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Exploring Pinnacles National Monument, Sept. 1996

Once upon a time a very very long time ago there may have lived in ancient Greece a philosopher by the name of Pinnacles. I'm not sure what his connection was with California, but we passed a sign saying Pinnacles National Monument a couple of weeks ago on a trip to Monterey, and we looked it up, were enticed by the prospect of hiking and camping in an area with caves suitable for kids, and so we ended up there last weekend (Sept 21-22, 1996).

Unlike a lot of things there are to do in California, Pinnacles National Monument is only about 100 miles from our house, which was another appeal, since it meant we could get up almost any time on Saturday, drive down at leisure, find a campsite, make a short walk, and still have time for happy hour. Our drive down was so leisurely that we stopped in the town of San Juan Bautista, where one of the original missions in California is preserved. The mission happens to sit right on the San Andreas Fault, which you can see stretching left and right as a sudden plunge in the land giving out on farms just below the mission. While we were there, men in mid-19th century uniforms were drilling in front of the old storefronts on the lawn outside the mission. Saturday happened to be the annual flea market day in SJB for that year, so the streets were set up for pedestrians and lined with market stalls selling things like shave-ice, kettle-made popcorn, massages, tacky paintings, and ceramic jars labeled "Ashes of ex-wife" and "Baby's first fart" and things like that. We had lunch outdoors in a silly pretentious restaurant, strolled the streets, and then moved on up the road.

We had chosen the road a few miles back. Pinnacles has two roads leading in, and you have to make the choice in Hollister to go 32 miles south to the east entrance or go the same distance down the west side to the lyrically named Chapparel entrance. The former had 180 camping spaces privately run, just outside the park, for tents and RV's, and a swimming pool, while the latter had 19 "walk-in" sites, no facilities to speak of, but was in the park itself. Naturally I chose the latter, and it would have been a great spot, camping right on the trails, except that all the sites were right off the car-park as well. A whole wilderness to camp in, and the Park Service restricted camping to an area around 19 benches and grills, most without shade or even shrubbery for privacy, and within easy earshot of the Oakland Raider fans who were using that remote spot for their boom-box tailgate party on that particular day. It was a bleak recapitulation of what they do with lakes here, post no swimming signs all around, and then rope off a square area with a lifeguard stand for people who want to get wet but not actually experience swimming. This camping sight was for people who wanted to sleep out but not experience camping.

So after a short walk to the caves on that side, we drove the hour and a half to the other entrance and found the 180 spaces cleverly isolated from each other and not even half taken. We had a clearing to ourselves out of sight of others (though there was a noisy group camped nearby). There were no bears and we saw no raccoons, though in the morning wild pigs wandered through, unobtrusively. The pool was great next day after a hot walk, and even had grass to lie in, half of it in shade. For controlled camping, it wasn't bad.

The walks were quite interesting. The two camping areas are separated by mountains reaching 2700 feet, about a 2 mile walk up from either side. The mountains are strangely decorated with fantastic towers from congealed volcanoes. Cliffs tend to be sheer, and the area is popular with climbers (there are even eyes bolted into the granite). One of the main attractions of the park is its caves, which are tame walk-throughs which seem to be formed as much from piled rubble as underground caverns. Even though there are no mineral decorations to speak of, you get a walk in the dark with flashlights, and in places you have to work to stay out of the water (where concrete steps and handrails have not been installed). Bobbi and I were there with Dusty, and the walk up the peaks was just about at his limits, but not beyond. The trails had great views, with tunnels through boulders to add novelty and make the trail more convenient for hikers. The place was well worth our time spent there.

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Last updated: November 13, 1997

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