D. North County Guide

Along Route 58
Photo by Alan Schmierer

D - NORTH COUNTY - All of the county north of the Cuesta Grade and east of the coastal hills

Back to MCAS Bird Finding Guides for SLO County

  1. HEILMAN REGIONAL PARK
  2. ATASCADERO WASTEWATER TREATMENT PLANT
  3. DE ANZA TRAIL
  4. ATASCADERO LAKE
  5. SAN GABRIEL ROAD
  6. ROUTE 229
  7. SANTA RITA ROAD
  8. BIG SANDY STATE WILDLIFE AREA
  9. area pending
  10. SHANDON (C. W. CLARKE) PARK
  11. BITTERWATER VALLEY ROAD BRIDGE
  12. CHOLAME VALLEY "WETLANDS"
  13. DAVIS ROAD SOUTH TO RTE 58
  14. POZO ROAD (NORTH SECTION)
  15. SANTA MARGARITA LAKE
  16. RICONADA TRAILHEAD
  17. RIVER ROAD / SALINAS RIVER
  18. HI MOUNTAIN
  19. POZO ROAD (SOUTH / POZO PASS AREA)

D-1 HEILMAN REGIONAL PARK

DIRECTIONS: (MAP) From US 101 take the Santa Rosa Road exit and go 2 blocks east. In 2 blocks turn right (south) on El Camino Real then in 2 blocks turn left (east) onto El Bordo Ave. In a few blocks (on the right) enter the signed parking area. (Access, at least in part, to all, but much of the walking is cross-country and sloping.)

BIRDING: This is oak habitat with water nearby (lakes and the waste treatment plant) making it attractive to birds. One can find HUTTON'S VIREOS, OAK TITMOUSE and other oak breeders as well as a variety of migrants.

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D-2 ATASCADERO WASTEWATER TREATMENT PLANT

NOTE: THIS SITE CLOSED TO BIRDERS DUE TO RECENT NEGATIVE INCIDENTS BY BIRDERS.

DIRECTIONS: (MAP) From US 101 take the Curbaril Ave exit and go east. In just over a mile, immediately past the railroad tracks, turn right (south) on Gabarda Road. At the end of Gabarda continue straight to the plant entrance. The facility hours are as follows: weekdays 6:30 AM to about 4 PM; Saturdays and Sundays 7 AM to about 11 AM (sometimes sooner). As a courtesy, at the main cluster of buildings let someone know that you are there to bird. This can usually be done by just holding up your binoculars. If you do not find someone easily, it is ok to enter anyway. Accessible to all; most of the birding is from the car.

BIRDING: One of the best birding locations in the county. YELLOW-BILLED MAGPIES and EURASIAN COLLARED DOVES are often seen along Gabarda Road on the way in. Drive the perimeter and dike roads. Most of the fresh-water ducks are seen there in season, most notably sometimes large numbers of WOOD DUCKS in winter. SHOREBIRDS numbers are variable depending on the pond levels and anything could show up there. Sometimes SWALLOWS and SWIFTS are seen in numbers over the ponds. Please report summer sightings of VAUX'S SWIFTS to the county compiler. PHAINOPEPLAS are often seen along the back fence area. BAND-TAILED PIGEONS are often seen flying overhead. And the list goes on! Be careful in there and be a courteous guest!

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D-3 DE ANZA TRAIL

DIRECTIONS: (MAP) From US 101 take the Curbaril Ave exit and go east. In just over a mile, immediately past the railroad tracks, turn right (south) on Gabarda Road. At the end of Gabarda (just before the entrance to the wastewater treatment plant) turn left (east) on Tampico and in 2 blocks right (south) on Aragon. Park at the end.

BIRDING: A number of trails lead up and down the Salinas River channel or just walk cross country. Trail conditions range from easy-walking to deep sand. The habitat is riparian, with mature cottonwoods, and willows where it is wetter. Water conditions range from completely dry during some summers to flowing river during wet winters. Look for YELLOW WARBLERS, PHAINOPEPLAS, WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCHES, ORIOLES, etc in this area.

