Looking west from the park

Ranch next to the park

Into Los Gatos Canyon


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About 34 years ago, when my kids were middle teenagers, we went on a road trip in western Fresno County. Besides myself our party included Teri and Jennifer Estel and Tim Liddle (now Teri's husband). We took various roads from Fresno, ending with Highway 33, which goes through the hills west of the San Joaquin Valley, and over a pass into Coalinga. Just over the pass Highway 198 comes in from the east and runs contiguously with Highway 33 into Coalinga. On the way, we drove past an area where oil pumps had been decorated to look like animals and other creatures.

From Coalinga we headed north up Los Gatos Canyon, stopping briefly at a small county park. If you are familiar with the Woody Guthrie song Deportees, this canyon is the location of the plane crash that inspired it.

We continued on, coming to a place where the road turned to dirt for a few miles. In this area there were signs along the road warning of asbestos in the soil, and many people riding dirt bikes (I assume a day of dirt riding is not as dangerous as working for Johns-Manville for 20 years).

The road went up higher, became narrow and winding, and went past the closed New Idria Quicksilver Mine, then out into the valley through Mendota. During part of this trip we briefly drove thorough a section of San Benito County.

In recent months I have been wanting to go as far as the county park, to check it out as a possible winter camping site, and to take some pictures of the oil pumps. I had scheduled this trip twice, canceling both times due to unsettled weather. I finally decided that Tuesday, December 11, was the day. The temperature was predicted to be in the mid 60s, with no chance of rain, so I got started about 10:30 a.m.

Although it was sunny where I live in Clovis, I hit light fog as soon as I got on Highway 168 west, and it got thicker as I continued farther west into the country via Highway 180. It was never as bad as the worst of our winter fogs, but for quite a few miles I kept my speed at 45 MPH. For several miles I followed a slow farm truck, where I could have gone a bit faster, but could not see far enough ahead to safely pass.

Eventually the fog began to burn off, and somewhere along McMullin Grade, visibility became normal hazy, but no problem driving at full speed. Turning west at Five Points, I followed State Highways 145 and 33, known in this stretch as the Fresno-Coalinga Road, and soon after crossing Interstate 5, I came to the oil pumps. It looked as if some had been removed, and those that remain are rusted and faded, needing some new paint. Nevertheless, the animal markings were quite visible, and I got a number of good photos, walking into the oil fields on both sides of the road to get closer.

I then continued on over the pass, observing that some light fog lingered over Pleasant Valley and the town of Coalinga. However, I turned off on Gale Avenue, then to Derrick Avenue, and northwest on the Los Gatos Canyon Road. At the Gale and Derrick intersection there were many oil pumps, most of them newer models. In the southwest corner I counted at least 30 pumps, and in the general vicinity there were easily a hundred, though not all were working.

After the first two or three miles, the road into the canyon became winding and went up and down along the creek, but it was in very good condition and reasonably wide. Most of the time I could go 30 to 40 MPH with some 20 and 25 MPH curves. Along the 12 miles from the intersection to Los Gatos Creek Park, the canyon has many wide, relatively flat spots, all occupied by small ranches, mostly cattle with a few horses.

The vegetation is made up of typical coastal foothill species, much like the Sierra but with the addition of a lot of small juniper trees. During my trip I saw many, many hawks, including two who posed, one on a pole in the oil fields, one on a tree just outside the park fence.

The park has lots of picnic tables, with garbage cans, BBQ pits, and fire rings at most sites. There was one bathroom, filthy beyond belief, in what I think is the overflow section. There is also a backstop for softball there, with a field that is far from flat. The price for camping is $18, but only $5 for seniors. There is plenty of terrain that is open enough for walking. You could do a lot of exploring outside the park, but it is fenced with stern no trespassing signs. There are yuccas on the hillside, gone to seed at this season.

The first part of the park road is paved, then dirt with a muddy but easily passable section leading to the overflow section. There is no Internet/cell reception.

On the highest part of the main campground there is a dirt road going up and around not good for my Honda, mainly for quads and dirt bikes. The park is not really RV friendly...no flat spots, and low branches near every table. There is one pretty good spot. I don't know if I would camp here. I would mainly go to eat, drink, and read, and I explored most of the park during the time I was there.

There was no one else there. There was lots of trash around the "overflow" sites, otherwise it was pretty clean. There is a strong juniper smell as you walk around. It was cool with a breeze some of the time, but a bit warm walking with a sweatshirt over a T-shirt. Sitting at a table right after I arrived, I could have used a 3rd layer but I toughed it out.

It was 83 miles from my house to the campgrounds.

I spent about 45 minutes there, and having accomplished both my goals, headed home by the same route, enjoying clear, sunny weather all the way.

--Dick Estel, December 2012


Photos (Click to enlarge; pictures open in new window) 


The zebra oil pump A closer look Looks like a rhino
"The Chief" wears a jaunty feather Wider view of the oil field Lots of pumps at Gale Avenue and Derrick Road
A modern oil pump Watching for dinner Ranch along Los Gatos Canyon Road
Green hills along the canyon A fixer-upper along the way Looking west from the park
Ranch next to the park Ranch windmill along the road Oaks and Junipers in the park
(Dick's car adding a spot of red)
Hugh burl on blue oak tree just outside the park A closer look Rutted recreation road in camp
Where the canyon opens out
into Pleasant Valley
Los Gatos Creek Coalinga, lower right; Los Gatos Park, center
Related Links
Los Gatos Creek Park Coalinga New Idria Quicksilver Mine
Coalinga Oil Field
Los Gatos Canyon Crash Deportees Lyrics Background on Deportees

Los Gatos Creek

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