Soledad and Pinnacles Are Ripe for Tourism

Known as upper Salinas Valley, the Santa Lucia Highlands, the Salad Bowl of the World, and Gabilan Mountain country, the region isn’t quite on the tourism map but should be.


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Photo by Chris Fairfax/iStock

Within a few dozen square miles of sun-baked golden slopes, spooky volcanic spires, and hypnotically geometric farm-fields a two-hour drive southeast of Oakland lies a densely packed wonderland of agricultural splendor, archaeological marvels, breathtaking wildlife, and a dozen-plus wineries.

The upper Salinas Valley, south of Salinas itself and inland from Big Sur, hasn’t acquired a cute household-word nickname — yet. Vintners want you to know it as SLH, or more formally the Santa Lucia Highlands American Vinicultural Area. Farmers call it the Salad Bowl of the World. Geologists hail it as Gabilan Mountain country. But as far as big time tourism goes, this region isn’t quite “on the map.”

Franciscan priests tried to put it there in 1791 by establishing La Misión de María Santísima Nuestra Señora Dolorisísima de la Soledad, an adobe-walled spiritual stopover along the Camino Real between Mission San Antonio de Padua and Mission Carmel. Ravaged by fires and neglect but partly restored, this tile-roofed, palm-shaded outpost is in its creamy serenity a lovely, troubling testament to the faith of its founders and generations of pilgrims and to the indigenous Esselen tribe who were conscripted from their nearby village, Chuttusgelis, to build a complex eventually encompassing a church, cheese factory, soap factory, tannery, grist mill, sheep ranch, lodgings, 5,000-vine vineyard, and 15-mile aqueduct. 

Missions spawned epiphanies and suffering, but they also spawned towns. Just north of this one sprawls hardworking and largely unsung Soledad: That it was named the state’s 27th safest city this year by the National Council for Home Safety and Security and consistently lands on safest-city lists is or isn’t surprising, given that its largest institution is Salinas Valley State Prison, home to 3,500 minimum- and medium-security inmates and birthplace of the notorious Norteños gang.

John Steinbeck set his novel Of Mice and Men in this enviably fertile region, whose main crops include strawberries, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, artichokes, broccoli, and celery. U-pick farms dot the valley; some farms offer tours. A lively famers market operates on Thursdays along Soledad’s Front and Soledad streets from May through October.

But as the Franciscans realized, these river-fed flatlands and rolling hills — cooled by ocean breezes and sprawling like suntanned supine giants struck down during a drinking game — favor grapes: especially chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot. Most of the valley’s wineries are linked by River Road, a sort of modern-day El Camino Vino whose seemingly endless green rows create a kaleidoscope of ever-shifting vanishing points. It is studded with hand-painted signs directing wanderers toward such outfits as Pessagno, Manzoni, Scheid, Michaud, Chalone, Wrath, Odonata South, Hahn Family Wines, and Sustainability in Practice-certified Smith Family Wines.

The bare coppery prongs of Pinnacles National Park preside over all this photosynthesis. Five miles east of Soledad, formed some 23 million years ago when restless tectonic plates shoved part of the extinct Neenach Volcano hundreds of miles up the state and jammed it into the California Pacific Coast Range, these 26,000 rugged acres comprising the nation’s newest national park sport 30-plus miles of trail, which wind past gorges, spires, climbable rockwalls, and the boulder-roofed tunnels known as talus caves.

Don’t forget to look up — at the pinnacles themselves and at raptors such as golden eagles, peregrine falcons, and California condors. Pinnacles is the only National Park Service member that manages a release site for zoo-bred condors; nearly a hundred now inhabit the park.

Be the first on your block to visit this rich agri-vini-geo-bio-orni-eco-sacro wonderland — whatever everyone will someday call it.

If You Go

Mission Soledad: 36641 Fort Romie Road, Soledad, 831-678-2586, MissionSoledad.com

Chalone Vineyard: 32020 Stonewall Canyon Road, Soledad, 707-933-3235, ChaloneVineyard.com

Smith Family Wines: 38060 Paraiso Springs Road, Soledad, 831-678-0300, SmithFamilywines.com

Pinnacles National Park: 5000 Highway 146, Paicines, 831-389-4486, NPS.gov.pinn/index.htm

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