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Pinnacles

Started: 2017-07-14 15:37:57

Submitted: 2017-07-14 17:55:43

Visibility: World-readable

2 July 2017: In which the intrepid narrator visits his nearest National Park; Or, Further East of Eden

In San Francisco, I am deluged by historic and natural sites administered by the National Park Service. Inside the city limits, within easy reach of me by car or public transportation, are Golden Gate National Recreation Area, San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, and Fort Port National Historic Site. Within an easy drive is Muir Woods National Monument (though every time we've tried to visit since moving to San Francisco we've been thwarted by crowds of cars at the parking lot), the Marin Headlands unit of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and Point Reyes National Seashore. I've visited all of these sites on multiple occasions as a tourist and since moving to San Francisco. But the closest formally named National Park is an obscure park called Pinnacles, located two hours south of San Francisco at the height of the ridge forming the eastern border of the Salinas Valley. It was elevated to become a National Park in 2013, after decades as a National Monument.

Trail to Balconies and Machete Ridge
Trail to Balconies and Machete Ridge

I set out to visit Pinnacles on the Sunday prior to the Fourth of July. (I had a four-day weekend, since my employer saw fit to give me Monday off as a holiday on the assumption that I wouldn't really show up to work anyway; Kiesa only got Tuesday, the official holiday, off.) We drove two hours south of San Francisco, down I-280 to San Jose, then CA-85 to US-101. On 101 we left the city behind to the rolling hills leading into Gilroy (which claims to be the "garlic capitol of the world"; I did see signs advertising "garlic ice cream", which we did not stop to investigate). I think Gilroy counts as the southern end of the San Francisco Bay Area, since it is connected to San Jose and San Francisco via Caltrain (and it drains into San Francisco Bay, and its climate is dominated by the cooling influence of the bay).

South of Gilroy the highway turned west and climbed the Coast Range before descending into Salinas, then turned south to head through the heart of the Salinas Valley. This agricultural valley -- the setting of John Steinbeck's novel East of Eden -- was a different world from the urban Bay Area. It was hot and dry, and irrigated fields stretched between the hills on either side of the valley. The valley claims to grow most of the nation's salad greens, and we could see a wide variety of unidentified small crops growing in the fields from the highway.

We stopped for gas in a small town in the valley and headed east, towards Pinnacles, on a progression of small roads winding between fields, vineyards, orchards, and pastures. At the border to the park the irrigation stopped and the land reverted to its natural state: rolling hills covered in dry chaparral -- shoulder-high shrubs with dry pine trees scattered around the slopes, and scrub oak growing at the bottom of the valleys where they could get enough water to scrape together a life.

We stopped at the visitor contact center at the edge of the park, where a new entrance station had been built. It was 10:30 in the morning and the temperature was already pushing 90 degrees. The air had a distinct hot-and-dry smell, almost like acrid campfire smoke in the way it caught in my nose, that reminded me of India. I paid our park entrance fee, looked around at some of the interpretive displays, and headed back to the car to the Balconies Cave Trailhead at the end of the road.

Balconies Cliffs Trail at Pinnacles National Park
Balconies Cliffs Trail at Pinnacles National Park

Our destination was the Balconies Caves, a series of talus caves formed when large house-sized boulders rolled down the mountain and got stuck at the bottom of the narrow valley, suspended above the ground with enough space for the creek to keep running -- and for humans to walk through. The trail led along the bottom of the valley, just above a dry creek bed, between two towering cliffs created by volcanic action in an earlier epoch before being worn down by the wind and water (and moved 190 miles from the other part of the lava field by being pulled along the San Andreas Fault at a speed of two inches per year).

Calvin in the Balconies Cave
Calvin in the Balconies Cave

The cave started when the narrow valley got narrow enough to catch the boulders that rolled down the mountain, rather than dropping them onto the floor. We scrambled between the rocks that were small enough to hit the floor; Julian was usually able to make his way over the rocks, though he needed some assistance from Kiesa. I tried not to spend too much time thinking about the giant boulders looming over my head; in particular how they had gotten there, and whether they were going to continue their journey to the bottom of the valley.

Kiesa, Julian, and Calvin in the Balconies Cave
Kiesa, Julian, and Calvin in the Balconies Cave

The first cave went on for a couple hundred meters, past a gate where the Park Service could lock the cave to protect the bats that lived in it. We emerged into the daylight again for a short scramble over some rocks, before descending again into the darkness of the cave. (This time we had crossed a saddle and began descending into the opposite drainage down the other side of the ridge.)

Balconies Cave at Pinnacles National Park
Balconies Cave at Pinnacles National Park

The second section of the cave was steeper and deeper. Julian required a great deal of assistance to get up and down the rocks, and I needed my head lamp to see where I was going. The cave seemed to spiral deeper and deeper into the mountain, following the path of the dry stream bed, opening into a series of larger rooms in between narrow steep passages, before emerging into the light once again.

Kiesa and Julian exit the Balconies Cave
Kiesa and Julian exit the Balconies Cave

We continued the lollypop loop that climbed up to the Balconies cliffs, a series of high rock cliffs that allegedly look something like balconies (if one has enough imagination). I kept a look out for California condors, which like using the cliffs to search for carrion, but all I saw were a series of hawks circling around the top of the cliffs, looking out for prey on the hills far below. I let Calvin use my binoculars to look at the hawks, then reclaimed them to look myself.

Balconies at Pinnacles National Park
Balconies at Pinnacles National Park

At this point in the trail, Julian started to get tired. It was hot and dry, and the sun was beating down on us and everything else in the park. We had forgotten to bring the carrier, so Kiesa carried him for a while before she got tired and handed him to me to carry him the rest of the way to the trailhead.

Calvin on the Balconies Cliffs Trail
Calvin on the Balconies Cliffs Trail

We ate lunch at the trailhead (after moving to the overflow parking lot where we could get some shade), then headed back to civilization -- with a stop at Dairy Queen in Salinas for fortifications to reward us for the day in the sun. We drove back to San Francisco, pleased to have visited our newest nearby National Park.

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