August 2, 2010

Pinnacles National Monument

Big Bro came West from our nation's capitol for our third annual camping trip last weekend.  We originally started planning this a year ago, which means we finally decided to seek an appropriate destination this June.  Everything within driving distance was booked except Pinnacles National Monument near Soledad, so Big Bro booked one of the many vacant campsites.

I know two things about Soledad.  First, it gets to about 183 degrees in the summer.  In the shade.  At night.  Second, there's a prison there.  The wikipedia page for Soledad has this helpful and cheery note:

Also located near Soledad is... a maximum security penal institution which includes a 64 bed inpatient psychiatric program primarily servicing high security inmates who have a major mental disorder....
So we gathered up the children, bought $150 worth of snacks and beer, and drove south.  It turns out that the campground is quite a distance from the Soledad side of the park, so we were somewhat disappointed that we could not spend our evenings enthusiastically and cleverly taunting the inmates from our sleeping bags.  Still, having not checked the weather report, we set off confident in a weekend of beer drinking for me and Big Bro and boy scout competence and responsibility from the 14 and 11 year old boys.

All we really knew about this place was that it sported a swimming pool, housed some caves that might be partially open, provided some hiking trails, and disallowed campfires because of very high fire danger.  Only after we got home did I see this welcoming nugget on their web site:
During the summer, extreme temperatures can make hiking uncomfortable at best, and possibly dangerous for those who are unprepared.
Good thing we had two boy scouts with us.

We also discovered, when looking at trail maps, that Pinnacles sits right atop the San Andreas Fault.

Seriously, it was hot but not unbearable, the pool was like a huge bowl of kid soup (chilled like gazpacho and not far off in hue), and the hiking was nothing short of breathtakingly spectacular.  Our campsite was cleverly located near--but not under--shade trees, with a colony of gopher holes dense enough to rival the most populous slums of Mumbai.  Or maybe they were snake holes.  Or holes for trap door spiders big enough to capture small mammals.  Regardless, we thought it best to huddle our tents on the other side of the parking space.

We arrived Friday afternoon, and since it was WAY too hot to hang out at our super-exposed campsite, we went off to hike the trail to the caves.  A short hike, only 0.7 miles each way from the parking lot to the reservoir.  Along the way are caves with narrow passages and low overheads that bang knees and heads indiscriminately.  These are not caverns under the ground but caves that look as if God simply dropped a handful of enormous boulders and allowed them to fall where they wanted.  The path weaves in and among the boulders and rock walls.  Really interesting and beautiful.  When you remember to forget that the park sits directly atop the San Andreas Fault.

Below is a map of the two hikes we did.  We did the Friday hike on Friday afternoon and again on Sunday morning, and we did the Saturday hike on Saturday.

Here are pictures from Friday's hike:

Ethan, Big Bro, and Sam at the trail head

The first stone stairway we encountered.

Da boyz on the trail, looking at the foliage including some red poison oak.

Approaching a tunnel blasted from the stone.

The tunnel.  Not long, but very cool.

The final stairway up to the reservoir.

The reservoir, which is not as big as it looks.  It's also more brown than the dirt, and, we're told, is populated with leeches almost to the extent that you could walk from one side to the other on their backs and not get the soles of your shoes moist enough even to seal an envelope.  We did not swim.

Looking for "bouldering" spots--like rock climbing only without equipment.

Sam and Mark bushwhacking through the caves, off the trail, hoping to meet up with Ethan and me a bit down the trail.  After an arduous climb up the creek bank, they made it.

Here are pictures from the piece de resistance, Saturday's hike around the High Peaks trail.  If you ever go to Pinnacles, you must hike this trail.  Unless you have a doublewide body, in which case you will see that "steep and narrow" really means steep and narrow.

The first decent view on the High Peaks trail.  Not the best we would see.

The trail continues upward alongside cool rock formations and climbing cliffs 20+ million years old.

Ethan, me, and Sam at the first of the High Peaks area.  From here, the trail went flat across the ridge for a while then dramatically up again to Scout Peak.

