Toro County Park, dammit. It took two, seven-mile hikes to get it right.
The first time I set out on foot at Toro County Park I parked right there at the front gate. I really should have driven up to the 3rd parking lot, which would have put me on the trail past all of the county park action at the picnic tables and boom boxes. Lesson 1: Park closer to the trailhead.
No wait. Back up. What I really should have done is a little homework first. I should have studied a topo map, or even done a Google Earth flyover. New lesson 1: Do a little homework.
I also should have paid more attention to the map I was given.
I got off the main trail right away, which is a nice, wide and well worn path and onto what turned out to be cattle paths that quickly led nowhere. Better suited for creatures with 4 legs on the ground. Lesson 2: Cow paths make lousy trails.
I also should have stayed away from the Red Tail canyon trail. It looked shorter on paper but it was longer on foot. Narrow path, knee-high poison oak, dense forest, up and down, up and down. Lesson 3: Just because it looks shorter on the map…
Then I rounded out my punishment by deciding to return to the car on the Toyon Trail. Slippery, steep, knees begging for mercy. It’s one of those situations where you’re almost better doing a light jog down the hill, staying loose on your feet, instead of trying to plant a good foothold each step in the loose gravel and sand. I tried a light jog for a bit, but decided that strategy, while easier on the knees, was kinda risky with a backpack full of camera gear and water. Lesson 4: See New Lesson 1.
But… Setbacks aside, I did get a taste of the fabulous views to be had once you do a little climbing and get away from the parking lot. I was a little beat up, but I decided at the end of the first trip that I was going to come right back the next weekend and get it right. Which I did.
Trip 2: This trip I drove right to the Quail Meadows parking lot, got on the Ollason trail, which runs right next to the lot, and within a few minutes was away from the crowds and enjoying the trail.
The first event on the trail was an encounter with a metallic, screeching sound that I thought must be some kind of machinery doing something awful just outside the park boundary. But it got closer and louder. I got to thinking I’m going to stumble on something a little weird in a few more steps but I figured it couldn’t be too bad. After all, we are inside a county park. Well, here’s what I turned the corner to see:
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I was a lot more deliberate this time, checking my progress against the underwhelming map I got at the park entrance. Shortcuts abound, but I wanted to get to Ollason peak, so I stayed on the main Ollason trail and didn’t take any detours.
The trail got quieter, the temperature warmer and the views better and better.
At one point on the last mile I stopped to take a break, drink some Gatorade, and suck in a little air. I’m thinking to myself, man, this is a lot of work. I mean, if my heart starts coming out of my chest, at least there’s good cel service up here, and plenty of open fields right next to the trail. No need to clear an LZ for the life flight helicopter. A small comfort knowing there’s another way of getting back down.
And as I’m pondering that little fantasy, here comes a woman riding her bike right past me, uphill, still on the seat, a little bit faster than I could walk it. And she still had enough air in her lungs to observe that ‘the ride down is a lot more fun…’ I know there are more like her out here somewhere. I didn’t see them, but I know they’re here. My superb backwoods tracking skills spotted their tire tracks in the sand.
The last mile on Ollason does climb a little steeper, but after a little over 2 hours from the parking lot I was on top of Ollason Peak, at 1800 feet…
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I spent a little time taking in the views and fresh breeze, all with the sound of the bike races at Laguna Seca in the distance. Then remembering the unpleasant trip I had going back down on the Toyon Ridge Trail the previous sunday, I set out for the Cougar Ridge Trail for the trip back down.
Like I said, the maps and signage leave a lot to be desired, but by the process of elimination I chose a path that was at least likely to be the Cougar Ridge Trail and set out. (It was) This is a narrow footpath that winds around the hills and has a few short climbs and plenty of that downhill, slippery stuff that my knees and feet find so enchanting.
At one point the trail winds its way through waist-high scrub for about 200 yards. Both sides of the trail are choked with a tangles of prickly, dry green scrub something, and which made great cover for God-knows-what. Not letting my imagination run too wild, I reasoned that the path might be named ‘Cougar Ridge Trail’ for a real reason. Recalling that I had only seen 3 other people up here in two trips, I thought it prudent to make a little noise as I waded my way through the prickly, dry green scrub whatever-it-is on the way back down. I can see the headline: ‘Hiker Mauled to Bits, Cameras Untouched’.
This route back was certainly easier on the knees, and much of the steep stuff has soft sand in the trail, which is the track I took to give the knees a break.
The trip back down took about 90 minutes, largely because I needed to get out of the park by eight o’clock and I didn’t want to be the focus of an annoyed ranger ‘let’s go find this dufus’ search party.
The trusty Honda was, once again, the only car in the parking lot when I returned with 10 minutes to spare.
Toro County Park really has a split personality. There are the picnic tables, baseball diamonds and even a youth camp with a lake: all pretty standard county park fare. But the park’s other side is just 10 minutes down a trail. This is the park that 90% of the visitors will never see.
The farther into the park you go, the more isolated it gets. It’s not the Sierra backcountry, but you can get a pretty good workout, away from the crowds, and be rewarded with some Monterey views that, again, very few people will ever see. Which is kind of a shame, really.
Kid Factor: (+) Trails start right next to the parking lots and picnic tables, so you can take as much or as little of the hiking that you want. Not an incredible amount to see, but it beats video games. (-) Same precautions as always: Poison oak, bring fluids.
Fitness Factor: For me (at 62) it’s the lungs on the way up, the knees on the way down. The trails get steeper the farther you go, so the two-flight rule is in play: If two flights of stairs leaves you winded, enjoy yourself near the lower trails. Plan your hike, bring plenty of fluids: Pack what you think you’ll need, then add some more. Trails can be slippery going downhill.
Photo Factor: The big payoff here are the views of Monterey Bay and the neighborhood that you won’t get anywhere else. Think tripod and stitching panos. There are some landscapes to shoot with summer tans, golds and greens but you might like it better when there’s a lot more green. After a rain there might be water running in small pocket canyons that would make for some petite waterfall shots.
Also: The trail signage leaves a lot to be desired, so pay attention to whatever map you have. What appears to be the shortest route may not be the best route. It’s shorter probably because it’s steeper.
Here’s my gps track of the second (and better) trip to the top
And here’s the track on the way back down
This is my track on the first trip, which was made more difficult because I went on the Red Tail trail (off of the Ollason main trail) and then came back down the Toyon, which was pretty steep and slippery with a pair of stiff boots and a backpack full of camera gear.