Panoche Hills HP P1K
Panoche Mountain CC
Griswold Hills HP P1K CC

Oct 26, 2010
Panoche Hills HP
Panoche Mountain
Griswold Hills HP
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profile
Panoche Hills HP later climbed Mar 14, 2014

Once again I took a day to drive down to San Benito County, once again chasing a few CC-listed summits. This time I drove to the eastern part of the county to the Panoche Hills and Griswold Hills, two small desert-like ranges primarily on BLM land. The Panoche Hills are actually in the western part of Fresno County, but it feels like much of the adjacent San Benito County. I was out my door in San Jose around 4:15a and found things rather dark when I arrived in the area two hours later, near the end of the paved section of Panoche Rd. I drove north on paved Little Panoche Rd for about 8mi to the access road just past Mercy Hot Springs. The online info I had showed this route as temporarily closed, but I was happy to find the gate unlocked and wide open. Without being able to drive the road the two peaks in this area would be a far more serious undertaking (something like 30mi RT) and I would have had to leave it for another time.

The BLM roads in the Panoche Hills are all numbered with a leading "P", P1 being the main access road through the range. I drove around 8mi along P1 to a junction with P11. The first four miles of P1 are excellent gravel, thereafter it slowly degrades into a dirt road, the last couple of miles with brush scrapping the undercairrage. Still, it was easily negotiable in my low clearance car. P11 is a far more serious 4x4 side road, but the junction is very close to the Panoche Hills HP, about a quarter mile to the west. I hiked up a small rise from where I parked my car, getting a view of the summit to the west, barely illuminated in the early morning light. To the east the sun was about 20 minutes still below the horizon, the Sierra Crest clearly visible in relief.

It was 7a when I reached the highpoint. From a distance it looked like a cross had been mounted on the summit, but upon reaching it I found it was an old piece of seismic equipment, likely no longer in use. A barbed-wire fence, probably errected to keep the cattle from damaging the tower, has fallen into disrepair. At the base of a fencepost I found a glass jar with a register placed by noteable peakbagger John Vitz in 2008. There were six pages with less than a dozen names, mostly folks from towns more local than San Jose.

Though the sun had not yet risen, I found the views quite fine. I had not realized beforehand that the range is quite desert-like, and the terrain is quite open, even in the canyons. Cross-country travel is almost trivial. Consequently there are no trees or brush to block the views in any direction. I could see the lights of the Central Valley and the outline of the Sierra beyond. In the opposite direction to the west the drier aspects of the Diablo Range stretched out for more almost a hundred miles. It was a very inviting place to view a part of California that has changed very little in two hundred years.

Back at the car, I retraced my route along P1 for about 4mi to the junction with P2 heading northeast into a lower part of the range. Panoche Mtn is one of the few named summits in these hills and is on the CC list (The unnamed Panoche Hills HP has a prominence exceeding 1,000ft making it of interest for other reasons). The summit of Panoche Mtn is crowned with a large tower and there is a road reaching it from the vicinity of Interstate 5 to the northeast. My route along P2 leads to a nearby VOR station atop a lower summit to the southwest and it was easy to drive my car on this fine gravel road to that point. Beyond there the road grows increasingly rough and I was forced to abandon the driving option at a highpoint along the road just north of the VOR installation. From that point it is less than two miles to Panoche Mtn.

Because of the short distance, I left my backpack in the car and took only my camera for the trip out to Panoche Mtn. The temperature was mild enough (around 45F) with only a slight breeze that I dispensed with a jacket as well. I jogged the flat and downhill portions to keep my body temperature up and make shorter work of it. The ridgeline connecting the two summits is both rolling and serpentine, making for more distance and considerably more gain than a bird would get on a straight line route. P2 turns north and continues in that direction where the ridgeline turns right at a poor road called P4. This is really not a road as much as a ridge with wheel tracks from a few of the braver to trust their trucks on it. At a saddle just west of Panoche Mtn their is a vehicle barrier blocking access and making it impossible anyway to drive between the summits even if one wanted to (my advice would be to not try driving past the P2/P4 junction).

I reached the summit of Panoche Mtn at 8a, finding the top bulldozed flat and a beefy fence surrounding the tower and building found there. As there was no higher place to be seen inside the fence I was inclined to just take some pictures and circumnavigate the perimeter, but then I spotted a benchmark lying inside the fence. This prompted me to seek out the weakness in this barbed fortress, and once that was assessed it took only modest effort to breach its defenses. The benchmark was actually standing more than a foot above the ground - it looks like the bulldozer had worked carefully to remove the earth from around it without destroying it, leaving it high and dry, so to speak. Once photographed (there was nothing special stamped on the benchmark), I decided to climb the tower for a better view about 50ft off the ground. It made for a wonderful viewing platform, though not entirely safe with inadequate railing and four large holes in the platform through which one might tumble if not paying close attention.

