It was Sunday morning, June 2. Sean and I were booked on a flight home to Chicago from San Jose at 1:55 that afternoon, but now, at not quite 7am, we were ready for our final hike at Pinnacles National Park: South Wilderness Trail.
South Wilderness Trail is 3.25 miles one-way with little to no elevation gain. It follows Chalone Creek south from a junction with Bench Trail not far from the Pinnacles Campground. Ironically given its name, it does not actually pass through much of the park’s federal wilderness area as designated by the Wilderness Act. The trail, although relatively easy to follow, is less maintained than many of the other trails in the park.
We knew that we did not have time to do the entire 6.5-mile out-and-back hike. So we planned to go as far as we could before we had to turn around and head back to camp. Our total hike that morning ended up being about 6.25 miles including 1.1 miles on Bench Trail between the campsite and the South Wilderness trailhead.
We set out on Bench Trail from a still quiet campground. People were slowly waking up and beginning to fix breakfast. We passed coveys of quail and several jackrabbits.
At the Bench Trail/South Wilderness Trail junction, we headed due south into a wide valley. Smaller valleys and canyons, formed by tributaries of Chalone Creek, occasionally extended out to west and east. The early sun played off of the ridges and mountains to the west, but the valley itself was still in shadow.
We crossed Chalone Creek and momentarily lost the trail in the gravelly area by the creek’s bed. Consulting the topo map, we knew that the trail had to continue due south, and soon we found it again.
Much of the trail passed through park-like oak savanna. Particularly at the points where sunlight flooded into the valley from a side canyon to the east, the light was gorgeous, ethereal.
The valley narrowed, and the bank of Chalone Creek steepened. The trail also narrowed and climbed up the bank.
Chalone Creek gurgles below the trail while the valley is filled with birdsong.
Soon the valley widened again, but it was still narrower than before. We had seen less wildlife tran I’d hoped, but we did spot a huge raptor, probably a Golden Eagle. It watched us momentarily from a tree and then flew away.
The trail led down onto gravelly, sandy ground that likely comprised part of the creek bed when it was at flood.
As we reached a particularly lush section of the creek, it was time to turn around. We lingered for a few moments before beginning the return hike to the campground.
The sun was steadily rising higher while we were on our way back, but the light was still lovely.
By the time we reached the campground, the sun was beginning to beat down with the heat of the day even though it was only 8:45am. We had some more coffee and some food while we began to pack up. In relatively short order our gear was stowed in our backpacks and suitcases, and we were ready to go.
On the way out of the park, we stopped at the visitor center and gave a ranger our partially-used stove fuel and box of matches. He said he’d probably be able to find a use for them.
Then we were driving north through ranch land.
We stopped in Tres Pinos post office to mail postcards, then it was on through Hollister and Gilroy and a quick stop at an In-N-Out Burger for lunch (because how often are we in California?). Our flight was delayed by a mechanical leaving San Jose, but ultimately we were only about 45 minutes late arriving at Chicago O’Hare.
Although we wished we’d had more time at Pinnacles National Park, this park journey showed that even parks across the continent can be possible to see relatively cheaply as weekend camping trips. It bodes well for the future of the project.