The western boundary of our San Joaquin Valley is formed by the Diablo Range. Together with the Gabilan Range and the Santa Lucia Range, it forms a major part of the Coast Ranges.
The largest units of publically owned recreational lands in the Diablo Range are the 81,000-acre Henry Coe State Park in the north and the 61,000-acre Clear Creek Management Area in the south. I’ve written about Henry Coe several times, but I’ve never featured Clear Creek because it has been closed to the public since 2008.
Asbestos-containing serpentine soils are found within about 31,000 acres of the Clear Creek Management Area and concern about the negative effects of exposure to this carcinogen led to the closure. Since that time, the Bureau of Land Management has evaluated the risks and prepared a management plan for the area. The draft of the plan was released in 2012 and a period of public comment was opened. The final plan was released on Feb. 11. The official appeal period for the plan lasts until March 14.
The management plan will result in some major changes from the pre-closure days. Within serpentine zone (officially designated as the Serpentine Area of Critical Environmental Concern), access will be by permit and will be limited to 5 days per person per year by vehicle and 12 days by foot. The scientists who have studied the area have determined that this amount of annual visitation does not pose a serious health risk.
ATV use, previously one of the most popular activities at Clear Creek, will be prohibited within the Serpentine ACEC. It will continue to be allowed in some areas of Clear Creek outside of the ACEC and the management plan calls for the eventual construction of additional ATV routes. Within the ACEC, a 32-mile vehicle touring route will be established to give visitors an opportunity to enjoy the area’s unique landscape and to provide access to hiking destinations.
Two of these destinations are ones that I’ve been looking forward to visiting for quite some time. The first is “Joaquin Rocks” or “Three Rocks,” a striking sandstone formation that is easily seen by drivers on Interstate 5. According to legend it was a hideout of the bandit Joaquin Murietta. Once the area reopens, it will be a 6-mile round trip hike from the designated driving route. Joaquin Rocks is actually outside the ACEC, but can only be accessed by driving through it.
San Benito Mountain, the 5,241 foot high point of the Diablo Range is the other destination I hope to visit. A short hiking trail from the driving route will provide access to the summit.Clear Creek is one of the most remote and generally unknown areas adjacent to the San Joaquin Valley. It is home to California condors and several other rare species. It’s also one of the most highly mineralized areas in the state. This makes it a popular collecting site for semi-precious minerals and gemstones, an activity that will continue, along with hunting, camping, hiking, vehicle touring and wildlife observation.
Clear Creek’s interesting history includes thousands of years of Native American habitation, settlement by early Spanish immigrants and mining. Just outside the western entrance on New Idria Road is the ghost town of New Idria, a mercury mine that closed in the 1970s. Although the remains of the town are on private property, you can drive through on your way to Clear Creek.
Murietta was supposedly killed at Cantua Creek, just outside of the CCMA. Although it is difficult to prove any of the multitudinous stories about Murietta, there is certainly a longstanding association of him with the Clear Creek area.
Camping is available at three sites outside the ACEC: Condon Peak, Oak Flat and Jade Mill. Roads currently are being constructed to connect the Condon Peak Campground with nearby roads for both street-legal vehicles and ATVs, including access to the top of 4,970-foot Condon Peak.
Additional recreation information, health recommendations, and maps will be released closer to the reopening date. It will be available through the BLM Field Office in Hollister. The website is www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/hollister.html and the phone number is (831) 630-5000. Entry permits will also be issued through this office.