It was Friday afternoon, May 31. We’d finished our hike into the High Peaks at about 1:45. Now we needed to drive around the south end of the Gabilan mountains to the park’s east entrance in order to reach Pinnacles Campground.
On the way out of the park, we stopped at the Vistor Contact Station, which had been rebuilt as with funds from the Obama stimulus in 2009. The station was clean and bright with nice exhibition and program spaces. We got our passports stamped (the stamp already said Pinnacles National Park, although many other signs and souvenir still said monument). Sean inquired from the volunteer at the desk if she could recommend anywhere to get lunch in Soledad. She suggested Frankie’s.
Before getting lunch, though, we had some shopping to do. The park had been under a no campfires restriction for weeks since the weather had been so dry. Since we’d flown to California, we couldn’t have taken a fuel canister for our backpacking stove with us, so we needed to find somewhere in Soledad that sold canisters. The ACE Hardware sold canisters for more robust camp stoves, but not for my tiny backpacker. There was a sporting goods store in Salinas, 30 minutes north, and an REI near Monterrey, 45 minutes northwest. Both of those options were in the wrong direction. Faced with wasting time and gas, we decided to purchase a camp stove and canister from the ACE. We also picked up a new tarp and some matches. Then it was off to get some food. We were starving.
Frankie’s turned out to be an unassuming Mexican and burgers joint across from the post office. Sean and I each ordered a burger, and Sean watched as the cook made the burger patties by hand. They were pretty great! I got chatting with the woman at the counter who asked if we had been up to the Pinnacles. I let her know that someone from the park had recommended her establishment. “They’re good to us,” she replied. She said that she had noticed an increase in visitors to Pinnacles now that it was a National Park. “It’s a good thing for us. And it’s good that the Pinnacles will be protected. When my father was a boy, he and his friends used to ride their bikes up there in the canyons. Can you imagine?”
After we lunched, we stopped by a market to get some water, tortillas, peanut butter, potato chips, and other foodstuffs. Then we headed south through the Salinas Valley toward King City. The valley appeared to be mainly about crops. East of King City, south of the Gabilans, lettuce fields stretched away on all sides before giving way to ranches. On the other side of the Gabilans, in the San Andreas Rift Zone and along the Diablo Range, ranch land dominated.
It took about an hour to reach the visitor center and campground store on the east side of Pinnacles. We had reserved our campsite, so I signed the register while Sean glanced in the store, and then we were off to our site. While there is a significant variety of campsites at Pinnacles, with varying degrees of privacy or of shade, I’d spent too much time fretting over comments on Yelp and TripAdvisor before the trip. Our site was fantastic, and we were greeted by jackrabbits, jays, and a family of California Quail.
Our site, on one of the loops, was on the edge of the shallow ravine that Sandy Creek flows through. We pitched our tent in a sheltered area near the edge of the ravine and set to work organizing our gear and setting up the new camp stove. In the evening there were flies, but they were simply a nuisance since they didn’t bite. We did have to use some bug spray on our feet and ankles because there was an ant colony in the sandy dirt near the picnic table.
After we settled in, we took a walk to explore the campground.
After our walk, we ate dinner and relaxed. The sun was beginning to set, casting a beautiful glow on the ridge across from our campsite. Other campers arrived, but the campground didn’t feel too crowded. There was a large group sharing two group campsites across the creek from where we were. They had a group of middle school aged kids who were running around screaming and such, but their fun didn’t distract from our enjoyment of camping.
At 8:30, we attended that evening’s ranger talk at the amphitheater. Ranger Javier, who had earlier driven around the campground letting campers know about the talk, spoke on the California Condor. Pinnacles is one of the sites that has seen the endangered birds reintroduced successfully since the population bottomed out at 22 in 1987. Ranger Javier seemed very nervous while he was giving his talk, but he needn’t have been. He was quite informative, particularly in describing how to identify condors. We knew then that the birds we’d seen earlier in the day had not been condors, but had been Turkey Vultures.
After the talk, we headed back to our camp and went to sleep. We wanted to be up relatively early to get in some more hiking before the day got too hot.
We woke refreshed and prepared percolated coffee and breakfast skillets. Soon we were ready for a Saturday morning hike.