Having visited many of the nearby areas to San Francisco, it was time to try and visit somewhere a little bit different. Both previous times I’d visited Big Sur, I’d wanted to take a detour to see this national park, but it had been just a little too far, and had left it just a little too late.
It was also fortuitous that the weekend I decided to go away camping, it was one of the few places that had available sites for camping, too – at least for Friday night, and then Saturday would need to move to a ‘walk-in’ non-bookable site, hoping to get ahead of the crowds coming from SF. It was a mad rush on Friday afternoon to get there while there was still sun light and set up camp. Fortunately traffic was fine from San Jose onwards, and there weren’t too many distractions from the highway driving, so I achieved that goal… just.
Pinnacles National Park – Eastern Entrance
There are two sides to the park, East and West, and it’s not possible to directly drive between the two. The camp was on the eastern side of the park, so that is where the hiking and exploration began. While I’d wanted to visit the park for a while, I hadn’t quite sorted out what it was that I wanted to visit there in the park. I knew there was hiking, and some interesting rock formations, but that was about the extent of my planning and preparations for the trip.
Since we had to re-book into a walk-in site, I had to wait for the office to open before the day could get started. This meant that it was mid-morning by the time we were ready to start hiking. It also turned out to be an extremely hot day, with park rangers strongly suggesting to stick to shaded areas as temperatures in the higher elevation areas of the park were set to reach mid 40s – not too far below what I’d just experienced in Death Valley, which gave me a little more respect for hiking in hot temperatures.
So, with all of that, choices were somewhat limited, and stuck with the short-ish Bear Gulch trail. This wound through rocky weathered canyons, dipping in and out of small sections of caves – there were warnings to bring a head torch.
There were definite moments of discomfort, squeezing through some of the boulder strewn cracks, with vivid flashbacks of James Franco in 127 Hours.
The trail brought us to a small reservoir, which after sweating in the heat looked too good to be true – and it was, with signs forbidding swimming due to contamination.
Still, it was nice to be at a higher elevation, and get a clearer perspective of the park, rather than the narrow view from inside the canyons (and even more so inside the caves). Had the weather been more appropriate, there is a large network of trails that go much further, and I’m sure provide far grander views. It had been nice, but I had greater expectations of how this park looked, and to be truthful, I was sad that I hadn’t seen it – yet.
It is possible to travel between the east and the western entrances of the park by foot, but it was strongly advised against today. So, taking the ranger’s advice, instead of risking heat stroke, we opted to drive around to the other entrance of the park. While it may have been less than 5km between the two entrances as the vulture flies, it was 100km and 90-minutes in a car. I thought it would be fun to rent a convertible (a small Fiat 500), but with the ferocity of the sun, it didn’t take long to prove an uncomfortable novelty, and have it raised back to provide protection.
It was a surprisingly nice drive, along some very quiet, and quite fun roads, especially between Bitterwater and King City. I’m still kind of taken aback by the endless rolling golden hills here.
Pinnacles National Park – Western Entrance
Due to the not insignificant drive, it was getting late in the afternoon by the time we’d made it to western entrance to the park. Temperatures didn’t seem to have subsided any, if anything, the direct sun was feeling even more intense. After a meal of soft cheese, fresh corn chips, and guacamole (and a quick read up on the trails in the area), we made our way into the sunshine. It was much later in the day than I had really realised, and the sun was already starting to cast long shadows – but, there was several hours until sun set, so no cause for concern… yet.
This aspect of the Pinnacles was very different to the view from the east. It was far more dramatic, with large spines of rock protruding, much like, pinnacles… The trail wound its way back into a gorge, ending the open spaces and towering views.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the Balconies Cave trail featured a section of caves. We’d visited some ‘caves’ earlier in the day, so I didn’t think much of it. But, we were now staring into a small opening in a rock, curiously shining light down inside to see where the trail went – and what the trail was like. I entered, and took a few steps inside, still unable to make sense of how far this trail continued. It seemed to get steeper, and narrower, but I was curious now, and with the much needed assistance of a head torch, continued to shuffle further and further underground. I’d probably only travelled 50m (which felt like several hundred) before I was able to detect the feint light of the exit, which required crawling down through a gap in boulders and out of a much larger opening in the rock. I felt so exhilarated at taking a ‘risk’ and leaving my comfort zone to explore where this trail actually went. It was only a short section of a hike, but it was one of the most unique sections of a trail I’ve done in some time.
Once back outside the caves, the trail then swept back up and above, into the Balconies. It almost felt like Autumn, with an assortment of golden coloured trees (and slightly cooler temperatures in the shade).
The trail did give a great panoramic view out over the spiny rocks, and giant massifs as it twisted and turned back down to the valley floor.
Before long, the sun was getting even lower in the sky, plunging the valley into heavily shaded darkness, while setting the granite massifs ablaze. I took this as a cue to pull the drone out for a quick bird’s eye view of the area. From the drone, I could see the maze of trails that existed between the field of boulders up to the summit far above. It would be amazing to have been able to hike up there – hopefully I get to visit again outside of summer.
The sun did its thing, and slipped away behind the horizon (yes, I know the sun doesn’t actually move). What followed was yet another spectacular California sunset, with golden hues that seemed to intensify as time passed. It was spectacular driving, being submerged in the warm hues with the roof of the convertible down.
Being summer time, it was well after 8PM when the sun set. Thankfully, the little town of King City had some great looking Mexican restaurants, as there was still a 90-minute drive back to the campsite – and I was hungry and tired. I’ve never been to Mexico, but there was something authentic about the way this place felt. It was delicious, but, it could have been the hunger talking.
It was another scorching morning, and I was in no rush to pack up and start driving again. Rather than doing additional hikes in the park (since we were going to be limited by the same temperature constraints as yesterday), I thought it would be nice to drive along the Pacific Coast and Big Sur again. It was another great drive, down some really quiet roads, that seemed to have no more than 100m between each twist and turn.
Once I’d reached the crest of the range, and was in a position to look down at the ocean, I was a little surprised/shocked/disappointed. Where views of the blue ocean should be, were views of a sea of clouds and fog. The disappointment didn’t last too long, as it was something quite novel and beautiful.
Another surprise were the vultures that were riding the thermals just above where I’d stopped to enjoy the view. The rumble and whistle of their wings as they soared was fantastic, keeping me mesmerised.
Once on the coast, the novelty was a little less fun, with the visibility so severely limited, I could have been driving anywhere, as the ocean was nowhere to be seen. It was also now too cold to have the sunroof open. Amazing how much that can change within the space of an hour’s drive.
The clouds were racing in from the coast, and you could see them washing across the roads, and up the hills where they were likely to evaporate. Occasionally you’d catch an opening, and see a patch of the sky again. It was motivation enough to take my little drone out for a quick flight – which was a mixed bag. It did get some interesting footage of the sea of clouds, but it also came back completely wet with condensation… probably not my smartest move.
I attempted to stop and visit some of the beaches along the way, but even with the less than ideal weather, being a Sunday all the car parks were completely full, and I had no choice but to continue driving towards San Francisco.
It was the first time seeing Big Sur in weather like this, and while it’s not my favourite (I love the vivid colours), it was still a beautiful experience.
It was another quick trip that has given me a taste of a national park, but has left me longing to return to hike and explore further (with actual planning/preparations).