As someone who lived most of his life in the megalopolis of Los Angeles, you aren’t knowledgeable about real rivers. I lived for a time next to the Los Angeles River and it was just a giant concrete slab of an artificial canal that most of the time was/is used for movie and television shoots. I traveled to the Colorado River many a time for skiing and partying but it was more like a lake than a river.
When I moved to Paso Robles, there for the first time was a river – and it ran essentially right through the town along the El Camino Real and 101 freeway. The California Central Coast river was not a very effusive-looking river, but a river nonetheless.
The mighty Salinas goes up and down?
Nicknamed the ‘Upside Down River’, the Salinas River headwaters are in the Los Padres National Forest just south of the town of Pozo. Most rivers travel north to south but the Salinas River starts in southeastern San Luis Obispo County. The nearly 200-mile river heads northwest first dumping into Santa Margarita Lake before dispatching itself up to the North County area of San Luis Obispo County. Bearing north out of Paso Robles, it sets sail through the supple farming areas of the Salinas Valley in Monterey County before ending up in the Monterey Bay and Pacific Ocean. Note: technically the river has sand dunes that stop it just shy of the bay due to the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake – canals connect the river to the Pacific Ocean.
The oddity of flowing from south to north isn’t exclusive to the shallow running Salinas River but the nickname of Upside Down River isn’t just due to its directional course. Rivers sometime have what they call subsurface flow and though the Salinas can almost hide itself from view and appear little more than a creek during the drier half of the year, below the surface runs a giant river. In fact, the Salinas helps create the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin, which is the largest natural aquifer west of the Rockies. So at times you may not be able to see the river above the surface, yet it is huge underground.
The Salinas River and region were first made known to the rest of the world with the famous writer John Steinbeck books including Of Mice and Men and many years later East of Eden. The river has produced a very fertile land that helped create the worlds number one wine region in Paso Robles and shaped what Steinbeck wrote often about: the Salinas Valley. You might have heard it before but the valley is sometimes referred to as the ‘Salad Bowl of the World’.
The weather is heavily influenced by a strong marine layer from the Monterey Bay. With this relatively cool to mild temperature range, the roughly 150 mile long and 10 mile wide Salinas Valley is one of the most prolific farming regions on earth and is often called the ‘Salad Capitol of the World. The valley runs though much of Monterey County from its southern border with San Luis Obispo County in the neighborhood of San Miguel all the way past the city of Salinas into the Monterey Bay near the town of Marina.
As mentioned before, not only does the river help produce abundant food crops in the Salinas Valley, the fertile land in the south is home to the Paso Robles American Viticultural Area, which was recently named the number one wine region in the world. Well known for its heritage varietal Zinfandel, the balance of temperatures differs drastically in this area with a huge diurnal, but this combination produces incredible wines now known around the world.
The Salinas River is also fed by such tributary rivers like the Estrella and Arroyo Seco along with two lakes, Nacimiento and San Antonio, not to mention many creeks, which makes this river region one of the largest watersheds in California.
Life along the Salinas the last couple years has been quiet but if hit by a set of storms during winter, it can quickly become a raging menace. Otherwise, it appears as a small looking river, not unlike the artificial one I remember in Los Angeles … but there’s a huge difference as the upside down Salinas River remains a big river underneath.
Sources: San Luis Obispo County, Monterey County
Check our these resources for more information on the river, valley and surrounding area: