Escape to Quaint Parkfield: California’s Tiny Slice of Country

Parkfield, population 18

Parkfield California

WAY off the beaten path in southeastern Monterey County, it’s almost as if you’ve found your way to another century. In Parkfield California, a nineteenth century way of life still persists out here on the back roads of Central California alongside a few modern conveniences. The town sits astride the San Andreas Fault Zone and is one of the most heavily studied earthquake areas in the world.

Fancy gate at the Parkfield Cafe

Parkfield, California is a small place that is tucked into the Cholame Valley in the very southeastern-most corner of Monterey County. The main “industry” in the area is cattle ranching, there is some wine grape production here along with a bit of tourism thrown in. Just like Harmony along the coast, it has a population of 18. The two towns are similarly quaint in feel and both are fun to visit.

The area has become known over the last 30 years mainly because of the “Parkfield Experiment” – the attempt of earthquake experts to detect any signs that would enable them to better predict and warn about upcoming earthquakes.

The San Andreas Fault runs through the valley here and seismologists have made this the most heavily instrumented earthquake area anywhere in the world. You won’t see most of the equipment however, as the sensors are buried or found on private property reachable only by dirt road. You are able to see some outdated equipment at the Parkfield Cafe and read about some of the scientific work here.

What does make Parkfield most interesting is that life in that area is a combination of old and new technology.

Parkfield cattle drive along Vineyard Canyon Road

Take for instance the cattle drive pictured above – even to this day moving cattle by horseback is still the most efficient way to do it for distances to 10 or 15 miles. What isn’t visible here is that cell phones are in each of the cattle driver’s pockets. A mixture of the old and new is the epitome of Parkfield.

Parkfield California Quick Facts:

  • County: Monterey
  • Area Code: 805
  • Zip Code: 93451 (The same zip code as San Miguel, from which all the mail is delivered)
  • GPS Coordinates: 35.8999, -120.43285
  • Status: Unincorporated township
  • Founded: 1850’s; original name was Russelsville.
  • Original inhabitants: Yokut tribe of native americans (“Cholame” is a native word meaning – “The beautiful one”)
  • Population: 18 (this figure accounts only for the township area; population in the outlying areas is probably closer to 200)
  • Elevation: 1530 feet
  • Services: Food (Thursday – Sunday at the Parkfield Cafe); Lodging at the Parkfield Lodge (better to call ahead for reservations as there is no full-time staffing)
  • Gas station: none, fuel up before heading here
  • Events: Parkfield Bluegrass Festival – Mother’s Day Weekend; Parkfield Rodeo – May 24 & 25, 2014; Earthquakes – as they happen…
  • Nickname: The Earthquake Capitol of the World. So named not for the size of its earthquakes, but rather the regularity of them. Since the nineteenth century, the area has experienced magnitude 6.0 shakers on average every 22 years. The last 6.0 quake was in 2004.

An old boiler in front of the Parkfield Inn

Old equipment doesn’t go to waste here, it’s dressed up and used for signs or decoration. This old boiler sits in front of the 8 room Parkfield Inn.

Parkfield Coalinga Road as it runs through Parkfield

There are only three roads leading to Parkfield: Vineyard Canyon Road from the west which can be accessed outside of San Miguel; Cholame Road which comes from the southeast and is accessed off Highway 46 (at the intersection of 46 and 41 where James Dean was killed) and Parkfield-Coalinga Road which comes over the mountains from the north off Highway 198.

The latter is quite tortuous and is paved only on the Fresno County side. Once you enter Monterey County and start to descend, it is a rutted dirt road; passable in all but wet weather, but not for the faint of heart. Evidently Google Street View chickened out here.

The sign at the intersection in ParkfieldDo you know the way to Parkfield California?

Exterior of the Parkfield Cafe

As you set out for Parkfield California, I recommend that you first review my tips for back road driving. As I mentioned, there is no gas station here. There is, however, plenty of wildlife and you need to drive accordingly.

Lots of unusual road hazards in Parkfield

I caught the photo above and was surprised when I viewed it on my desktop monitor – I wanted to illustrate the sorts of very large farming equipment that moves along the roads on the Central California backroads and found that I had captured a deer crossing the road as well! (the deer can be seen in the black circle I’ve drawn just to the right of the lead truck) A “twofer”!

That’s great for photography – not so good for driving if you’re not alert to the dangers.

The broad vistas on the way to Parkfield

Cholame Road in the above photo offers some beautiful views of the countryside. This is just a mile or so from Highway 46 and shows the expanse of the 100,000 acre Jack Ranch which is owned by the Hearst Corporation. Keep an eye out as you may well see antelope or Tule elk along here. The cattle used to graze and wander out on the road, but electric fences installed several years ago have mostly eliminated that problem.

The cattle used to sleep on the warmer pavement in the winter which made driving out here at night quite an adventure.

Did we mention that Parkfield California is REALLY rural?

If you drive from Highway 46 along Cholame Road to Parkfield and then to San Miguel via Vineyard Canyon Road, you won’t see a stop sign for over 40 miles!

The Parkfield Community Hall built in 1888

If we would ever see rain again in Central California, any of the roads into Parkfield California rewards a drive with nice displays of wildflowers. But I wouldn’t expect any wildflowers for the 2014 season, more’s the pity.

All in all, a drive out to Parkfield is well worth the time. It’s easy to imagine yourself in a simpler, quieter time there. Enjoy the ride.

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