the business one finds here. The road turns southwest then west through a narrow canyon out of the larger Panoche Valley, following Griswold Creek into the smaller Vallecitos Valley. Along the canyon there is a ranch with a dozen horses alongside the road, several of the horses having foaled recently. Two foals lay quietly on the ground in the early morning while the adults grazed. One foal would still be in the same position when I returned this way - evidently it had died recently. Vallecitos Valley is even more remote than Panoche, if that is possible. There are a few active pumps still pulling oil from the surrounding hills, and a few ranches too. There is a small home business called Whimsey Mining Co. located just before New Idria, they seem to be staunch Libertarians judging by their posts. I wonder if they realize that Liberatarians would not approve of having the government maintain this 22 mile stretch of country road that serves only about a dozen residents. At the southern end of the small valley the road winds its way up San Carlos Creek to Idria and the New Idria Mine. As far as I can tell, Idria is a handful of abandoned buildings on the east side of the creek, and New Idria is even more abandoned builds plus the mine located on the west side. San Carlos Creek is very tame at the moment, little more than a trickle. It seems to eminate from under mine tailings, and chemicals within the water crystalize out as it dries along the road bed - this is not a very nice source of water. Noting that the mine hasn't operated in over thirty years, the orange color of the creek itself provides a continuing reminder of the impact the mining still has on the environment. A sign at New Idria shows the population has dwindled to 1. As I drive by the ramshackle home, Big Dave's dog barks at me. In the 1860's when Whitney and Brewer visited the mine there were over 300 residents in this town. Now the buildings are all boarded up: mine buildings, the post office, the mine rescue station, the hotels, the gas station, and all the stores. Fences and private property signs let you know this isn't a tourist destination.
I continued through town and started up the dirt road towards San Benito Mtn. I missed the turn on the main road and ended heading up a steeper, more rutted road that I eventually could not negotiate after about half a mile. Rather than back up and try the other road, I figured I was about 5 miles from the peak and after the morning's disaster at Lavaega I could use the workout instead of my car. So I parked where the road was wider, locked up, and headed up at 8:15a. Most of the area lies within the Clear Creek Management Area, a large expanse encompassing much of the land once owned by the mine company. The land is rugged, with steep, sandy hillsides punctuated by deep ravines. There are no hiking trails per se. The primary use of the area is by the OHV (Off-Highway-Vehicles) crowd, and there are numerous 4x4 roads criss-crossing the region. I followed the main road (which can be navigated by most passenger vehicles) up to the man-made lake (the only one I saw in the area) where numerous roads converge. Just beyond was a sign indicating the boundary of the Management Area with a map and other information. In addition to the roads, the map showed several dozen Superfund sites located within the area - the price for quicksilver and asbestos mining. I chose to take R014 instead of the main R011 so that I could hike up to the ridgeline and follow it to the summit of San Benito. Along R014 one finds the Aurora Mine, though I didn't find any mineshafts. There is some reconstructive surgery done in places in an attempt to quell erosion and keep the nasty stuff from leaching into the creeks. Along with New Idria and San Carlos Mines, these three were actively in service during the visit by the Whitney Survey and mentioned by name in Brewer's extensive notes. Further up the remains of a truck are found (there were a dozen or so vehicles in similar shape found elsewhere). At the ridge I was greeted with sweeping views both east and west, and several miles to the south rose antenna-topped San Benito Mtn. The entire area looks to be riddled with tailings from mine operations, but upon more careful examination most of this is the natural hillside. The soils are somewhat alkaline, and in places they are devoid of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous leaving expansive hillsides with not a shred of vegetation. Still, there is a great abundance of flora that manages to make a living here, and in fact most of the hills are so dense with chaparral that cross-country travel is almost impossible. Where the barren hillsides are found, so are motorcycle tracks running up and down and across them - an off-road playground. The BLM has put up miles of fencing on both sides of the roads to discourage cross-country venturing by the vehicles, and for the most part they seem effective - I never saw a single illegal break in the fencing in some 10 miles I travelled along them.
I followed the ridge with its minor undulations for several miles. Shortly before the summit area another sign announced the San Benito Mtn Natural Area. This is a smaller area within the Management Area that is as close to Wilderness designation this area will see. Because of the roads and their continuing use, it cannot be classified Wilderness, but Natural Areas are afforded additional protection unavailable to regular BLM areas (though what those additional protective measure might be I was unable to glean from the BLM website). It took me two hours to cover the 6 miles to the summit. Between the main repeater station and a second installation further south, the rocky highpoint of the peak remained unmolested by the bulldozers putting in the towers, and by a century of miners working the area. Amongst the rocks I found the familiar red coffee cans favored by the HPS though this isn't an HPS peak. The register was placed in 2001, and is nearly full with several dozen entries each year. It is an odd collection with mostly the 4x4 crowd that powered their way to the summit (one entry complained of soreness due to using open throttle all the way), though more recent entries are mixed with county highpoint seekers. One individual named Larry the Lawbreaker seems to have the most entries, favoring "Weisers" (Budweisers) and "Tasty Buds" as his summit reward with his pals, claiming the peak for the locals and wishing everyone else to hell. It was almost like being in high school again.
For the return I decided to take the main road back, and so headed southeast off the summit. After a short distance on the this 4x4 road, I started down the main road for about a mile until it came to a junction. I decided to take the alternative 4x4 ridge route to San Carlos Peak. This was a scenic variation that took me to the both the summit and the nearby mine around 11a There wasn't much to see at this or the other mines as far as I could tell. I didn't find any shafts (except this short one found along the road), though the excavations described by Brewer were quite extensive. I imagine when the mines closed in 1973 they probably filled in the entrances for safety considerations. I continued following the road (R156, I think) until it met back up with the main road at the lake near Saddle Junction. Continuing down, I was back at the car by noon, and home shortly before 3p. With the fine weather I enjoyed, San Benito Mtn was a far better outing than I had expected. Had it not been for the county highpoint designation, I doubt I would have ever come here to see historical New Idria and the fascinating area around it.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: San Benito Mountain
This page last updated: Tue Nov 24 08:49:35 2020
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