Sam and Ethan after a short break.  It was about 10 a.m. at this point, a little over 90 minutes into our hike, and the temperature was in the mid 80s already.

Sam, the intrepid explorer, the 11 year old conqueror of nature.  He does look a little like Teddy Roosevelt here, doesn't he?  TR was the one to set aside Pinnacles as a national monument.  Bully!

Checking out the view from Scout Peak, where there is a restroom with an antenna.  Your guess is as good as ours.

From this point, we could either go down an easy trail and up a bunch of switchbacks on the "tunnels" trail, or we could take the "steep and narrow" trail of High Peaks.  Which do you think we took?

Right.  Steep.  And narrow.  The ranger told us that this trail was build in the 1930s, and shortly after that rules were enacted so that no trails like this could be built any more.  Because the building of them is too dangerous.  Much of the trail was blasted right out of the rock, with steep drop-offs and narrow passages.  Thank goodness for the steps and railings.

The first of the narrow bits.

The first of the steep bits.  I'm pretty sure this is the stair that Frodo, Sam, and Gollum climbed to get into Mordor.

Another narrow bit.  Keep in mind Ethan is five feet tall and approximately 80 pounds.  This trail is not recommended for the tall and wide.

Another of the narrow bits.  Children can walk two abreast.  Which means that Frodo and Sam probably enjoyed the walk.  And I kept a lookout for spiders the size of Chinook helicopters.  But we didn't see any.

A view from one of the narrow bits.  You can make out the shape of the flying turkey vulture.  We did not see any condors, which live in Pinnacles.  There are only about 300 California condors in the world, which is the result of a successful repopulation effort after the population dropped to 22 in the 1980s.  Turkey vultures have a 5 foot wingspan; condors have a 9 1/2 foot wingspan.  I wish we could have seen one soaring.  That would be quite a sight.

Sam spent much of the hike pausing and looking back to make sure the rest of us were still alive.  He was always in the front.

After the hike, we were happy this national campground had a swimming pool.  A dip in the brisk and refreshing water followed by a pleasant nap on the shady lawn completed our hike in a most agreeable manner.

On Sunday morning before heading home we went back up through the caves to some climbing sites we'd seen Friday.  Pinnacles is a serious destination for serious climbers, and all along you can see routes up the stubby cliff faces where climbers left hardware embedded in the rock or splashes of chalk where their hands gripped.  The routes are amazing to look at for a non-climber.  Sam is a natural--he steps up onto the first foothold and then resembles Spider Man as he vacuums his body to the rock face and scrambles around effortlessly.  On the trail, when he wasn't looking back to see if we were still alive, he was remarking how he wished we'd brought some rope and a couple of harnesses so he could do some real climbing.  Sometimes the boy frightens me.

All in all, it was a real success of a camping trip.  We're already beginning to plan for next year's trip.  We've agreed that we want to find somewhere that has vacancy.  We have also agreed that we will begin looking for sites next June.  It worked so well this year.


fairyhedgehog said...

Those are amazing photos. That narrow walk looks terrifying!

Precie said...

Great pics!!! Sounds like it was a fantastic trip, heat notwithstanding.

Those pics, though, are triggering both my claustrophobia and my acrophobia.

jjdebenedictis said...

Caves! Caves and climbing. Seriously, there are few things other than Roman ruins that get me more excited. What a great trip that sounds like!

jjdebenedictis said...

PS - Congratulations on your honourable mention in the Clarity of Night contest! Yay, Pete!

PJD said...

Hedgie, thanks. The photos were taken with my blackberry because I forgot the real camera. They came out OK, didn't they? The walk wasn't terrifying, but it was a bit thrilling.

Precie, congrats to you on your HM at CoN! LOL on claustrophobia and acrophobia simultaneously.

Jen: LOTS of climbing routes, all over. I am not much of a climber myself, but Big Bro used to be quite accomplished in his day, and Sam (the 11 year old) is a born natural. It's eerie. And, to a parent, somewhat scary. Oh, and thanks for the congrats!

pacatrue said...

Awesome pics and trails and everything indeed. However, even the mention of leeches freaks me out.