I will tell you up front that King’s Canyon was the shortest and worst of all our national park visits. It was New Year’s Even in California — a day of epic winter storms across the state. It was a messy — but fortunately not dangerous — day in our area. But hey, we were on vacation, and our whole family was together. Even our college kid! So we still had a pretty good day overall.
By Day 4 of our trip, the kids were pretty much tired of me telling them we had to get going as soon as possible to beat the weather. And to be honest, the weather had already arrived before the kids got out of bed. In fact, when Erik walked our German Shepherd that morning, white snowflakes studded her black hair. None of it stuck to the ground at our 4,000-elevation Airbnb, though.
When I woke up on Day 3 of our road trip and opened the living room curtains, I was blown away. Our little Airbnb had an epic view down the mountains, into the Central Valley, and across to the mountains on the other side of the valley. We were at about 4,000 feet elevation, and had no snow — nor rain, at least at 7:30 in the morning. But these were the last days of 2022, and we knew a big winter storm was on its way in.
We had originally thought we’d drive to Kings Canyon National Park on Day 3, since we were staying practically right outside its gates. But consulting the weather, we realized it would probably be raining all day in King’s Canyon, whereas it might be snowing in Sequoia. Snow sounded like more fun than rain.
I have no idea why King’s Canyon and Sequoia are considered two parks. They are continguous. In summer, you can drive from one to another without exiting. In winter, though, the road connecting them — General’s Highway — is often (always?) closed due to snow. We could have driven a still-relatively-direct route to Sequoia from our house in Dunlap on what looked like a small, windy mountain road, through Pinehurst and Badger. That would have taken about 1.5 hours, each way.
After just one night at the Soledad 8 Motel, it was time to move on. This was somewhat of a relief, even though the motel is good for what it is. It’s just not easy to live in a small motel room with two big dogs. There were a few barks while we were there, and who knows how many while we were off hiking and they were crated. We didn’t get any complaints, fortunately.
We loaded the car back up with stuff and dogs and people, and drove 53 miles around to the East entrance of Pinnacles. It was lightly raining, but we had raincoats and were determined to see the East side of the park before driving to our Airbnb just outside King’s Canyon. Since the “visitor contact center” had been closed on the West side, the first thing we did was visit the tiny Pinnacles Park Store, so I could buy the obligatory car sticker and magnet for our fridge.
The store also contained an impressive warning. Gosh, I hope that photo is not actual size:
“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.
We wanted to do a real family vacation — like with all five of us — while our oldest was home on Christmas break. But where to go? None of us have valid passports at the moment. The oldest didn’t want to go to Hawaii and none of the kids wanted a ski vacation. Then, last summer, the oldest started tabulating how many national parks she’d been to, and realized that she’d only been to four of California’s nine parks.
She didn’t have to ask twice. I was on it, planning a thousand-mile road trip that would take us to four of the parks she was missing: Pinnacles, Kings Canyon, Sequoia and Death Valley.
You know how bad relationships go. You walk away angry, vowing to never engage in that toxic situation again. Years go by and at first you stay strong. Maybe a pandemic happens, and the last thing you’re thinking about is getting together. But then … you weaken.
You remember the good times, the way you’d watch the country unspool together from your bed, the way you could relax together right away and enjoy a few drinks and play a few rounds of Yahtzee.
First of all, Southwest just announced that you’ll have to earn 135,000 miles in 2023 to get a Companion Pass, up from the current 125,000 miles. But that won’t affect me, and I bet it won’t affect you either. I’ll get to why by the end of this post.
But first, an anecdote
Just this morning, my husband woke me up at 6 a.m. for help getting his companion (our daughter) checked in for a flight they’re taking tomorrow. Under the new rules Southwest just announced, I don’t think he’ll need to worry about that for 2023 flights.
This year, Erik and I each had a Companion Pass for Southwest Airlines. Now that most of our travel is scheduled through the end of 2022, I can assess how much value we got out of these passes this year.
I travel more than Erik, since he’s stuck going to his job and I work for myself. However, he tends to take more expensive flights than me, for the same reason. I was surprised when I added up our flights and found that we both got about the same dollar amount of free tickets for our companions in 2022: $1,700 each, or $3,400 for our family. That’s very similar to the $3,300 we saved last year. We are flying more this year, but getting better deals on flights, which surprised me since in general flights got more expensive in 2022.