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Passage to Paso Robles
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Passage to Paso Robles


Original Article and Photographs by Kenneth A. Larson © 2005 - 2013

I had been looking forward to this trip for some time when at the last minute, my wife begged off saying that she was studying for finals. I left early on a Saturday morning in early December, heading north on Interstate 5. I descended the Grapevine into the San Joaquin Valley and proceeded north to California State Highway 46 west. I was now traveling through the oil fields of Kern County. While maybe not as famous as other oil producing regions, the oil fields of Kern County are as productive as the bountiful agricultural fields in this same county. Slowly the highway climbed the east side of the Temblor Range into San Luis Obispo County.
I traveled west on 46 for about an hour until I reached Airport Road. I had several times before noticed a sign for a historic site north along this road, but never had time to stop. This time, it was on my schedule so I turned right. After a few miles, I noticed a sign for an aircraft museum. I turned at the appropriate street and within a few minutes, I was standing before Estrella Warbirds Museum which was about to open. I'm not an aircraft nut, but do enjoy seeing a good display of these powerful machines. I wandered about for an hour or two, past rockets and jets, prop planes and helicopters. I talked with several volunteers about the restoration of the aircrafts and also the recent sudden growth of the Paso Robles area, as well as the growing wine industry.
Estrella Warbirds Museum
4251 Dry Creek Rd.
Bldg. A
Paso Robles, CA 93446
Phone: 805-466-1212
I left the air museum to look for the historic building that drew me down this road in the first place. A few miles later I squeezed into the small speck of driveway at Estrella Adobe Church, the oldest Protestant church in northern San Luis Obispo County. Completed in 1885, it took about seven years to build this modest little church - "free of debt." The church fell into disuse as the population shifted and the building was melting away when it was restored in the 1950s. There was no one else around and the building was locked as I wondered the grounds for an hour. Finally it was time to move on to my next destination.
For many years, I had wanted to visit Mission San Miguel. Many times, my father drove past without stopping. Finally I devised a plan to attend Christmas Mass in 2003. Just 72 hours before my visit, an earthquake shook the Paso Robles area, causing severe damage to the church, which up to that moment, was the only unrestored mission church. I visited a few months later when some of the other buildings were open, but a second quake in Hollister caused the entire mission to close again. It was now three years later and I had no choice but to walk slowly around the still closed site, overgrown with weeds, covered with yellow cation tape, and surrounded by barricades. The mission desperately seeks contributions so that this wonderful site can reopen. Donations can be made through the mission's web site www.missionsanmiguel.org.
Across the street from the mission is another historic adobe, the Rios-Caledonia Adobe. This too, I had tried to visit several times before, but it was also damaged by the 2003 earthquake. This time, it was open. This historic site is a long narrow piece of land adjacent to Highway 101. In addition to the main adobe, including the Gift Shop/Museum which was very informative, there are several other smaller buildings. The Rios-Caledonia Adobe is a former hotel and stage stop along the mission trail midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The adobe was built in 1835 on land formerly belonging to San Miguel Mission. It changed hands several times until 1868 when George Butchard named it Caledonia, Scottish for welcome, and began operating it as a stage stop, tavern, and inn. In 1964, San Luis Obispo County bought the site and operates it as a park. It is California State Historic Landmark number 937.
Friday-Sunday from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m.

Rio Caledonia Adobe Museum
700 South Mission Street
San Miguel, CA 93451
I next began to search for my primary reason for this trip. It was harvest time at Willow Creek Olive Ranch and the olive presses were running. The road to Willow Creek was reminiscent of a movie where the characters are driving down a picturesque oak lined country road. This magical drive took me about ten minutes northwest of Paso Robles before I turned into the drive and parked. The destination building contains both the store and the olive press room. As I walked in, I wasn't sure how an olive oil tasting was conducted. There at the tasting counter were several varieties of olive oil and a bowl of bread cubes. All the varieties of oil were more flavorful than anything I had purchased from my local market. I bought a bottle of orange flavored oil which made great apple bread. I visited the press room and watched the green tinted oil pouring into a storage vat. I drove up the road a bit further to observe olive picking, then turned for home.
Willow Creek Olive Ranch
8530 Vineyard Dr.
Paso Robles CA 93446
805-227-0162
I headed south on Highway 101 for about a half hour, then turned east on Highway 58. I had long known that a mission assistencia site remained on a private ranch in Santa Margarita. I had to settle on observing the entrance to the ranch, knowing I was still closer than most people get to this lost piece of mission history. Assistencia Santa Margarita was an outpost of Mission San Luis Obispo established about 1787. I now continued east in the late afternoon fading December light.
I had to come back somehow, so I planned to drive through Carrizo Plain National Monument. This large stretch of open land has recently (January 2001) been added to the public park system to preserve the San Joaquin Valley habitat, grasslands of California which is otherwise mostly gone. I left Highway 58 at Soda Lake Road, heading south into the 250,000 acre park. It was shortly before the rainy season began and the park was dry and brown. There could not have been more than a hand full of people in the park at this time and I only saw one or two cars in the hour that I drove through. It was cold and windy as I climbed an overlook toward the north end of the park and looked out across Soda Lake. The infamous San Andrea Fault runs along the eastern edge of the park adding to the topography. I was alone in an empty park and driving in the dark the last half hour, so I was glad that my car didn't break down as I emerged from the park and proceeded east on Highway 166.
It was another half hour until I rejoined Highway 5 south and another hour and a half before reaching home. I had an interesting drive and my wife insisted that she studied all the while I was gone. Maybe next time it will be spring and she can come along.

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