Post #80: The pinnacle of national parks

February 24, 2021

10:45 am.

Her: Hey, I know this is kind of sudden, but I was thinking about a little camping trip we could do for a couple of days.

Me: Um, we just got back from a week at Mecca Hills and Palm Springs a couple of days ago and I just now washed the truck from that trip.

Her: Well, the weather at Pinnacles National Park is going to be in the upper 60’s and sunny. We’ve talked about going there, it’s not that far away and we have don’t have any obligations on the calendar for the next few days. It’s only about four and a half hours from here and it’s a national park we haven’t been to yet. Plus, there’s space at the campground, which is unusual. Otherwise we’d have to boondock 45 minutes farther away and drive back in each day. We’ve already got all the food we’d need and you just cleaned and serviced the truck. Whadayathink?

Me: The truck’s not even dry yet.

Her: But won’t it dry faster if we drive it?

It was hard to argue with that, so we started loading up the truck. Over the years, I’ve learned that Susan’s ideas/planning brain rarely shuts off for long, which usually turns out to be a good thing. We’d talked about a motorcycle trip soon, but our local forecast was for high winds so that was out of the question, and it was true that we’d wanted see to Pinnacles every time we saw the sign for the turn off. So, within about an hour, we’d packed up, pointed the truck south toward Sacramento and the hills beyond and headed for one of the smallest (and least visited) national parks in the country.

There are two ways to get into the park, from the east side or the west side, but they don’t connect so you have to decide which entrance to use. Lots of good hikes are on the west side, but the campground is by the east entrance, so we headed there first. Even though you can’t drive through it, the park is small enough that you can actually hike from one entrance to the other. But it’s a long day’s hike and there’s no backpack camping allowed so you’d have to figure out a way to get a ride back to where you started.

VW bus campers have been a thing in California for decades. This is one we spotted last summer in Eureka, California

The tailwind was so strong on the way south it was eerily quiet in the truck and the dashboard display said we were getting 21 mpg, about three more than our average. Pretty good for three tons of V8-powered SUV. I’d recently learned that the old and very cool VW buses and campers we sometimes see on the road average only about 16 mpg and we frequently see them struggle to get up mountain passes.

While I’m glad we don’t have to do that, I find myself respecting the unhurried way they travel and I often try to get into ganja-hippie van/VW bus mode, slowing down to better take in the voyage and distance ourselves, physically and mentally, from the rushing hordes on the highway. Hurrying to get to a place makes you still feel rushed once you arrive, which is contrary to the whole point of voyaging and camping.

Pinnacles has been a National Park only for eight years, making it one of the country’s newest (thank you, President Obama). Aside from the spectacular pinnacle formations that rise from the surrounding low hills, the park is best known for having California condors, the largest bird in North America. Their wingspan is wider than the length of a Smartcar. 

California condors are tagged with trackers as part of preservation efforts. Photo credit

California condors became extinct in the wild about 35 years ago but were successfully reintroduced to parts of California, Arizona, and Utah. Driving south, we talked about whether we’d see one and it began to become a focus for the trip. We’d take hikes that were most likely to allow us to spot the giant birds. Susan saw one several years ago near Big Sur, but I’ve only dreamt of such a sight.

How we love an open road! Once we passed the small town of Hollister, we had CA Hwy 25 to ourselves

After turning off the interstate, we headed toward Gilroy, CA (“the artichoke capital” of California) and through Hollister (which I figured must be “the mall clothing store capital”) as we turned down CA Hwy 25 toward the park. It was a Wednesday and very few people were driving down the lovely, lonely country road. 

By late afternoon, we were through the park’s entrance, checked in and headed to our campsite. We’d researched the various choices before we left – one website had photos and descriptions of every one of the 82 sites and we picked the best available one. It had very little shade, which was great for mid-winter (but terrible for the intensely hot days of summer). 

The quiet campsite backed up to a small creek and was fairly remote from other sites

Our campsite turned out to be perfect—very quiet with a level space for the truck. A bonus at Pinnacles is that generators are not allowed so the campground would be quieter than other national parks. Plus, less than half the campsites were taken in the section where we were, though the campsite reservation website showed that by the weekend the place would be completely full. Fortunately, our Senior pass gave us the campsite at half price.

After a dinner of homemade soup, we walked the campground loops in the dark and prepped for tomorrow’s hike. Frogs chirped in the tiny creek next to us and blue jays still chattered. It would be close to freezing tonight so we planned to wait until the mid-morning sun warmed us before heading out. The moon was almost full, washing out the stars and casting shadows around us. We’d sleep well.

Our quick-cooking Coleman stove heated up the frozen soup blob in just a few minutes

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