I returned along P4 and P2 from whence I'd come, returning to the car half an hour later. On the way back to Little Panoche Rd I stopped to photograph an abandoned car that has been shot at until unrecognizable. In contrast, there stands a brand new restroom/rest area nearby with fine views overlooking the Panoche Hills. I imagine in time the restroom will become the new target of choice now that the old one has been fairly well spent. I drove south on Little Panoche Rd, not stopping to visit Mercy Hot Springs. I've seen signs for this low-key resort along Interstate 5 for many years. At least now I know just where it is, though I can't say it left me with much of an impression.

Back on Panoche Rd, I turned east and followed it to the "Y" with New Idria Rd which I took south. In a few miles, just before the road winds through a gap in the Griswold Hills, there is a spanking new TH area on the left side of the road. It seems comical, really. The area is surrounded by ranch lands and there is evidence of cattle use on all the hills in the area, both public BLM and private. Additionally, there are bagfuls of spent cartridges lying about the place, broken clay pigeons and other detritus. The near vicinity seems to be highly prized for shooting practice. Yet, there amidst it all is this brand new bathroom, fresh gravel drive and parking lot, a kiosk so new there are no bulletins yet posted to it. All courtesy those Recovery Stimulus dollars.

Like the Panoche Hills, the Griswold Hills have a large portion on BLM land, including the unnamed highpoint. This point is on the CC list and is located about 3 miles from the parking area. There is a trail that switchbacks up the face of the hill immediately east of the TH, easy to see from a distance, but not so obvious close up. There are no signs of any kind to indicate the start or at any point along it, and since it was built it sees far more traffic from the neighboring cattle than from people. I had read of its existence, but not finding the trail as I went through the gate out of the parking lot, I followed a cow path into the canyon just south of the trail's location, heading east. There was an old Compaq computer mounted on a boulder along with various other electronic gear used for target practice found in the first part of the canyon. Beyond about 100 yards there were little signs of people, just the cattle.

Near the head of the canyon I followed the cow path up a steeply inclined slope to a ridgeline above. With only minor drops, this ridgeline would rise to the main east-west crest on which the highpoint was located. Even better, the cow path would continue all along this route as well. This is quite helpful because the Griswold Hills are not as sparsely vegetated as the Panoche Hills and cross-country travel would have been more bothersome. It was not hard to keep to the trail for the most part though I did manage to wander off once or twice. It took a bit more than an hour to hike the relatively short distance to the summit, a surprisingly scenic ramble with fine views of Panoche Valley and Hills to the north, Buck Peak and other parts of the Griswold Hills to the west, the higher summits around San Benito Mtn to the south.

There was no summit register at the top as I might have expected, seeing that the highpoint had more prominence than that of the Panoche Hills. The only thing of note I found was a small metal disc attached to a steel stake pounded into the earth. I spent a good half hour on some rocks near the summit taking in the views and relaxing in the sunshine. I recall thinking how it was very much a good day to be outside, free from other cares. The return took only half as long as the ascent thanks to some jogging and the downhill nature of it. I managed to find the trail back to the start (the online information said the trail was only half a mile long, but as it connects seamlessly with the cow path, it appears to be a trail all the way to the highpoint).

I hadn't really expected to get to the Panoche summits on this outing and so had planned a visit to Buck Peak on the west side of New Idria Rd after the Griswold HP. But much of this second outing lies on private land and is more than five miles from the pavement, which would take more time than I had remaining. I headed south on New Idria Rd for a few miles to scout out an improved gravel road I had seen from the satellite view that leads most of the way to the summit. It was gated at the pavement as I suspected. Someone appears to live up on a hilltop 2/3 of the way up, so I may have to come back and do this one by moonlight or other stealthy methods. On my way back towards Hollister, I scouted for some other access roads to additional CC-listed peaks south of Panoche Rd, but near as I could tell it is all private property and private roads for the entire distance back to SR25. The signs along the way weren't encouraging for trespassers, either. Oddly, I managed to spot my second bison in just two weeks, this one in a fenced area near a ranch house, obviously someone's pet - or hunting club fodder.

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