Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Pinnacles National Park – January 2014

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The Lady wanted to visit Pinnacles National Park south of Hollister, California. It would require staying in the only campground, located on the east side. Reservations were in place and the trip was planned for the Martin Luther King Weekend break.

Friday afternoon found us in uncomfortable foreign territory. Our route was down the major traffic arteries of the great central valley. We usually don’t drive big roads with traffic and exits that all look the same with the same corporate franchises. How can you tell where you are? And with the current oppressive drought the Golden State is indeed golden, a dusty dirty shade of gold. Not a hint of green anywhere. The drought spawning high pressure ridge has also brought stagnant, dirty air that was a near blinding glare in the afternoon light. We were really wondering what we were getting ourselves into.

This had been a familiar route for the Lady and me. When we first married, we had friends who lived in Carmel that we visited often. The thirty years now passed did not appear to have brought improvements. It looked more like the years had taken their toll. We turned west at Santa Nella onto 152 over Pacheco Pass and along San Luis Reservoir, its huge bathtub ring spotlighting the severe drought conditions. Traveling on highway 25 south of Hollister we were much more at home on the almost empty two lane road. We felt we could breathe again.

Pinnacles had been a National Park only 7 days when we arrived. Elevated from a Monument to a Park by the required act of Congress, the President added his signature and made it official on January 10, 2014. We now have a treasure chest of 59 National Parks. Our spirits were rising.

This was a busy weekend for Pinnacles. We checked in at the visitors Center to get oriented. The entire campground was open. We were told all trailhead parking would fill up by 10 am and they were running a free shuttle Saturday and Sunday from the Visitor Center’s parking to the Bear Gulch trailhead.

We got settled into our campsite. The campground was only half full Friday evening but by looking at the reservation tags on the sites, it would be full Saturday and Sunday nights.

Early Saturday morning (the shuttle didn’t start until 9:30 am Saturday and a later 10:00 am on Sunday) we drove to the Bear Gulch Trailhead. It was already fairly busy, including a few large groups. Most were heading up the Bear Gulch Trail. We went the other way, up the Condor Gulch Trail.

The Pinnacles are a collection of rhyolitic breccias formations, the remains of an ancient volcanic field. A recent thrilling addition is the reintroduction of California Condors. The population is currently 27. The spires and formations provide refuge and nesting ledges.

We reached the High Peaks Trail on the crest and continued our climb west. Here’s a view looking back east.


We passed the Tunnel Trail – access to the crest from the west entrance – and continued among the spires.

This area has been quite affected with the drought and is extremely dry. Campfires were not allowed even in the metal rings at campsites.

Along the crest, the High Peaks Trail’s construction was spectacular, being blasted and cut out of the rock. Old pipe handrails were along the near vertical sections.

The Lady was an energetic kid on a jungle gym in wonderful terrain.

It was busy, people and voices were most everywhere. We found an out of the way highpoint for a long break. The daytime high was approaching 80°. The Lady was sporting her new favorite hat.

The vegetation is predominately chaparral, manzanita, and oaks. Towering above is an occasional Gray Pine.

As we descended The Bear Gulch Trail, we saw our first Condor, soaring high above.

We took the Rim Trail over to Bear Gulch Reservoir. Closer to the trailhead, this area was quite busy. We dropped down into the Bear Gulch Cave.

The caves at Pinnacles are called talus caves, formed where steep gullies or gulches are covered over with large boulders and rocks creating tight passageways and obstacles. Bear Gulch Cave was cold, dark, and interesting. We exited out the bottom and completed our loop hike back to the truck.

Mid afternoon found us back relaxing at camp. After waking to 24°, we enjoyed sitting in sandals, shorts, and light shirts. The Chalone Creek Canyon is an incredible cold sink after the sun is behind the ridge.

Most of our camping is in remote dispersed areas, away from crowds. Campground living is a necessary annoyance when visiting more populous attractions. We had an incident Saturday night.

We turned in early.  The campground was full, but quiet. We both dropped into deep sleep.
“Who is making all that noise?” the Lady asked. She was tight against my back, her voice in my ear. As I woke up I tried to focus. Someone was indeed loudly talking and close by.
“Where are they?” the Lady asked. “They sound so close and loud.”
As I rose up on my elbows I asked, “What time is it?”
The Lady checked the clock. “It’s after ten.”
I looked out the window into the night. Directly below me, our campsite’s table was covered with gear. We had left it clean and empty. An adult male with a headlamp was standing at one end over a stove and a boiling pot. A car was driven up and parked at the table. I saw a tent erected in the background. There was at least one other person. The man at the stove was carrying on a loud conversation with whoever else was there. The scene took a short while to register. It just did not make sense. This was our campsite, reserved, bought and paid for.
I quickly ripped the Velcro open for the clear vinyl window. I did not yell but forcefully asked, “What are you doing in our campsite?”
Excuses, explanations came in a hurry. “We didn’t have reservations. There was no place to camp. We didn’t know this was your campsite.”
I stopped him. “You woke us up with your noise and talk. You are in our campsite. You are leaving now.”
“Leave! You want us to leave?”
 He seemed shocked that I would tell him to leave.
“That’s our car. That’s our tent all set up. Can’t we leave in the morning?”
I turned to the Lady and I do not know how much of this he heard, “What do you think about that?”
The Lady said, “Right now I want them to shut up.”
I was back at the window, “Not one more word!” I closed the window and laid back.

