Pinnacles National Park: California’s Well-Kept Secret

Keeping my vow, the day I left work, I headed straight to Pinnacles National Park. Luckily for me, a glamsient friend had the day off and agreed to join me. We started at the visitor center on the east entrance where I saw a sign announcing the arrival of a California Condor.”A new baby! How exciting,” I said to the ranger behind the counter.
“Yes, a girl. We are thrilled,” she said. “It’s from the only nest in the park!”
“Do you have any camping available for tonight?” I asked. Knowing that many California parks fill up months in advance during summer, I braced myself for her answer.
“Oh yes, there’s plenty.” She handed me a map of the campground. “Pick out an empty space, come back and let us know which one you want.”
We drove towards the back of the campground — it was virtually empty! With so much availability, we found exactly what we wanted: a site surrounded by trees and bushes to give us privacy and shade.
High Peaks Trail via Bear Gulch Cave
For our first hike, we chose the High Peaks Trail by way of Bear Gulch Cave. My glamsient friend informed me this is the most popular trail in the park.
The first section guided us to Bear Gulch Cave, a rare talus cave thought to be formed in the ice age. The canopy of trees made this hike gentle and pleasant even in the middle of the afternoon. Created by large boulders that had fallen and wedged into narrow canyons, the cave was easy to navigate — sunlight made its way into the cave through open spaces to illuminate the path. We walked over bridges and up stairs created in the 1930s; part of the way, we had to crouch to pass underneath boulders.
“Wouldn’t want to be here during an earthquake,” my friend remarked. “The San Andreas fault is pretty close.”
For a popular destination at the park, the cave was by no means crowded; we saw only a few groups of people.
Leaving the cave, the trail led us to a small reservoir; that’s where the strenuous climb began to the High Peaks. Without the tree cover, under the blazing sun, every step moved me further uphill and every step told me that I am out of shape! I quickly realized this section of the trail would be much more enjoyable in cooler weather — either early morning in summer or a cooler time of year altogether!
(That being said, we saw many groups with children. They seemed fine. Hot, but fine.)
Ultimately, our effort paid off — the trail took us to an incredible peak revealing far reaching vistas of valleys, rock formations and mountain ranges to the east and west. The High Peaks trail showcases prehistoric rock formations; volcanic activity created these rocks 23 million years ago and erosion formed them into what we see today. It surprised me to learn seismic activity moved the solid, massive boulders over 195 miles northwest from the time of their creation.
At the crux, we walked up and over boulders that created a long ridge — in many places, the trail was carved by dynamite into footholds and steps. We stopped to catch our breath, but lost it when a Condor flew overhead! One of only 36 wild in the park, we knew we were in the right place at the right time.
Shortly after we made our descent, we saw a couple on the trail.
“Is the peak much farther?” The young man asked. He sat in shade created by chaparral, his face was red and dripping with sweat. “We are thinking of going back.”
“You’re so close,” I told him. “Keep going.”
“It’s worth it,” my friend said. “The views and everything — you don’t want to turn back.”
“And there’s a cave on the other side,” I said.
Halfway down, we found a spot to rest and wait for the full moon. Despite my aching feet and jelly knees, seeing the moon — large and pink — rise over the mountains at sunset was a glory to behold.
It was dark when we returned to camp for dinner. Eating that night, I noticed a sense of vitality within me. My blood pumped through my veins, fresh air emboldened my lungs and my muscles felt active and alive!
Balconies Trail
The next morning, my fellow glamsient left early for work. Part of me wanted to head home, but I quickly recognized that desire as my old habit of rushing to the destination. The Balconies Cave enticed me and, remembering to slow down and savor the journey, I chose to stay in the park.
Driving to the trailhead I saw quail, turkeys, and a doe with her fawn. The parking lot was empty apart from my car, and only the sound of birds accompanied me onto the path.
Meandering through trees, the Balconies trail is mostly flat — a perfect companion to yesterday’s strenuous hike. Yellow swallowtail butterflies greeted me as if to say I had made the right choice. I breathed deeply, enjoying the time to myself.
When I came to the entrance of the talus cave, I saw a large, metal gate. “Flashlights Required,” a sign read. Having seen a similar warning at the trailhead I had my headlamp — and thank goodness for that! The cave was pitch black; only little white painted arrows marked the trail.
Cool and dark, the deep quietude of the cave penetrated my being. I was completely alone, and instead of steadily moving through to the other side, I sat and turned off my headlamp. Surrounded by rock, my small, vulnerable body felt soft and humble, but I was not afraid. I felt held and supported. I seemed to dissolve, as if I were part of the rock, the air, the empty space. In perfect stillness, I tuned to the deepest part of me — connected and endless.
When I was ready, I moved forward through the cave. As soon as the first rays of sun beckoned me out I wanted to go back into the dark, cool, quiet chamber. It had given me a thrill unlike any other.
Hiking the next section of the trail — a moderate stretch with views of rock formations jutting out of the earth like balconies — my mind returned to my experience in the cave. Wholly grounding, yet also uplifting, I longed to return to the cave and the feeling of oneness.

