The Right Path
Gilson Gap is a great way to enjoy the best things about Toro Park.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
French impressionist painter Claude Monet once said, “The richness I achieve comes from Nature, the source of my inspiration.” Claude would’ve liked Toro Park. From its breathing canvas burst buzzing cicadas, ruby-red dragonflies, purple teacup wildflowers and the occasional golden eagle. Quick brushstrokes of vibrant color play in pools of light. Inspiration is everywhere.
So are activities. The 4,756 acre Eden in Salinas Valley includes 20 miles of hiking, mountain bike and equestrian trails, with everything from short mile-long excursions to six-mile journeys. It also has an equestrian staging area, two softball fields, playgrounds, horseshoe pits, volleyball courts and campgrounds.
With all this wilderness, it’s easy to feel alone. And with all these choices, it’s also easy to feel overwhelmed. That’s where supervising park ranger Bob Milotz comes in.
When put on the spot, the veteran ranger struggles to pick his favorite trail. Ultimately, though, he recommends the challenging Ollason Trail for the exquisite views it commands from atop Ollason Peak– and Gilson Gap Trail for its collage of different terrain.
Ollason indeed proves demanding, as Milotz warned, exceeding five miles– only in-shape, experienced ramblers need apply. It pays off, however, with wildflower-laden pastures and extraordinary panoramic views of Moss Landing and Santa Cruz that come into sight at the 1,800-foot-high marker.
The good news for those who aren’t the Grizzly Adams types: Gilson Gap Trail is a pleasant two-mile long, horseshoe-shaped expedition that rivals Ollason’s beauty without any of the strenuousness.
To reach this trail, hikers should pass through the park road entrance and follow signs towards the “youth overnight area” for about a half mile and find parking at the Quail Meadow Picnic Area parking lot on the right side of the road next to the restroom.
The Gilson Gap Trail starts at the same place as the Ollason Trail; key landmarks at the trail’s starting point include a wooden footbridge behind the parking lot and a windmill to the left of the trail. A sign points the way to the Gilson Gap Connector Trail, which will eventually be on the right– visitors that miss the trail will end up on the much-tougher Ollason Trail.
The trail starts pleasantly, skipping through a streaming sea of fair-haired grasslands interrupted only by the occasional oak tree, before continuing uphill until it meets an old ranch property line. A few cattle in the distance moo hello.
Another Gilson Gap Trail sign leads to the trail’s heart: an open meadow with a downhill view of the green and gold pastures of the Salinas Valley. Quail anxiously run by in quick spurts, their bustling bodies shielded by wildflowers that reveal only their tiny bobbing heads. A hawk’s shadow eloquently slices through the cushion-like hills. Beyond the open meadow, larger-than-life sycamore trees, overgrown brush resembling large afros and oak trees create a forested catacomb. The downhill voyage entails a path swallowed up by the foliage in some areas– while in other areas the path opens up, lined with bits of bobcat, coyote and mountain lion scat that cling to the trail like dried-out figs.
To the right of the path, seemingly teeth-marked rock formations that make up the base of Devil’s Throne present a particularly dramatic natural feature.
Nearby, a magenta and yellow flowered cacti garden flourishes with humming birds and dragonflies.
The trail’s finish line is scattered with eucalyptus trees hugging Bessie Canyon’s outer banks. Duly inspired, hikers need only cross the street to return to the Quail Meadow Parking Area.
APPROACH | From Highway 68 west toward Monterey, exit on Portola Drive, follow signs to the Toro Park entrance.
From Highway 68 east toward Salinas, exit on Portola Drive, follow signs to the Toro Park entrance.
KEY STATS | 4,756 acres; 20 miles of trails; 13 miles from downtown Monterey; 6 miles from downtown Salinas.
SPECIAL INGREDIENTS | Toro’s six campgrounds are all equipped with barbecue pits, picnic tables, water and electricity and can host 100-500 people.