Story and photos by David A. Laws.
Beach Range, Engineer Canyon, Machine Gun Flats: These are not typical landscape features you’d expect to find on maps of a California “coastal gem” and “hiker’s paradise.” Their roles in decades of service under military ownership are now largely forgotten, replaced by the delights of wildflowers, bird calls and jingling mountain-bike bells. Explosions, gunfire and the mayhem of army maneuvers no longer echo across the rugged back-country and ocean-front dunes of Fort Ord National Monument, set between Salinas and Monterey in the heart of Steinbeck Country.
Established by the U. S. Army for infantry training in 1917, the base eventually encompassed 28,000 acres of rugged, maritime chaparral overlooking Monterey Bay. Here as many as a million and a half American soldiers were introduced to the rigors of military discipline. After decommissioning in 1994, the Fort Ord Reuse Authority (FORA) designated former administrative and barracks areas east of Highway One for development which included a new California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) campus; with the remainder to be opened for public access.
Named Fort Ord National Monument by President Obama in 2012, an inland tract half the size of San Francisco comprises a mix of open prairie, dry chaparral, oak woodland, vernal pools and springtime fields of wildflowers laced with 86-miles of biking, hiking and running trails. These features compete for tourist attention with the other regional attractions such as Big Sur, Point Lobos, or Pinnacles National Park, but for locals they offer an extraordinary resources for exercise, relaxation and enjoyment of nature. A smaller area, Fort Ord Dunes State Park, stretching along 4-miles of sandy ocean beachfront, will soon host the first new state park campground on the coast in decades.
There are many ways to enjoy the varied landscape features of the Fort Ord Monument. The area is large enough for mountain bike racing and cross country running to coexist with more sedate pastimes, such as bird-watching and wildflower hikes. For inquisitive visitors, a bonus is discovering unexpected artifacts remaining from the years of military occupation: in video-game lore they would be called virtual Easter eggs. I have hiked the trails in all seasons of the year. My most memorable explorations have focused on photographing wildflowers in the peak months (March to June) of springtime bloom. The following short hikes will introduce first-time visitors to a sampling of the more than 3,500 species endemic to the Monument.
On my first visit, I stopped at a high point to admire a view looking south over the largest remaining area of maritime chaparral on the Central Coast to distant blue peaks of the Ventana Wilderness. A Red-tailed hawk circling high on warming morning air scanned untracked brush for signs of breakfast. Intruding onto this idyllic scene, an ominous sign behind a serious barbed-wire fence threatened, “Don’t go in there — Danger, Explosives Area. Keep out by order of the commander.” This stern warning impressed on my mind the importance of avoiding off-limit areas awaiting clearance by the army’s munitions clean-up team. But, while this is an on-going project that will take many years to complete, there are already thousands of acres of prime recreational land cleared for safe public access.
A web of paved and gravel roads laid by the military, cleared fire-breaks popular with horse riders and cross-country cyclists and well-marked hiking paths crisscross the Monument and allow access to the many different kinds of terrain. The roads are named, but the trails, being numerous, are numbered — up to a high of 96. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) website identifies two main trail head entrances with bathrooms and parking spaces, both off Highway 68 southwest of Salinas. Other ride/walk-in points on the west and northern boundaries are popular with nearby residents and CSUMB students.
At the Creekside Terrace entrance, near the intersection of Highway 68 and Reservation Road, I started up Trail #30. A dirt path wound uphill under the shadow of a cliff where wind and water have weathered the exposed bedrock of the Monument into rows of sharp sandstone spires. I rested on a bluff at the top. Looking out over the agricultural patchwork quilt of Steinbeck Country, I glimpsed the Salinas River, a familiar image from the pages of East of Eden and Of Mice and Men. Snake-like bends and curves of the river’s course cleaved through a rigid grid of lettuce and strawberry fields that stretched to the foothills of the Gabilan Range, a long high ridge that the writer remembered as “light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness.”
Where the trail intersected with Sandy Ridge Road, the cleared firebreak carved a sandy swath through miles of tough, dry chaparral cover. Scattered clusters of Live Oak and Toyon protruded through a waist-high, dun-colored expanse of Chamise, Manzanita and Coyote Brush. At another weathered sandstone outcrop, Trail #31 led towards a shaded ravine. Mature oaks sheltering a tangled undergrowth of purple fiesta flowers and wild-cucumber vines lined the twisting path back downhill to my car.
From Creekside Terrace, I followed a four-mile segment of the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail along a levee bank above Toro Creek to the Badger Hills parking lot. Bathrooms and BLM signage identify this as the main entry into the Monument. Sensuous, open rolling hills define the edge of the park and, except for invasive European grasses, are visually little changed since Captain de Anza passed through this valley on his 1776 journey to establish a mission and presidio in San Francisco.
