Quick. Think of a national park in California. Did Pinnacles National Park in the Gabilan Mountains east of the Salinas Valley come to mind? Probably not. We paid a visit.
A national monument elevated to national park status in 2013, Pinnacles is roughly three hours of bad traffic southeast of our home on the San Francisco Peninsula. Fractured volcanic cliffs, talus caves and California condors comprise the most prominent features. The park is hot in summer and cold in winter. Nearby lodging is scarce.
We drove through a nascent super bloom from our hotel in Monterey to the park’s east entrance on a temperate April morning. Arriving at 9:30 a.m., we scored a coveted parking space at the Peaks View Day Use Area. An hour later the lot was full.
We came to enjoy a taste of the park, not to achieve high-country hiking glory. So, we sampled two easy trails – one with a view and another with a cave – to assure we’d be back in Monterey in time for dinner.
We skipped the high country loop above Condor Gulch and simply hiked the mile to the overlook and back, enjoying the uniquely soft angles of the cliffs and canyon beneath and the excited condor enthusiasts along the way. The trail is short but does rise 534 feet, so mild huffing and puffing was involved.
Birders and posers with giant lenses are common at Pinnacles. Actual California condor sightings are not. On the walk down from the overlook we spotted a knot of hikers pointing excitedly into the sky at what they were certain was a condor. Fortunately, a wizened birder set the rabble straight. It was just a turkey buzzard.
The 2.6-mile hike to Bear Gulch Cave and back begins with a dusty march along Bear Creek. The talus cave at the far tend of the trail sets it apart.
The cave is actually an opening beneath a jumble of boulders calved from the nearby canyon walls. Water from the last of the winter rains rushed beneath our feet as we entered, balancing gingerly on wobbly rocks to keep our feet dry and watching our heads as we crept into the darkness. Bring a head lamp.
Deep inside, the cave rises to a steep staircase that winds past a waterfall to an exit that requires stooping to all fours to escape back into the open. The loop back down the hill involved a tiny bit of technical maneuvering to clamor down the canyon rocks, but we arrived back at the car in one piece. A recently arrived park visitor circling the parking lot was happy to see us leave.
A Word about Salinas
We stayed in Monterey but kinda wished we’d stayed in Salinas. Like the nearby national park, Salinas flies under the radar as a tourist destination. We stopped by on the drive south from home to Monterey to eat lunch at the childhood home of author John “Grapes of Wrath” Steinbeck and to visit the National Steinbeck Center.
We enjoyed panini sandwiches in the nearly empty dining room of the Steinbeck homestead and an impromptu tour by the volunteers who staff the restaurant and gift shop. As a young adult, Steinbeck wrote “Cannery Row” in an upstairs bedroom. As a child, he apparently terrorized his friends with verbal tales of the macabre in the darkened basement.
The National Steinbeck Center in Old Town Salinas encompasses a set of multimedia exhibits featuring the author’s many major works. It was excellent. If we had spent the night in Salinas, we would have returned to Old Town for dinner that evening.