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D-4 ATASCADERO LAKE

DIRECTIONS: (MAP) From US 101 take the Rte 41 (Morro Road) exit and drive west for a little over a mile and turn left (south) on Portola Road. Take the first right (south) onto Lake View Drive. Easy access to all.

BIRDING: Park and walk the edge of the lake, or scan from strategic locations. Scan the lake for DUCKS. There are often introduced MUTE SWANS there. Look for BAND-TAILED PIGEONS and any of the OAK-WOODLAND BIRDS. Check the willows for MIGRANT PASSERINES.

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D-5 SAN GABRIEL ROAD

DIRECTIONS: (MAP) From US 101 take the Rte 41 (Morro Road) exit and drive west for about 1.7 miles to a traffic light. Turn right on San Gabriel and park in the pullout. Coming from Morro Bay on Rte 41 San Gabriel is the first traffic light in Atascadero. Accessible to all.

BIRDING: This is the only known breeding area in the county for PURPLE MARTINS (April through July). There is often an occupied nest hole right at the northwest corner of the road junction. If they are not seen in this area they may be found on the power lines or flying, along the next mile further west along Rte 41. There is a bike path along the creek for a few blocks that provides access down the riparian corridor. Driving San Gabriel Road south of the traffic light, and bearing right at the next intersection onto Rafael, there is a small pond that sometimes has breeding WOOD DUCKS, but safe parking is difficult.

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D-6 ROUTE 229

DIRECTIONS: (MAP) From US 101 take the Santa Margarita / Route 58 exit, and follow Rte 58 for 6.8 miles to the junction of Rte 229.

BIRDING: Drive north on Rte 229, stopping at any safe parking spots to bird the chaparral. Look for "BELL'S" SAGE SPARROWS, possibly BLACK-CHINNED SPARROW (summer; look especially in areas where the chaparral is thinner and with more open ground between bushes), FOX SPARROWS of various races (winter), and other chaparral species. The road is paved. There are a few pull-outs where it is easy access to all, but walking the road is steep and there is some traffic.

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D-7 SANTA RITA ROAD

DIRECTIONS: (MAP) From US 101 just south of Templeton take the Vineyard Road exit. Go west on Vineyard Road for just under a mile and turn left (south) on Santa Rita Road. In about 0.6 miles bear right at the fork. In another mile or so the road starts following close to a creek on the right. Accessible to all.

BIRDING: From this point on the road follows a rather deep and dark canyon. Stop wherever it is safe to pull off and look and listen. One of the best areas is at a small picnic area on the right. One of our members was told by a sheriff's deputy that there have been drug deals going down in this area and to use caution! This area is particularly good for breeding birds such as LAZULI BUNTINGS and MACGILLIVRAY'S WARBLERS (one of the most reliable locations in the county). Many of the oak woodlands species are also found there. At the top of the pass there is a more open habitat, with grasses and weeds and a few oaks. The road then drops down (west) and follows Old Creek. There are several spots along the creek to check for riparian species and this creek has potential for AMERICAN DIPPERS (very rare) in winter. (This road eventually tees into Old Creek Road where a right (north) turn and an immediate left (west) turn puts one on Cottonwood Creek Road to Whalerock Reservoir (see North Coast Guide, section A-1). Another option at the tee is to drive right (north) on Old Creek Road for about 5 miles to Rte 46. At Rte 46 turn right (east) for 1.2 miles and then left (north) on Dover Canyon Road. Park at the very beginning of the road and walk the road. For about 1.0 miles, Dover Canyon Road passes through deeply shaded oak forest, very similar to Santa Rita Road.

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D-8 BIG SANDY STATE WILDLIFE AREA

DIRECTIONS: (MAP) From US 101 north, almost to the Monterey County line, exit to San Miguel on Mission Street. In 0.8 miles turn right (east) onto River Road. In 0.6 miles, turn left (north) onto Indian Valley Road. In 1.5 miles, bear left at the fork and in another 1.9 miles park on the left (west) side of the road.

BIRDING: From this parking spot there are several trails that go to the Salinas River riparian corridor; willows and tall cottonwoods. Seldom birded location in an area seldom visited by birders. Some steep places on the trails, and deep sand in the river bed.

