There are big rocks galore along Big Rocks Trail, the main road into the Rock Front riding
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.
Always a welcome sign.
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.
The views of the Cuyama Valley, looking east from one of the many ridge trails in the Rock
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.)