Between the fields and the fog lies a little-known range of oak-dotted hills known as the Sierra de Salinas. Travelers motoring from Salinas to Monterey or speeding to the Laguna Seca Racetrack may not take note of the hills south of California Highway 68. Fewer still may stop to visit.
A generous part of the Sierra de Salinas is protected by 4,756-acre Toro Regional Park, which offers some easy leg-stretcher hikes for motorists who want a quick escape from highway driving. From the park's ridges, hikers are rewarded with vistas of both the Salinas Valley and the Central Coast--settings for many of author John Steinbeck's classic works.
Only six miles from downtown Salinas (and the museum at the National Steinbeck Center) and 12 miles from Monterey Bay, the park makes an excellent stop for anyone on a Steinbeck discovery tour.
Temperatures tend to be on the warm side around this rolling ranchland between the Salinas and Carmel valleys. Toro Park is more likely to be baked by the sun of the Salinas Valley than cooled by the fog of the bay. The park's lower reaches include the usual facilities--softball fields, picnic areas and playgrounds. Most of its back country, however, is undeveloped. Deer and coyote wander the hills while the occasional golden eagle circles overhead.
Twenty miles of trails crisscross former and present-day cattle country. Numerous cattle paths crossing the main path can confuse hikers, particularly first-time visitors. Be sure to pick up a park map and stay on the main trails.
Directions to trail head: From U.S. 101 in Salinas, take the Monterey Peninsula (California Highway 68) exit and head six miles southwest to the signed exit for Toro Park. (Pick up a trail map at the entry kiosk or from the park office off the signed, left-forking spur road just past the park entrance.) Continue on the main park road to the upper (Quail Meadow) Picnic area, where there is plenty of parking.
The hike: The unsigned Ollason Trail meanders by a creek within sight of the park road. About 0.75 mile out, the path wanders past Devil's Throne, an odd rock outcropping perched over the creek. Wood steps help hikers climb the creek embankment to a dirt road. Follow the road to a signed junction with Gilson Gap Trail. Join this trail as it crosses pastureland and begins a sharp climb up to Gilson Gap. From the gap, enjoy oak-framed views of Salinas Valley and fog-blanketed Monterey Bay.
Those seeking a longer jaunt may continue on the dirt road to a junction with Ranch Trail, which leads to the site of an old ranch. Ultra-ambitious hikers will keep following the old road as it bends left and climbs steeply. After conquering Ollason Peak (elevation 1,800 feet) you can descend back to the main picnic areas by way of Coyote Spring and Cougar Ridge trails. This latter route adds up to a rigorous nine-mile circle of the park.
From Gilson Gap, hikers pass through a cattle gate and descend steeply. The trail here seems a secret, almost magical passageway through a narrow ravine. Gilson Gap Trail crosses the road leading to "Yona" (Youth Overnight Area) and resumes on the other side. The path parallels the "Yona" road, then the main park road as it returns you to the picnic areas and trail head.
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Ollason, Gilson Gap Trails
WHERE: Toro Regional Park.
DISTANCE: 4-mile and 6-mile loops with 300-foot elevation gain.
TERRAIN: Rolling, oak-dotted hills between Salinas and Monterey.
HIGHLIGHTS: Views of Steinbeck country, the coast and Salinas Valley.
DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Toro Regional Park, tel. (831) 647-7799; National Steinbeck Center, 1 Main St., Salinas, tel. (831) 796-3833.
For more of John McKinney's hiking tips and trails, visit Internet http://www.thetrailmaster.com.