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D-9 area pending

D-10 SHANDON (C. W. CLARKE) PARK

DIRECTIONS: (MAP) From US 101 exit onto Route 46 east. In 15-16 miles exit right (south) to Centre Street in Shandon. In a few blocks Rte 41 east joins Centre Street from the right and the two parallel Rte 46 through town. The park is on the left (north) side of the road midway through town. Park at the main gate. Accessible to all. Restrooms.

BIRDING: An oasis in the hot dry end of the county; green grass and mature cottonwoods, other broadleaf trees and a few large conifers. Look for MIGRANT PASSERINES especially in spring. A good place to look for LAWRENCE'S GOLDFINCHES.

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D-11 BITTERWATER VALLEY ROAD BRIDGE

DIRECTIONS: (MAP) From Shandon Park (see #D-10) proceed east on Centre St / Rte 41 to the junction with Rte 46. Drive east on combined RTE 41 / 46, and in 4.2 miles turn right (southeast) onto Bitterwater Valley Road. In 0.3 miles park just before the bridge.

BIRDING: The river channel both up and down the Cholame River is a cattail / bulrush wetland. This is a spot worth checking for at least a few minutes each time one passes that direction to see what may have strayed into this desert oasis. Accessible to all.

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D-12 CHOLAME VALLEY "WETLANDS"

DIRECTIONS: (MAP) From #D-11, return to Rte 41 / 46 and turn right (eastbound). In about 2 miles, just before where Routes 41 and 46 split, turn left (north) onto Cholame Valley Road toward Parkfield (there is a protected left turn lane). In 4.2 miles turn left (west) onto McMillan Canyon Road and park. Cholame Valley Road is paved. It is narrow, however, and there are few safe places to pull off the road adequately. When it is dry you may find places to pull off. When it is wet the shoulders are deep clay mud! At times during wet winters the road is flooded. Be very careful under these conditions; the water can be uncomfortably deep and the bottom may be very muddy from silt!

BIRDING: This may be one of the world's smallest wetlands! It is composed of a cattail filled ditch on one side of Cholame Road and an alkaline standing-water ditch on the other side of the road, generally less than a quarter of a mile in length and often full of cattle. Stay on the roads or roadsides; all of the land is private! This is the only place in the county where there are breeding AMERICAN AVOCETS and BLACK-NECKED STILTS on a more or less regular basis. CINNAMON TEAL also breed there as do VIRGINIA RAILS and sometimes TRI-COLORED BLACKBIRDS. An occasional YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD is seen there in winter. Look for small numbers of MIGRANT SHOREBIRDS. Flat walking surface with low volume of traffic; accessible to most with caution.

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D-13 DAVIS ROAD SOUTH TO ROUTE 58

DIRECTIONS: (MAP) Start on Davis Road at its north end, on the south side of the combined Routes 41 and 46 just west of Cholame Road junction (see #D-12). Drive south on Davis Road. In about 8 miles Davis Road crosses over into Kern County and tees into Annette Road. Turn right (south) on Annette and in 2.1 miles turn left (south) onto Bitterwater Road (back in SLO County). In a little more than 12 miles from the Annette Rd / Bitterwater Road junction there is a spring (Pinole Spring) and pond in the drainage on the left (east) side of the road. In about another 9.5 miles Bitterwater Road tees into Route 58 six miles west of Soda Lake Road. (It is a total of 34.7 miles from Rte 41/46 to Route 58.) This can be made into a loop by birding #D-10, #D-11, and #D-12, and using this route described to get to the Carrizo Plain, returning to US 101 via Route 58. This is essentially a driving route and thus is accessible to all.

BIRDING: The route described is mostly of interest in that it bisects a part of the county that is seldom birded. In general it does not have a large number of birds or species. The route mostly goes through dry rolling grasslands, with intermittent patches of trees that are worth checking for MIGRATING PASSERINES. There are a variety of RAPTORS in winter. Check Pinole Spring. Because of its isolation it could attract interesting migrant WATERFOWL and SHOREBIRDS. The southern 8 miles before getting to Route 58 is an excellent area to look for RAPTORS (winter best) and sometimes there are flocks of TRI-COLORED BLACKBIRDS (winter) in the cattle areas.