We did not hear another word. I had gotten their attention. There was very quiet movement outside. The doors of the vehicle were opened and closed a few times. I expected they would leave. They had never seen me, only heard my voice. I had not given a clear indication they could stay. They were completely quiet – at least as far as I knew, because we both fell back into a sound sleep. I knew what would happen in the morning if they were still there. They did not.

I do not like confrontations. Who in their right mind does? But I have been around awhile and had my share. Here’s what I believe I’ve learned thus far.

First I look at the big picture. A friend taught me to always ask the question “Is this hill worth dying over?” In this case, absolutely not. This incident is a tiny tiny blimp in the big scheme.

I also know it is not my job to teach people lessons. Revenge or getting even is childish and beneath us.

Rules of Engagement –

Take a deep breath. Always be civil, respectful, and do not use profanity. Show no emotion. Be quietly firm. Keep to the issue. Never threaten and never disclose your game plan, always leave them guessing what you may do or are capable of doing. Remember the flight or fight response. Always give somebody a way out. Do not back anybody or anything into a corner. Do not get backed into a corner yourself.

The next morning –

After daytime highs in the eighties, it was quite a difference to have the lows around 24° so we actually slept in a bit. The Lady reached down around 5:30 and clicked the thermostat into action, the furnace came to life and soon the camper was warm and we were stretching and wiggling up in our berth. I checked outside. They were still there.

I doubt anybody reading this, if you were the invaders, had honestly made a mistake (very doubtful in this case), took over someone’s campsite, had a confrontation where you likely angered someone you know nothing about, had not even seen - would you have hung around to see what would happen in the morning? My education is continuing. There apparently are people that utterly clueless.

It was a cold, still, quiet morning when I exited the camper around 6:15. Yes, we slept in but sun does not hit the campground until 8:30. I walked directly to the tent, grabbed the top and shook it until noises came from inside. I said, “Good morning. It is time to leave.” I made a trip to the outhouse. I returned. There was no movement or sound from the tent. I opened the truck and got our chairs. I set them up right next to the tent. I walked over to the camper and checked on the Lady, busy with her morning rituals. I walked around their vehicle and made note of its make and license number. I walked back to the tent. I shook it again until there were voices. I said, “Again, it is morning. It is time to leave.”

A woman was the first to exit. Bedding, equipment, etc. was thrown out the tent. She made a lot of muttered talk but nothing directly at me. I calmly stood and watched. Items were shuttled to the car. The Lady exited the camper with our morning coffee and surveyed the scene. She calmly asked me, “Are you going over to get the host?”
“No,” I replied. “There is a better way.”
Their pace quickened dramatically. In no longer than five minutes they and all their gear was in the car. The Lady and I stood on the pavement as they backed out. I expected them to back right up against us and then roar away in a sign of defiance. They did not. The woman did say a few words that did not need translation.

I honestly believe this was the first time these people had ever not gotten their way. I am still quite puzzled by the incident. It was so outside what I would consider acceptable behavior.

A friend has compared this to a busy city setting where people blatantly enter your hotel room and take over that extra bed you are not using. Bottom line - however we can safely do it, we cannot reward bad behavior. If they had gotten away with it without some consequence - and I think getting their butts up and out of there before sunrise was a good consequence - they would only do this again.

We did our morning walk with our hot Peets coffee, enjoyed the quiet campground morning, and got ready for the day’s adventure.

Sunday we were up for a longer loop up over the top. The Old Pinnacles Trailhead only holds a few vehicles and the shuttle does not go there. We were hoping for a bit more solitude. We hiked the Balconies Trail, an easy walk up Chalone Creek. I was surprised there was at least one remnant small pool.

The Balconies came into sight, a series of high terraces above vertical cliffs.

We took the Balconies Cliff Trail up to the base of the cliffs. Two Condors sat atop the highest points and took flight slowly circling the formation, then returning to their outcroppings.  Easily seen with the Lady’s “see mores”, they were too distant for a worthwhile photo. 

This is a great trail for the views.

We watched climbers working a route.

The Balconies Cliff Trail intersected back with the main Balconies Trail. We had bypassed the Balconies Caves so we dropped back down to see them.

The caves are close to the west side entrance and parking. It appeared that this is a popular walk from the west side.

We hiked down to the west side parking. It was packed. We headed back up to the crest via the Juniper Canyon Trail and then the Tunnel Trail.

We found another private high point after getting back onto the High Peaks Trail where we enjoyed snacks and water. We dropped back down to the east passing the intersection with the Condor Gulch Trail, our route up the previous day. The High Peaks Trail descends a long ridge on its way down to Chalone Creek. We watched two Condors high above.

This was a quiet trail to hike and we enjoyed the shade. Mid afternoon we were back at camp. Several people had questions about and interest in our camper. We handed out the last of our business cards for All Terrain Campers. It was an uneventful and peaceful night.

Pinnacles was an enjoyable visit. It would be nice to see it again in non drought conditions. It would be easy to imagine green grass and wildflower displays of spring.


  1. Great story -- it's a pity that those trespassers were so rude -- very odd behavior! You probably already know this, but the Pinnacles formed near Lancaster (north of LA) and then were broken off of the North American plate and were transported about 200 miles north by the San Andreas. Apparently, there are rocks on the other side of the fault that are a perfect match.

    1. It is part of the Neenach Volcano. Isn't geology incredible!