Thomas J. Story
The beauty of early spring is fleeting. New blooms won't wait for you to finish up that project in the office, so drop what you're doing and head south of San Jose, where wildflowers brighten the fields en route to Pinnacles National Park.
The region, including the 24,000-acre park itself, is one of the best spots in central California to see the season's color. And the wide-open landscape looks much as it must have in the state's early ranching days.
Pinnacles is a showstopper with lupine and poppy meadows, towering spires of volcanic rock, miles and miles of hiking trails, and lots of wildlife, including healthy bat and raptor populations.
But that's only part of the fun. The journey has its own rewards, with a winding, scenic drive; side trips for hiking, picnicking, and wine tasting; and a final stop in San Juan Bautista to see the historic mission. Here's your mile-by-mile guide to a leisurely, daylong celebration of spring.
Heading south on State 25: quiet open spaces
Hit your odometer's trip meter 40 miles south of San Jose at the intersection of U.S. 101 and State 25. Heading southeast on State 25, known locally as Airline Highway, you'll pass not-yet-ready berry stands (for berries, come back in July) and apricot orchards full of fluffy white blooms.
Mile 11: Cruise through downtown Hollister, the farming and ranching community with the shaky (earthquake-wise) past.
Mile 13.4: Jog left on Nash Road to follow State 25, and make a quick visit to Bertuccio's Produce Stand for dried apricots, pistachios, and other trail snacks. If you haven't packed a picnic from home, stock up here and at the Veranda Cafe & Bakery a few miles ahead in Tres Piños.
Mile 19.9: It's the perfect marriage of urbane cuisine and small-town charm at the two-year-old Veranda. Grab a frothy latte and bagel to munch on the porch, where you can watch the sleepy goings-on in the tiny town of Tres Piños.
Mile 21.3: Pass by the small San Benito County Historical Park. There are places to picnic here, but prettier spots lie ahead. Just down the highway, you'll find swaths of lavender lupine, set off by luminous green fields ― now, this is California spring.
Mile 26.5: Get your first view of orderly rows of vineyards as the road starts to climb. The county's viticultural areas ― Cienega Valley, Limekiln Valley, and Mount Harlan, among others ― grow grapes in cool weather; Mount Harlan does so in distinctive limestone soil. (You'll sample the results of these influences a bit later in the day.)
Mile 27: Look north for vivid yellow wild mustard brightening the meadows.
Mile 33.9: Cross the San Benito River; here the gnarled oak branches are full of soft green new growth.
Next: The rocky towers