If the weather's right, a short drive and a brief hike can give you a jaw-dropping condor's-eye view of three California counties and the entirety of Monterey Bay. Towering Fremont Peak, with an elevation of 3,173 feet, is one of the tallest peaks in the Gabilan Range, the mountainous spine that runs along the east side of the Salinas Valley. Though Fremont Peak State Park is just a short drive from Salinas, you'll feel miles away as you stand on top of the world.
Fremont Peak State Park sits along the border of San Benito County and Monterey County. It's named after Captain John Frémont, who planted the American flag on this peak during the Mexican era and eventually became military governor of California, senator from California and a Civil War general.
Though the entrance to the park lies in San Benito County, the peak itself is in Monterey County and affords stunning views of the entire Monterey Bay, the San Benito Valley, the Salinas Valley and the Santa Lucia Mountains. The peak is easy to access; there's both a well-marked trail and a wide paved road — the latter used to maintain the television and radio transmitters that sit near the top of the peak.
If your goal on this hike is to see amazing views, be sure to check the weather before you visit. Conditions change quickly on Fremont Peak, and what may be high cloud cover on the ground is dense fog at 3,000 feet. The fast-moving fog can be startlingly cool and refreshing on a hot day, especially when just three steps takes you to the hot and sunny opposite side of the peak!
The hike begins at the uppermost parking lot in Fremont Peak State Park. Though there's a trail that leads directly out of the parking lot, this trail goes down the mountain rather than up. It's a pretty and enjoyable excursion, but not the one you're looking for. To head up Fremont Peak, step around the gate in front of the road up the peak. In just a few steps, you'll see the trail marker.
The trail is easy and well-worn as it heads gradually uphill between coast oaks. The air is filled with the smell of manzanita and scrub oak, and as you climb you may be able to see hawks soaring below you, catching the wind currents.
As you curve around the hill, you'll come to a rocky stairway leading to a wooden bridge over a gully, which (especially if the fog is rolling in) feels like something out of Lord of the Rings.
As you descend this staircase, the views change radically. Almost all of the coast oaks are gone, replaced by a grassy hillside littered with scrabbly rocks. Rather than the sweeping views of the San Benito Valley, you'll see the lower hills surrounding Fremont Peak and, if you're lucky, Monterey Bay in the distance. On our visit, the hills were rapidly overtaken by cold fog (known as "clouds" by those people in the lowlands). We could hear the low mooing of cows and the occasional cowbell in the distance as the mist enveloped us.
The trail turns into a series of switchbacks heading through the grass up the mountain. The trail then meets up with the road again; at the end of the road is a staircase leading to the final ascent to Fremont Peak.
In the final few feet, you'll scale over the exposed rock that makes up the tip of Fremont Peak. If you have issues with heights, you may balk at those last few steps. But once you arrive at the top, you'll be rewarded with one heck of a view.
Fremont Peak is a short but very worthwhile hike that is especially great for families; we saw a number of parents with small children heading up the hill. Just remember, weather changes quickly up there. Over the course of our hike, the wind picked up significantly and the temperature dropped roughly 15 degrees. Make sure to wear layers and be prepared!