Rock Formations
Small and humble
A shady, gentle, empty stretch of trail
Footholds in the trail
Rocky trail
Rock formations over the trail
Entering the cave
Exiting the cave
Taking in the view from the high peaks

 

The Road to Happiness

Recently, I woke up feeling a strong aversion towards going to work; not because I hate my job, but because it is nearly 300 miles away from my new home and I didn’t want to make that drive.

When I’m scheduled, I usually leave as early in the morning as possible just to get there and be done with the drive. This particular morning, however, I decided to do things differently: I gave myself the glamsient luxury of time.

Instead of rushing out of bed, I snuggled with my cat much longer than anyone would consider appropriate, and before I got to packing, I went on the lake with my younger cousin. Dragonflies waltzed in the air, wildflowers crept close to the water’s edge, and fish made an appearance when we looked for them. We explored the lake on paddle boards, stopping in every eddy until we found a blackberry bush and savored its plump, dark fruit.

As morning drifted into early afternoon, I set out on my five hour drive. Invigorated and inspired by my new attitude, I decided to make my drive an adventure — instead of going the quickest, most direct route, I chose a new road. A stretch of California Highway 25, The Old Arline Highway, seemed appealing although I knew nothing about it.

Without any expectations, I felt a sense of curiosity towards my journey — much better than the dread I felt that morning.

South of Hollister, Highway 25 becomes a gently winding road and the scenery opens into long swaths of rolling hills, spotted with oak trees. East of Big Sur, valleys of agricultural and ranch land create a stark contrast to jagged mountains behind them. Highway 25 teemed with life: I saw hawks, vultures, quail, blackbirds, doves, goldfinches, turkeys, ground squirrels, rabbits and deer.

The highway was nearly devoid of other cars — a welcome reprieve from the hectic highways and freeways I often navigate.

And then, I saw the signs to Pinnacles National Park. When I came to the entrance, I debated momentarily before consulting my new attitude and driving in to eat my dinner. I found a perfect spot under a large oak tree at the visitor center. Children laughed in the swimming pool behind me and a yellow swallowtail butterfly floated through the trees. A breeze rustled the leaves. I wanted to explore the park, but with only a couple hours of sunlight remaining, I knew I had to get back on the road. As I got into my car, I promised myself I would return on my way home.

Arriving at work just as the sun set, I felt refreshed and happy. Turning the drive into an adventure was the best thing I could do for myself that day. Instead of feeling grumpy and annoyed the whole way, I felt elated and light.

My small, impromptu adventure reminded me to slow down and take full advantage of every moment. I remembered that life isn’t about the destination, it’s about doing what it takes to enjoy the journey. Finding ways to create happiness and curiosity that day gave me the wisdom to shift my approach to everyday life.

Oak Tree on the side of the Highway
Farm Land on Highway 25

Dinner under an Oak in Pinnacles National Park