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D-14 POZO ROAD (NORTH SECTION)

DIRECTIONS: (MAP) From US 101, take the Santa Margarita / Route 58 exit and drive east through town. At the far end of town Rte 58 turns right (south) across the railroad tracks. In about 1.5 miles, where Rte 58 angles abruptly left, stay straight; this is now Pozo Road. Re-set the odometer at this junction.

BIRDING: One usually will see YELLOW-BILLED MAGPIES along this north part of Pozo Road, especially early in the morning as they check the road for road kill. Along Pozo Road is probably the best place in the county to find LEWIS'S WOODPECKERS. For the past few years they have been more or less regular in winter at mile 1.7 on both sides of the road and at mile 1.8 on the left (north) side of the road on a dead oak tree.

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D-15 SANTA MARGARITA LAKE

DIRECTIONS: (MAP) (Detail MAP 15) From US 101, take the Santa Margarita / Route 58 exit and drive east through town. At the far end of town Rte 58 turns right (south) across the railroad tracks. In about 1.5 miles, where Rte 58 angles abruptly left, stay straight; this is now Pozo Road. In about 6.5 miles from this junction, turn left (north) to Santa Margarita Lake County Park. $7 day use fee.

BIRDING: (SLO County Parks' Santa Margarita Lake Map) This is a large lake and impossible to bird from any one place. From the entrance fee station one can drive straight ahead down to the west boat launch area, then drive or walk a 0.7 mile loop around a point that gives good places to scope the lake for WATERFOWL, BALD EAGLES, and OSPREYS. A second area: from the entrance station turn immediately right (east). In about 0.5 miles there is a picnic site on the left (north) that is on a knoll with a good view of the lake. In another 0.5 miles park at the White Oak Flat picnic area / boat launch. WESTERN and CLARK'S GREBES breed in the small area of cattails / reeds on the west side. One can drive farther east along the lake from here on a dirt road to scope the far eastern end of the lake. One could also walk from the picnic area along the road to the end and return via trails, making a 1.7 mile loop. This is an oak woodland area and as such one would expect HUTTON'S VIREOS, OAK TITMOUSE, BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAKS, BLACK-THROATED GRAY WARBLER, and other oak habitat species during breeding season.

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D-16 RICONADA TRAILHEAD

DIRECTIONS: (MAP) From the Pozo Road / Santa Margarita Lake junction, drive about another 2.9 miles east on Pozo and take a right (south) up a short road to the Rinconada Trailhead parking lot. Paved sloping road of 0.1 miles accessible by most.

BIRDING: Along this short road is a good area to find CASSIN'S VIREOS in breeding season. From the parking lot the trail goes through oaks and then up into chaparral to the ridge, where it joins the Hi Mountain ridge road in about 1.2 miles (800 vertical feet). See #D-18 for the ridge road and birding this area. (This is obviously a steep trail and not for everyone, especially on a hot day!)

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D-17 RIVER ROAD / SALINAS RIVER

DIRECTIONS: (MAP) (Detail MAP 17) From the Pozo Road / Santa Margarita Lake junction, drive another 7.8 miles east on Pozo Road (4.7 miles from the #D-16 turnoff) and take a left (north) on River Road. In 1.7 miles turn left into a large parking lot; $7 day use fee.

BIRDING: A trail follows along the border of oak-savannah / riparian (cottonwood-willow) habitats of the Salinas River. In about 0.5 miles there is a division in the trail / road. Water levels permitting, one can walk this trail along the south edge of the river for a mile or considerably more. When Santa Margarita Lake is full, the lake backs up to near this area. Back at the division in the trail, the right fork goes through a short wet area and then follows the north shore of the river (or lake depending on the lake level). Both forks are good birding, especially during breeding season.

