Pinnacles National Park

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I now expect of travel that almost everything will go wrong. This weekend I traveled to Pinnacles National Park. This is the newest National Park--so new that it’s not in the guidebook that has been my bible the last couple months--and so I didn’t know much about it before arriving. I was wrong about the layout of the park, got lost while following a trail, forgot to bring sunscreen, ran out of water, had a leg cramp so bad I was limping, and yet had the best possible time. I couldn’t predict everything that would go wrong, but neither could I predict the impossible beauty.

Most National Parks are in the middle of nowhere and Pinnacles is not an exception, but its nowhere is not far from many somewheres I have wanted to visit for a while. In order to have enough time to really see the park, I allowed myself only one detour: Steinbeck’s childhood home and The National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. I arrived just in time to do a quick tour of the museum and then walked down the street to see Steinbeck’s house. I had a moment standing there on the sidewalk on a totally normal street.

On Saturday, things were off from the start. The area around Pinnacles National Park is mostly vineyards, which made every drive amazing; if the road that led to the West Gate was not one lane, I would have stopped to take several pictures. I had been slow in getting going that morning and by the time I got there, I was so thoroughly annoyed with myself that I just wanted to get far away from everyone.

What I realized soon after arriving, and what I should have known already, is that the two sides of the park are not connected. The side I had entered is smaller with access to only a couple trails. The trail I had intended to hike that day was on the other side, and it would be a drive of more than an hour to reach it. I decided to eat my lunch and make another plan. The plan I came up with was to instead spend that day exploring one of the caves. I had my flashlight on me and it was a short trail, so I figured there was no need to go back to my car for more supplies.

What happened next, I can’t really explain. I looked at a sign that said the trail I wanted was to the right, so then I headed toward that trail, and when the sign at the trailhead said something else, I just kept hiking anyway. Later after retracing my steps, I realized the signs were perfectly clear and I had either missed or misread them all. It was very hot outside and there was little shade, and soon the easy trail became difficult. Having just hiked out of Grand Canyon a week before, I wondered what had happened to me that I was struggling so much with this trail.

I was still annoyed with myself and wishing to be completely alone in nature, but there were a lot of hikers on the trail, and I hurried to stay ahead of them even when I was tired. Early on the trail, the leg cramp that has haunted me since Sequoia National Park returned, and I paused to stretch but otherwise pretended I felt no pain and kept hiking. Even as I kept climbing higher and higher, it didn’t occur to me I was on the wrong trail. But I was finally so tired and my leg was so tight that I gave up trying to stay ahead of everyone, found a nice cliff for sitting, and sat there until I felt human.

Not long after I started hiking again, I came to a sign that finally made clear I was not on a simple hike to the cave, but on the High Peaks Trail, hiking to the top of the pinnacles I had been marveling at from down below. I knew I had only one bottle of water, but I had come too far to turn around, and with the scattered feeling I’d had all day, I just wanted to complete one thing. I kept hiking until I came to a rock tunnel and concrete bridge. I hiked by a group of Boy Scouts resting. I reached the top and took some time to enjoy it, but didn’t stay too long since I was out of water by that point.

My descent seemed to be taking me down the other side of the peaks, and I assumed it would loop around until I reached another sign, which pointed to two trails I knew led only to the other side of the park. I had no idea what could have happened, but I took one deep breath and then started hiking back up the trail I had just walked down. By that time I was in such pathetic shape and had made so many mistakes that I could only laugh. Thirsty, limping, and with a stupid grin on my face, I probably looked crazy.

I have had a lot of thoughts about how to experience nature. Every park has surprised me with a new adventure, but I don’t have a lot of deep reflective moments, even while staring at unbelievable views. On top of a mountain, I rarely feel like pulling my journal out and when I do I have little to say. I worry that I cling too much to comforts by listening to music and podcasts as I hike, and wonder if I should spend my evenings in hotels doing something more important than watching House Hunters. As a result of another series of mistakes, my phone was almost dead before I began my hike, so I had only enough battery to take pictures and hiked in silence. I found I was perfectly fine without that distraction and piece of comfort to cling to, and my thoughts about how best to experience nature will continue to evolve.

Once I made it back over the peaks and began my real descent, I knew that I would be fine and started thinking about what very cold beer I would drink as a reward for surviving the hike. I passed the point at which I had run into the Boy Scouts and realized the reason I had gone off trail was because the boys had been sitting in front of the sign. I hadn’t even noticed that the trail split in two at that point. I wished I had been stronger and better prepared in the moment, because I wanted to make it to the top of the High Peaks Trail, but its promises of “steep and narrow” were enough to turn me away. I headed straight to the bottom for water.

I thought I would be fine the minute I had water, but that only revealed that everything else hurt too. My regret about not making it to the cave faded as I struggled back to my car. That night I had vague intentions of making it to Monterey or exploring more of Salinas, but I only had enough energy to shower and then keep myself horizontal.

The next morning I set out to redeem myself and headed to the East Gate, which is the much busier side of the park. After years as a National Monument, they are adjusting to the bigger crowds that come with the National Park designation. I parked and then took a shuttle to the Bear Gulch area. I ate bananas and stretched and did everything I could to help my leg, but again I made the decision to hike anyway. With flashlight in hand, I head toward Bear Gulch Cave. Walking into the cave was like walking into an air conditioned room after being out in the sun. The cave has received some help from the Park Service to make it safe, but it still requires jumping over water and crawling low between boulders. There was a troop of Girl Scouts in front of me, and for a while I was annoyed by the noise, but as the path narrowed, I was grateful for their company.

We climbed out of the cave and up a long flight of stairs to a reservoir. It looked so unreal I would have believed it was designed by Disney. Only the snake in the water suggested this was nature. I looked for a quiet place to sit by the water, but it was so crowded I made plans to return in the future. As the weather is getting warmer, the parks are becoming much busier. What I need going further is a sun hat and more patience.

I took my time finishing the trail, knowing my time in the park was limited, and then I caught the shuttle back. It was strange to be alone on the trails after hiking Grand Canyon with the girls, but I felt humbled by nature in a way that challenged the relationship I have with myself. Having survived a number of my own stupid mistakes to see more than I ever expected, I was grateful to have learned under these conditions and not worse (I will never run out of water again) and happy to have pushed at my own limits.

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