There are some beautiful backroads in Monterey County that have been off limits to visitors for a very long time. Fort Ord served as a training ground for troops in every conflict from World War II to Desert Storm. The base was closed in 1994. Now it's gradually being converted to civilian use and many civilians – myself included – are discovering a previously hidden outdoor treasure.
Fort Ord is about 2 hours south of San Francisco. When it was in operation, it occupied a huge area just east of Monterey and just west of Salinas. "The entire base was about 28,000 acres, which is about 3,000 acres larger than the entire city of San Francisco," says Eric Morgan, Fort Ord Manager for the Federal Bureau of Land Management , or BLM. Eventually, more than half of the old base will be turned over to the BLM to be preserved as open space. "It's also the heart of where the most unique habitat type is on the base. And the unique habitat type is this really rare Central Coast Maritime Chaparral," Eric explains.
The first spot Eric shows me is called Wildcat Ridge. It's still controlled by the army because it needs to undergo a costly cleanup process after decades of target practice. But Eric then takes me to an area that is open to the public, part of the more than seven thousand acres that have been turned over to the BLM so far.
The BLM is tearing up unneeded roads and replacing them with native plants. And they've gotten nearby school children involved in the restoration efforts. "My kids go to elementary school in Marina, and they've come out and planted plants, and they all want to see the plant that they planted. Sometimes it's hard to remember which one it is, but the biggest one is theirs, I'll always tell them it's the biggest one," Eric says lovingly.
Some of the plants that thrive at Fort Ord are found almost nowhere else, such as the Toro Manzanita. "About ninety percent of its known global distribution is here at Fort Ord," Eric explains. Eric says that much of the time you can hike for miles here without seeing another person. But not always.
Every April the serenity and solitude of Fort Ord is broken by the Sea Otter Classic. It's the largest mountain biking event in the world, and it's staged at nearby Laguna Seca Raceway. Fort Ord is a popular destination for mountain bikers year round.