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D-18 HI MOUNTAIN

DIRECTIONS: (MAP) From US 101, take the Santa Margarita / Route 58 exit and drive east through town. At the far end of town Rte 58 turns right (south) across the railroad tracks. In about 1.5 miles, where Rte 58 angles abruptly left, stay straight; this is now Pozo Road. Re-set the odometer at this junction. From this junction, drive 15.9 miles along Pozo Road to the small village of Pozo and turn right (south) onto Hi Mountain Road. This junction is about 1.7 miles past the River Road turnoff to #D-16.

BIRDING: Drive south on Hi Mountain Road. Be aware that this road is narrow and has a dirt / gravel surface. It is bumpy, eroded, rather steep and rocky in places. Drive with care. Travel on the road is not recommended when it is wet. In 1.0 miles one fords a small river (Salinas River). This crossing is very short and has a gravel bottom and is OK unless flooded. This is private land, but one could check the willows briefly for breeding birds or migrants. In another 2.7 miles there is a fork in the road. The left fork goes south down a slope, through 4 or 5 creek crossings (dry in summer; flowing water and often impassable in winter), becomes paved in 6-7 miles, and goes to Lopez Lake and Arroyo Grande. Take the right fork (Hi Mountain Road). It is steep but no worse than the first part of Hi Mountain Road. Bird along the road at any areas where it is safe to stop. The first quarter mile or so is good for BREEDING and MIGRANT PASSERINES. In 1.1 miles there is a small National Forest campground (restrooms). Except on weekends, this campground is generally all but empty and makes a good place to bird in the dense oak habitat. In another 2.6 miles the road tees into the Hi Mountain ridge (3060 ft). If the gate to the left (south) is open one can drive about 0.3 miles up this side road to the top of Hi Mountain (3198 ft) (see Hi Mountain Condor Lookout). The historic fire lookout tower on the top is now the Hi Mountain Condor Lookout, where CONDORS are tracked via telemetry as they move between CONDOR breeding area north and south of there. Do not expect to see a CONDOR from there; sightings are rare. The chaparral along the side of this side road and all along the ridge road there are "BELL'S" SAGE SPARROWS (resident), COSTA'S HUMMINGBIRDS (summer) and, where the vegetation is thinner, BLACK-CHINNED SPARROWS (summer). From fall through late spring there are HERMIT THRUSHES and large numbers of FOX SPARROWS (of at least 3 subspecies groups). The scenery is spectacular, with panoramic views from the Sierras to the ocean! The ridge road can be walked or driven north for many miles: 0.8 miles to a junction where the left turn is the main road (straight dead-ends); 4.3 miles to a Water tank on the right and water trough on the left; 4.5 miles to the junction with the Rinconada Trail (see #D-15) on the right (east) and trail to the Little Falls area (near Lopez Lake) to the left (west). The habitat for BLACK-CHINNED SPARROWS generally gets better as one goes north along the ridge.

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D-19 POZO ROAD (SOUTH / POZO PASS AREA)

DIRECTIONS: (MAP) From Pozo (the junction of Pozo Road and Hi Mountain Road; see #D-18 directions) drive east on Pozo Road. Pozo Road makes several right-angled turns along this area. In 1.4 miles Pozo Road makes an abrupt angle to the right (east; Parkhill Road goes straight). From the Parkhill Road junction: in a mile or so, near the National Forest boundary, Pozo Road turns to dirt / gravel (now called forest Road 29 S 01). It winds up the side of a ridge for another 5 miles or so to an obvious summit (2590 ft); Pozo Pass. The road then descends several miles to the base of the ridge where it junctions with Forest Road S 29 02. From this junction one can go left (generally north) for 3.8 miles on Forest Road 29 S 02 to Rte 58, or right (east) on Forest Road 29 S 01 for about 7.9 miles to Rte 58. The latter route crosses a low pass (La Panza Summit; 2497 ft), and shortly becomes a paved surface. Use a great deal of care, especially on weekends, since off road vehicles use these roads even where prohibited. The roads can be slippery or impassible when wet.

BIRDING: This is all chaparral of various maturity levels; generally the same birds as would be found on Hi Mountain Ridge. Look also for RUFOUS-CROWNED SPARROWS.

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