Regular readers of this magazine will recognize this silver 4Runner as our latest project rig, which we'll be transforming into an overlander in the coming months. (See last month's issue for more details.) We're still waiting for parts to be delivered (our buildup is slated to begin next month), so in the meantime we thought we'd take a few days off-yes, they do give us vacations every now and then-to wheel the newest member of our family in the hills and ridges of the central California wine country.
Stretching roughly from Big Sur to Santa Barbara, the central coast in the state's southern half is perhaps best known to wheelers as the home of Oceano (aka Pismo) Dunes, a few miles south of San Luis Obispo. And on any given weekend, you can find hundreds of quads, sand rails, and fullsize trucks at Pismo, playing in the dunes, camping for the weekend, and enjoying the cool weather. But if you're seeking some solitude, or you'd like to catch some mountain air, there are plenty of pleasant 4x4 trails less than an hour's drive away, past the many vineyards of the Santa Maria Valley, in the Los Padres National Forest.
A massive tract, the Los Padres Forest comprises more than 175,000 acres along 220 miles of the California coast, from Monterey County in the north to Los Angeles County in the south. It's home to over 300 miles of designated OHV trails, most of which are open year-'round, and many more miles of accessible Forest Service roads. In addition, Los Padres is home to three discrete off-road riding areas: Buckhorn, Pozo-LaPanza, and Rock Front. We spent a weekend tooling around the latter two, and while hardcore rockcrawlers may find them disappointing, just about anyone else who wants to enjoy a weekend of wheeling and camping in the central coast backcountry will find these trails a relaxing and laid-back experience.
A well-kept secret among local wheelers, the Pozo La-Panza riding area is located in the Santa Lucia district of the Los Padres forest, some 20 miles east of San Luis Obispo. Once home to the Chumash tribe of native Americans, the area was first explored by Europeans in the early 1770s, when Spanish trappers combed the mountains in search of grizzly bears (now extinct in California; keep reading and you'll learn why). A favorite method of trapping the beasts involved the setting of lures; one method that worked particularly well was attracting the bears with the rumen (or "paunch", panza in Spanish) of a cow. Once trapped, the bears were killed and their meat salted and dried; thousands of pounds of grizzly jerky (yum) were transported via mule pack to the Spanish mission at San Antonio and to the Monterey presidio, saving the missionaries and soldiers who'd established outposts there from starvation. The bears are long gone now, but left behind are 45 miles of ORV trails ranging in difficulty from suitable-for-stock-rigs to advanced-wheelers-only.
Pozo Road (18 miles, 10 unpaved) traverses the riding area along a meandering east-to-west shelf road off California Highway 58, and which eventually descends a narrow canyon before ending at the fabled Pozo Saloon (see sidebar on page xx). Most of the trail is easy enough for a stock 4x4, though it's rough and sometimes narrow-and occasionally washed out-in spots. At Pozo Summit, roughly halfway along the route, two popular trails branch off the main road. To the right is Las Chiches (Spanish for, well, you can look it up), a six-mile moderate-to-difficult ridge route that's marked by a several very steep and loose dirt inclines at the trail head; stock vehicles can traverse it, but an aggressive tire and a rear locker (like our 4Runner's) will make the effort much easier. To the left is Pine Mountain Road, a mostly-uphill nine-mile loop (it doubles back to rejoin Pozo Road at La Panza Summit) that's home to The Stairsteps, a steep, 50-yard-long Mini-Rubicon of big boulders, striated bedrock, and loose dry dirt. It's arguably the most hardcore stretch of trail in the La Panza network, and with 300-foot drop-offs to either side of the 'Steps, only experienced drivers with extensively modified rigs should attempt it. The trail can be run in the other direction (i.e., going downhill), but it isn't much easier. (And no, this is one we didn't try with our stock rig.)
Southwest of Pozo, High Mountain Road (25 miles, approximately 20 unpaved) also rides a gently undulating series of ridge tops in the Santa Lucia range. In dry (summer) weather, much of the trail is passable in two-wheel drive, though several stream crossings along the southern half of the trail can require four-wheel drive (and a bit of lift) if traveled immediately following the rainy season. At the trail's summit, roughly 15 miles in and 3,200 feet above sea level, two spur trails branch off in succession to the right. The first, which is marked by a gate, is a hiking trail that leads to a Forest Service lookout tower. Recently restored, the tower was originally built by the California Conservation Corps in the 1930s to monitor fires, but it's also popular as a spot to observe the endangered California Condor, which were reintroduced to the area in the late 1980s and which some 200 are known to remain in the wild. The facility is closed from time to time (the gate will be locked), but if the gate is open, it's well worth the short hike. The second trail, Garcia Ridge, follows the top of Garcia Mountain for four miles before dead-ending at a gate to a wilderness area. The first mile or so has some steep ascents, and there are a few rocky sections along the way that will test your suspension flex (there are bypasses for all the rough stuff), but overall, it's fairly stress-free, and the panoramic vistas of Cuyama Valley to the southeast from the top of the mountain, some 3,000 feet up, are spectacular.
