Pinnacles National Park: Flying to the Mountains

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It was storming intermittently in Chicago on the evening of Thursday, May 30. Our flight to San Jose was delayed 1.5 hours, so we sat at O’Hare munching on Frontera Tortas and watching the other passengers get increasingly anxious.

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Once we were in the air, the captain was able to make up some of the lost time, and we arrived in San Jose only about 50 minutes behind schedule. Those 50 minutes, however, would translate to lost sleep since we still hoped to be up and on our way to West Pinnacles as early as possible.

We picked up our rental car and drove 40 minutes south to Gilroy, where we had a reservation at the Quality Inn. Once in our room, we somewhat exploded our belongings everywhere as we resorted before going to bed. Since we had so much camping gear, I had most of my clothes in my carry-on backpack, which now would need to be repacked as a day pack, etc. It was almost 1am by the time we turned out the lights, and I lay there fretting as I weighed the need for sleep with both my excitement and my not wanting to get started on our first hikes too late (both because of impending heat and because of impending crowds). After changing my alarm setting four times, I finally settled on the original 6am wake up.

I woke up at 5:45am. I was too excited.

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The morning smelled like California, like eucalyptus and bright air.

We finished packing, took what would be our only showers of the trip, and had some complimentary continental breakfast before hitting the road.

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It was a gorgeous, cloudless morning as we drove the hour and fifteen minutes south to the west entrance of Pinnacles National Park. We followed California Highway 101 through Salinas to Soledad, the farming town in the Salinas Valley that served as the gateway to West Pinnacles.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

We passed heavily irrigated fields of lettuce, crowds of children on their way to Gabilan Elementary, and as we passed out of town and into the foothills of the mountains, vast fields of grapes.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Image: Sean M. Santos

As we drove further along highway 146 into the mountains, the road narrowed. We were still outside the park boundary when we got our first glimpse of the pinnacles formations in the distance. There’s something about the approach to a National Park you’ve not visited before, knowing a bit about what to expect, but not knowing what it will be like in actual, physical reality. And, of course, there’s the familiar structure of the way the parks are presented to the people: a road or boat passing further from civilization, a looming geological feature or shoreline, and then the sign and the familiar font announcing that you are here, at last, in this special place.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Only a few months since the status change, most of the park’s signage still refers to Pinnacles as a National Monument, not a National Park. Image: Sean M. Santos

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By the time we rounded the final curve and arrived at the West Pinnacles Parking Lot, it was almost 9am, 1.5 hours later than I’d wanted to arrive. I had been nervous that there would be lots of people at the park on this beautiful Friday morning. But to our delight there was only one other car in the lot, a small sedan with British Columbian plates.

We gathered our day hiking supplies and set out toward the trails.

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