A popular six-mile hiking loop leads up a steep slope to gravel-paved Guidotti Road and Skyline Road. Bare hill slopes, clothed velvet green and glowing with sky lupines, California poppies, bright yellow sun cups and rangy blue dicks radiated in every direction from the ridgeline. To prevent wildfires, before the grass dries to gold in summer, the BLM rents herds of goats to create fire breaks and reduce the spread of invasive plants. A thousand can munch through two acres a day. Trail #45 led me back downhill, across the dry creek bed lined with willow and cottonwoods bursting with fresh green buds; and back to the parking lot.
The most convenient hiking access to the northern area of the Monument is via Jerry Smith Corridor from Inter-Garrison Road in Marina. (Mr. Smith served as mayor of Seaside and on the board of FORA.) Also a popular entry for mountain-bike riders, this wide, sandstone-surfaced track cuts through live-oak woodland and open meadows towards the entrance at Watkins Gate Road. West of the gate, tule reeds bordered a seasonal pond, known as a vernal pool, alive with chirping mud hens, ducks and a solitary blue heron.
This upland mesa terrain of the Monument is devoid of creeks. Rainfall is quickly absorbed into the ground or flows into these pools. In wet years, forty-plus pools fill natural depressions across the landscape. In drought years and summer months, they dry into hard-pan lakebeds. After heavy rainfall, they spring back to life as precious habitat for the endangered California Tiger Salamander. Fish and Wildlife Service signs advise: “Salamander study area, please stay on trails.”
I followed a narrow, winding path uphill through deeply-shaded live-oak woodlands. Ancient twisted trunks rose through an under-story green with poison-oak foliage. Limited in height by roots unable to penetrate the underlying sandstone base, few trees pushed above the 25 to 30-foot canopy. Wherever direct sunlight warmed the trail, fell onto the hedge-like borders of ceanothus and manzanita that bloomed blue and white. Intimate grassy-meadows opened in the forest to make space for baby blue eyes, Johnny jump-ups and tidy tips which competed for my attention with dazzling carpets of sky lupines.
A few yards off Trail #14, a weathered split-stakes fence marked a tiny corral. Four horseshoes and a carved wooden sign announced the grave of Comanche, one of the last cavalry horses to serve in Fort Ord. After she passed away, Sergeant Allan MacDonald, who trained and rode her for 23 years, received permission from the army to bury her in this familiar setting. Hidden in overgrown brush a few yards away, a concrete water trough, (built for the 11th “Blackhorse” Cavalry Regiment stationed at Fort Ord in the years leading up to World War II), was probably a welcome refueling station for hard-working Comanche.
Beyond the top of the rise, oak woodland yielded to a drier, open landscape. California pitcher sage and purple trumpet flowers of the potent medicinal herb Yerba Santa lined the road. I turned onto Trail # 56 through meadows of Mariposa lilies, California poppies and the doubly misnamed blue-eyed grass, (the eye is yellow, not blue and it’s not a grass). Machine Gun Lake, at 14-acres, is one of the few vernal pools large enough to be named. It attracted flocks of red-wing blackbirds to feast on pond-dwelling insects in tule reeds at the water’s edge. Their melodious trills echoed across a bucolic landscape are no longer dominated by the cacophony of machine-gun practice.
While the three hikes above cover less than ten percent of those open to the public, they offer easy access to a bountiful display of blooms characteristic of the Monument’s unique landscape features. A far cry from past military mayhem, bird calls and the occasional bleating of rented goats were the only intrusions into the solitude of recovering nature.
IF YOU GO: The west side of the Monument is located off Highway One to the east of the CSUMB campus and 10 miles northwest of Monterey. The main Badger Hills entrance is off Highway 68, eight miles south of Salinas. A display of flowers endemic to the area is available at wildflowersearch.org.
Unless you enjoy watching large scale running or mountain bike racing events, check the schedule for such possible activities before visiting. The weekend of the annual Sea Otter Classic Festival, which claims to be the world’s largest, draws nearly 10,000 professional and amateur athletes and cycling fans.
Check the BLM website and read the “Know Before You Go” advisory page for rules regarding entry. You can download a pdf map showing all 96 numbered trails from the Trail Map page. Be aware that a limited number of trails cross areas identified with signs indicating that they are not yet guaranteed to be clear of munitions. DO NOT VENTURE OFF THE MARKED PATHS IN SUCH DESIGNATED AREAS. You might just encounter a non-virtual Easter egg!