This smaller OHV Area lies some 10 to 15 miles south of Pozo-La Panza along California Highway 166 east of Santa Maria, and is a popular weekend hang for dirt bikers (judging by the day we spent there; we saw plenty of bikes and only a couple of trucks), though there are plenty of fair-to-middlin' 4x4 trails within the complex. Most of the more challenging trails, some 40 miles in all, can be found north of the highway along Big Rocks Trail, an easy north-south traverse through shady stands of oak that's surrounded on both sides by huge rock outcroppings. Along the way, trails such as Twin Rocks, Branch Creek, and Paradise Road spur off the main road and into the surrounding foothills; all are clearly marked and fairly easy to drive, with some moderately challenging hillclimbs, and each can be traversed in under two hours.
To the south of Highway 166 are trails such as Miranda Pine, Bates Canyon, and Sierra Madre. These are interconnecting 10- to 30-mile ridge and shelf roads that are frequently graded and which can be traversed in two-wheel drive for much of the year. The wheeling isn't the real payoff here-it's the views of the valley floor afforded by these mountain trails, which rise over 5,000 feet above sea level, with numerous campsites nestled amid conifer groves along the way. Condors have been sighted here, and Tule elk, recently reintroduced to the area, can be spied on occasion as well. (Black bear and mountain lion also call these hills home, so don't leave any food scraps laying around your campsite.) If you want seclusion, this would appear to be a great destination; we spent half a day running these trails (on a Sunday, no less) and encountered only two trucks-both Forest Service work rigs-during the course of our ride. And if having a whole mountain range to yourself isn't enough, you can spend a full day touring these scenic trails, and still be back on the beach in Pismo to share a warm frothy with your buddies before sundown.
Pozo-La Panza OHV Riding Area can be accessed by either Pozo Road off California Highway 58, about 25 miles east of Santa Margarita, or via High Mountain Road north of Lopez Lake, seven miles east of Arroyo Grande. Primitive camping (toilets, picnic table, fire rings) is available at several locations within the riding area. A Forest Service Adventure Pass ($30/year; available at retail stores nationwide) is required for parked vehicles. More info: 805/925-9538.
Rock Front OHV Area can be accessed from Big Rocks Road north of California Highway 166 (the turnoff is unmarked), 27 miles northeast of Santa Maria. Turn left when you see a wrought-iron sign reading "Rock Front Ranch" (it's a gate to a private ranch), then veer to the left along a dirt road. A quarter mile to the east, a right turn onto Sierra Madre Road will take you into the upper reaches of the Santa Lucia range, with some spectacular views the reward; on a really clear day, you can see the outline of the Sierra Nevada, some 200 miles to the east. A USFS Adventure Pass is also required, and camping is permitted at designated sites. More info: 805/925-9538.
Just like your 4x4 needs fuel, so do you. Here are three legendary food joints we never pass up when we're tooling around the central coast:
Pozo Saloon, Pozo: Cruise the parking lot on just about any weekend, and you'll find BMW 7-series, Harley Electra-Glides, and lifted Blazers and Broncos parked outside this legendary watering hole. Originally a Wells Fargo stage stop, the saloon has stood on the same location since 1858 and is celebrated as much for its diverse clientele-bikers, ranchers, wheelers, and winery-hoppers-as for its burger-and-brew pub grub. (Be sure to ask for a "Pozo Martini"-it's a glass of tap beer with two olives dropped in it.) The saloon hosts live music on weekends, and some big names occasionally make impromptu appearances: George Thorogood, the Black Crowes, and Snoop Dogg have all been sighted in recent years.
Shaw's Steak House, Santa Maria: Foodie carnivores know that the words "Santa Maria" are synonymous with tri-tip barbecue, and if you're in the mood for mass quantities of melt-in-your-mouth rib-eyes, flank steaks, and back ribs for reasonable prices, this red-naugahyde paradise on Santa Maria's main drag has been wood-grilling meats for over 50 years. The portions are huge-the beef ribs in particular look like something you'd see in an episode of The Flintstones-so come famished and leave stuffed, with plenty of leftovers in your go-box.
Duckie's, Cayucos: It's a bit out of the way-some 15 miles northwest of Pismo-but this beachfront hole-in-the-wall, adjacent to the pier in the seaside town of Cayucos, serves up clam chowder that locals will swear is the best you'll find anywhere. We'll vouch the same for the fish and chips-big flaky hunks of fresh battered cod served with a generous portion of hand-cut spuds-no frozen stuff here. Besides, if the menu at Duckie's doesn't spin your props, you can rent a rod and a bucket from the bait-and-tackle shop next door, and catch your own lunch off the pier.