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
Pinnacles National Park: rocky towers
Mile 42.7: Turn right into Pinnacles National Park, then stop 3 miles in at the Peaks View parking area for a short walk. California poppies line the dry creekbed here, and there's a good view of the park's signature High Peaks, the tallest at 2,720 feet.
Mile 47.9: Continue to the visitor center; inside are interesting displays on wildflowers, bats, birds, and the San Andreas rift zone, the shifty creature responsible for the area's dramatic geology.
Several hikes leave from the visitor center area. Along Bear Creek, the out-and-back Bear Gulch Loop (a mile one way) is a favorite ― a moderate trek with lots of colorful spring blooms, including Indian paintbrush, shooting stars, and sweet-scented chamise. Here, finally, find a shady spot by the creek and break out that picnic. Or head the other direction a half-mile on Moses Spring Trail to descend the steep stairs into Bear Gulch Cave. For a challenging trek, tackle the High Peaks-Bear Gulch Loop ― the 6.7-mile trip takes several hours, climbs 1,600 feet, and has stupendous views.
Mile 66.1: Back on State 25 after leaving the park, turn left onto Old Airline Highway to begin your wine-tasting detour. The patched, bumpy road will lead you past post-fence-lined ranches, sun-bleached barns, and fields of greens.
Mile 73.5: At the end of Old Airline Highway, turn left on Cienega Road; you'll pass Limekiln Road, then Grass Valley Road. The hills are steeper here and chaparral denser.
Next: The way back home: wine and a mission
On the way home: wine and a mission
Mile 76.6: Turn left to enter Calera Wine Company. Josh Jensen makes outstanding Pinot Noir in a multi-tiered structure that cuts into the hill like stairs. There's a pouring table inside (call ahead for tasting); a picnic table out front offers views of the green hills.
Mile 78.4: After returning to the main road, you don't have far to go before stopping again for the turnoff to Pietra Santa and DeRose vineyards, which share a common driveway. DeRose, with vineyards going back to 1854, has great Zinfandel and a casual tasting area in a barrel room; next door is the owner's impressive vintage car collection, including rare 1920s and '30s Graham-Paiges (call first).
Pietra Santa Winery is much more formal; the grand Spanish colonial-inspired tasting room has massive wood doors and a tower. The winery produces good Italian-style Sangiovese, plus organic olive oil from its trees.
Mile 83.6: Looking across Hollister, this point on Cienega Road provides the best overall view of the route. From here, you'll wind downhill into San Juan Bautista.
Mile 86.1: Take a left to stay on Cienega, then a left onto Union Road.
Mile 91.2: Head left onto State 156/San Juan Bautista Road; cross San Juan Creek.
Mile 95.5: Turn right on Alameda/Third Street toward downtown San Juan Bautista, the small settlement established by Spanish missionaries in 1797. The mission building and church, still home to an active congregation, have beautiful Spanish colonial lines, and there's a garden of heirloom roses.
San Juan Bautista's main drag, Third Street, draws tourists to its handful of antiques and art shops (check out Galeria Tonantzin and Mr. B's Z-Place). The town remains rural, though ― roosters and chickens still walk the streets. For dinner, try the Basque eatery Matxain Etxea for hearty lamb stew.
If you're lingering late in San Juan Bautista and home seems far away, your best bet for an overnight is the Posada de San Juan, in a historic building downtown. Or, to head back to U.S. 101 and finish the loop, drive 3 miles west on State 156 for a total of 98.5 miles.