National Park Road Trip Part 1: Pinnacles

“That’s pintacular!” one of the kids said as we marveled at a landscape we didn’t even know California had before today.

“Pinnaculous!” another said.

“This is truly the pinnacle of our trip so far,” the third contributed.

Hard to dispute, really, since our weeklong National Park trip was about five hours old at this point. But also true.

We have driven past Pinnacles multiple times in the past 10 years, but we’ve always been on our way somewhere else and didn’t have time to stop. Now that we’ve seen it, we can’t wait to go back.

Road trip day one destination: Pinnacles National Park

Miles traveled today: 132

Total road trip distance so far: 132 miles

Cost: About $400 (Two rooms at Soledad Motel 8 $325, dinner at Cocuyo $85. Park entrance was free with our America the Beautiful pass.)

We arrived at our lodging, Soledad Motel 8, at around 1 p.m. We walked our dogs, and settled them into their crates in the room, because pets are not allowed on national park trails. Then we drove over to the West side of the Pinnacles National Park, which only took 20 minutes. Once we got off the city streets, the road to the park is narrow, going down to one lane after awhile. There was no manned entrance booth, but a sign directed us to either put an entrance fee in the box or display our pass on the dashboard.

There is a “Visitor Contact Station” at the West entrance, but it was closed on the Wednesday we visited. We studied the signs and decided to walk the Balconies Cave Trail. Only some of us are willing to go in a cave, but we figured we could all hike there together. (By the way, you can check whether the caves are open or not on the park web site.)

We drove to the Chaparral Parking Area, which has vault toilets but no water.

It had been raining recently, but the sky was sunny that day. Right away at the beginning of the Balconies trail, we had to jump over a little bit of water. Little did we know that there was no point jumping, since we’d all have wet shoes by the end of the hike. Still, we are so grateful that we saw Pinnacles at a wet time of year, because everywhere we looked, there was moss growing on the rocks, grass and little waterfalls. We felt like we had left California behind. This place is popular with rock climbers, and we soon saw why: The place is strewn with giant boulders, including some you get to duck and walk under.

Besides hopping over water here and there, the Balconies trail, winding alongside a little stream, was not difficult. There were lots of other hikers around, probably because it was the week between Christmas and New Year’s. But we had had no trouble getting a parking spot.

Balconies is a loop if you hike (more like scramble at parts) through the Balconies Cave. Two of us decided to go that way, while the other three decided to walk around the long way and wait for us on the other side of the cave. About one mile in, we came to the cave entrance, which has a gate that’s locked when the cave is closed.

As you can see, the water rushing along the hiking trail was about ankle deep on the day we visited. There was a park volunteer hiking through the cave while we were there, and I suspect his purpose in being there was to gauge whether or not the cave needed to be closed because of all the water. As I’m typing this, the atmospheric rivers that hit after we left have shut down all the trails at Pinnacles.

After we went through the gate, we walked through what felt like a rock hallway. The water got deeper, almost knee deep.

At this point, you don’t yet need a flashlight. After this part, the cave opens up again a bit, and you see basically a dark hole that you are supposed to climb down into. It was around this point when I realized that this was more of a backpack hike than a “stroll through carrying a purse hike.” We peeked down into the hole, saw little, and were hesitant to continue. A couple of young English guys who had taken off their shoes for the wet slog were sitting outside it, putting their shoes back on, and they preceded us. From inside, they reassured us that after a few steps down, the dark part of the cave flattened out.

However, we decided not to continue. We splashed back through the long wet tunnel section, then walked the long way around the trail to find the rest of our family.

This part of the hike gains some elevation, but it was still not too challenging. At this point, our shoes were soaked, so we no longer bothered hopping over any little rivulets that took over the trail. Then the trail descended to the other side of the cave. After standing around eating our lunch, we prepared to hike back to the parking lot.

However, I was feeling regret about not getting all the way through Balconies Cave. I decided at the last minute to hike through from this side and to meet everyone at the parking lot. After all, my route would be shorter, so I wouldn’t be delaying us. I gave my purse to my husband to carry so I’d be encumbered only by a flashlight. If I go back here again, I’ll wear a headlamp instead so both my hands are free.

From the back side, Balconies Cave is less intimidating. The opening is much wider so you see what you’re getting into. There were also more people lined up to enter, which made it feel less scary. Once inside, I turned on my flashlight for a few minutes, went through some shallow water, scrambled up some boulders, and before I knew it I was at the point where we’d turned back before. Truly, the scariest part would have been descedning those few steps into what looked like a dark and mysterious hole from the front side. And the deepest wading, it turned out, was the tunnel part, which I’d already done twice that day.

My hike ended up being about 3 miles, while everyone else hiked more like 3 and a half, going back without cutting through the cave. We went back to the hotel, changed out of our soaked hiking boots, walked our dogs, and went out for tacos at Cocuyo’s Restaurant, which was casual and delicious.

The next morning, I was able to use the blow drier in our room to completely dry my hiking boots, thank goodness, since the only other pair of shoes I’d brought were some not-very-good snow boots.

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