Riding the Rails to History
Paso Robles, James Dean, Parkfield, the Hacienda, and Two Missions
Neil Wiley

This isn’t exactly a hike, but there is plenty of walking involved. And this isn’t a trip that is easy to duplicate, but you can pick the parts you like in any order. And no matter how you slice it, this trip can be a great way to spend a weekend.

The adventure can begin with a train ride on the Coast Starlight from San Jose to Paso Robles. You can catch the train at approximately 9:55 a.m. and arrive at Paso Robles at around 1:38 p.m. (For the return trip, your train’s departure is scheduled for 4:45 p.m., arriving in San Jose at 8:30 p.m.) Be warned, however, that these times are very approximate, with delays of several hours possible, even probable. Our one-way trip was only ten minutes late leaving and reached Paso Robles on time.

The train offers comfortable coaches, a dining car, and a sky-lighted observation car. The 168-mile ride is relatively slow but beautiful. Highlights are the Pajaro Gap, Elkhorn Slough, and the climb along the Salinas River and up through the foothills to 721-foot high Paso Robles. The historic town was built around a park-like square, complete with a Carnegie library and other buildings with interesting history and architecture.
It’s a short walk from the train to the Paso Robles Inn, a hotel that opened as the Hotel El Paso de Robles on October 21, 1891. Although the San Luis Obispo Tribune declared that the building was “absolutely fireproof,” it burned to the ground in 1940. The renovated hotel offers excellent accommodations. Be sure to treat yourself and ask for a hot spring spa room. Although the restaurant specializes in steak and was booked to capacity, it was only OK and relatively expensive (about $50 for dinner plus wine). Many other restaurants are available within a short walk from the hotel. For hotel reservations, call 805-238-2660.

While in town, be sure to visit the Pioneer Museum. Sure, it’s a bit funky and old-fashioned, but it has an amazing collection of collectibles and antiques, including old and very old cars, tractors, office machines, furniture, bottles, stuffed animals, a one-room school, a windmill, a giant 85-ton oil pump, and the world’s “second-largest” barbed-wire collection. If you are lucky, your tour guide will be Harold, an amazing local historian.

East of town on Highway 46, you can visit as many wineries as your liver can stand. We toured the Eberle Winery, where you can enjoy a complimentary tasting of five wines, see the wine caves, or sit on the deck and enjoy the symmetry of acres and acres of grape vines.

Further east on 46, watch for the James Dean monument. Although severely damaged by vandals, the monument is a touching tribute to a forever-young Hollywood icon. (T-shirts and other precious mementos are available next door.)

Continue on 46 to Cholame, then turn left on Cholame Road to visit Parkfield, self-described “Earthquake Capital of the World.” Although only 18 people live there, Parkfield is a very special place. In addition to the many USGS earthquake monitors, the town has a nice, little coffee shop, a six-room hotel, a large water feature made of old plumbing, a magnificent climbing rose bush, and a monument dedicated to the San Andreas Fault.

Parkfield is also the town of Jack Varian, son of one of the Varian Associates founders, who owns a 17,000-acre ranch that he has protected from future development. He is devoting his life to responsible, sustainable ranching. If he is in town, ask him about holistic ranching. We can learn much from a man who can bridge the gap between agriculturalists and environmentalists.

Rather than backtracking on Cholame Road, turn right on Vineyard Canyon Road to 101 and the San Miguel Mission. Although the interior is closed due to heavy earthquake damage, it’s worth a walk around.
Drive up 101 to G18 past San Antonio Reservoir. If you have a boat, stop by this giant reservoir to water ski, kayak, fish, or just hang out.

Better yet, with or without a boat, continue on through Lockwood to what was once Jolon and take Mission Road into the Hunter Liggett Military Reservation. Be sure you have a driver’s license and vehicle license for the gate guards. Your password is “We wish to visit the mission.”

Before visiting the mission, however, stop off at the Hacienda, a lovely inn designed by architect Julia Morgan for William Randolph Hearst. The white stucco walls, Spanish-tiled roof, graceful archways, and interesting geometric shapes make it an architectural treasure. You can stay in one of the eleven rooms, eat lunch or dinner at the restaurant, or walk the grounds. For reservations, call 831-386-2446.

Half a mile up the road is the reconstructed Mission San Antonio, perhaps the best example of mission building in California. Inside is a wonderful museum of mission culture. Outside, in spring, the fields of golden poppies and blue lupine are spectacular.

When soldiers aren’t shooting, it’s possible to continue west on the Nacimiento-Ferguson Road over the Santa Lucia Mountains to the coast and Highway 1. It’s only 17 miles, but the road is rough, and it takes more than an hour to reach the coast. The views from the 4,000-foot crest are worth the drive. Once you reach the coast, you are only thirty minutes from Carmel.

This is a great weekend trip, but best in spring or late fall, not summer. The high temperature in Paso Robles in April is 60.9 F; in July it’s 96.4 F.

Let me know about your experiences with food, lodging, and places of interest. And enjoy.

These experiences were based on a Cabrillo College tour (April 2005) led by Sandy Lydon, professor emeritus of history and righteous “history dude.”


(c) 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 mountain network news All rights reserved.