A long, steep, but interesting trail
Toro County Park
Toro Park has two faces. The first is that of a large flatland urban park with several group- picnic areas serving up to 500 people, smaller family-picnic sites, and a youth-overnight area. The second face is that of a wilder, less civilized back country crossed by twenty miles of old ranch roads and single-track trails looping through 4,756 acres.
It might not be worth driving to Monterey County for a group picnic. Many nearby parks offer lots of tables and barbecue pits. When it comes to hiking, however, each park has a distinct personality. Toro sneaks up on you. The valley trails are tame, but as you climb the ridges, it gets tougher and more interesting, with steep trails and big wide landscapes.
For my first Toro hike, I chose the Ollason-Gilson Gap loop. It began inauspiciously. In search of solitude, I drove my car deep into the park to the last picnic area—Quail Meadow. I didn’t find solitude. An entire school was using the meadow for an end-of-school picnic. It was loud, even if it was a happy loud. Even after I walked over the footbridge to the Ollason trailhead, I met several families and couples who had escaped to quiet.
The shady single-track trail ran along the western edge of the valley floor. Cool breezes passing through lichen-covered oaks and buckeyes felt good. Then I heard the grating grinding of metal to metal. I got closer and closer to the source—a large but very old windmill. The blades were turning but with great difficulty. It didn’t appear that the windmill was doing anything more useful than showing passerbys an artifact of ranch history, but I guess it was doing that well.
The canyon narrowed, and I crossed the dry stream bed over a little footbridge to an old ranch road. The climb began, now through open oak-studded hills. I saw a sign for the Gilson Gap Connector Trail, so I had lunch in a grove of eucalyptus trees while I considered my options. I did want to go to that trail, and I was tired of walking on a road. Refreshed, I decided to explore this connector, even though the trail was nothing more than flattened grass.
At first, the way up was relatively easy. I passed through several large meadows. The trail disappeared, but I followed a drainage ditch marked by many cowpies. If a cow could make it up this hill, surely I could. Somewhere, however, the cows must have made a turn, because I was now climbing on all fours. The last one-hundred yards were a scramble, but I finally found the Gilson Gap Trail running along a fence line.
It was well worth the effort. The walk along the ridge passed some interesting rocks. I saw hawks at my eye level. And I looked over views of the green Salinas Valley flanked by low gray mountains. I also found solitude; I didn’t see another hiker on the Gilson Gap Trail.
It wasn’t long before I was descending switchbacks into the forested canyon. I crossed over a paved secondary road to find a continuation of the footpath on the other side. I followed the path paralleling the road. When I reached the main road, I went right, taking me back to the Quail Meadow picnic area.
It was a good hike, with some natural beauty, periods of quiet solitude, and a bit of challenge and adventure. The hiking distance was approximately four miles, and elevation gain was about eight hundred feet.
To reach Toro Park, take Highway 1 to Monterey, then turn east on Highway 68. Drive 11.6 miles to Portola Drive, the entrance to Toro Park. For this hike, drive through the park to the last parking lot (Quail Meadow Picnic Area).
Seniors pay no entry or parking fees from Monday through Friday. Others pay four dollars per car.
Warning: Trails are not all well-marked. Be sure to get a map, either online at http://www.co.monterey.ca.us/parks/toro.html, or at the park gate.