I prepared my backpack on Thursday night and left work on Friday ready to spend the weekend camping with the Sierra Club in Pinnacles National Park. It was early afternoon and a mild sun had burned off the low clouds and fog of the morning, leaving the air filled with a light mist. I drove south, away from the vast flatlands surrounding San Francisco Bay, and into a landscape of green, rolling hills, a scene whose freshness was enhanced by the hazy air. The greater part of the hills was covered in thick young grass and on the hillsides were widely spaced oak trees, their shadows and sprouting leaves a darker shade of green. In the canyons were thick forests of evergreen oak and bay and, I imagined, little streams running over boulders under the cool shade. Farther west, from the Pacific Ocean, a sheet of fog had made its way over the mountains from Monterey Bay, ready to overtake the valley under cover of darkness. Devon, my rider for the trip, and I stopped at In-N-Out Burger for dinner. The weather forecast predicted storms on Saturday night, clearing out Sunday morning, but I hoped that they would miss our camp, on the leeward side of the Gabilan Range.
Driving past Hollister on California State Route 25, the highway ran on top of the San Andreas Fault, between two mountain ranges created by the fault’s movement. To our right was the Gabilan Range, rising to over three thousand feet. And to our left was the Diablo Range, taller and longer, its grass ridges and chaparral canyons continuing southeast for another hundred and fifty miles before disappearing into the desert.
Dusk had nearly arrived when we turned west into the Gabilan Range, up Bear Valley, and toward the Pinnacles Rocks. Our campground was on a small plain bordered by rolling hills of chaparral and grassland. Large black birds circled overhead. Were they vultures, or condors? we wondered. The Pinnacles are one of the few places in North America where you can see wild California condors, and I wondered if I was looking at them instead of the more common turkey vultures. Condors have wingspans of nine feet, but these birds were smaller, with wingspans of about six feet. Condors soar with their wings flat and with their long wingtip feathers, their primaries, outstretched like fingers, but these birds soared with their wings angled up, in a flattened ‘V’. Vultures they were. Unimpressed, Devon and I walked to the campfire that had already been built and drank some beer. As light faded, we heard a group of turkeys in the shrubbery along the creek next to our camp, but no one ever saw them. When I left our group at the campfire to go to sleep, the sky was dark and clear enough that I could walk back to my car by the light of the stars.
I had decided to sleep in my car that weekend, an experiment to find out how comfortable it would be to spend an entire night on a car seat, wrapped in a sleeping bag. I wanted the experience so that I could do it this summer on trips to the Sierra Nevada: to drive to a trailhead, arrive at night, go straight to sleep, and wake up early the next morning, ready to go as soon as I was out of the car. A model of expediency. Nevertheless, I had brought my tent if the car seat proved too uncomfortable.
I reclined my car’s passenger seat as far back as it would go and lay my open sleeping bag down on it. I sat down, took off my shoes and placed them under my feet for insulation, zipped up the bag, and opened the window for fresh air. The headrest was uncomfortable, but I easily remedied this by balling up my jacket into a pillow. I slept well, waking only a few times. My only complaint was that I could not lie down flat or extend my legs, but this was a minor point.
- Start & End: Pinnacles Campground, 36.4883,-121.1517
- Route: Bench Trail, Bear Gulch Trail, Condor Gulch Trail, High Peaks Trail, Juniper Canyon Trail, Balconies Trail, Balconies Caves Trail, Old Pinnacles Trail, Bench Trail
- Distance: 12.5 miles
- Elevation Gain: 2500 feet
- Highlights: Deep forests in Bear Gulch, lots of California Condors, spectacular scenery in the High Peaks, fun scrambling through Balconies Caves, wildflowers March through May
At dawn it was 50 degrees and fog had completely filled our little valley. The grasses, flowers, and shrubs were damp and fragrant, and the needles of the gray pines, having collected moisture from the fog all night, left wet circles on the dirt road beneath them. As the group ate breakfast the fog slowly lifted, and by the time we set out on the Bench Trail we could see the bottoms of the surrounding hills.
Bright orange poppies, still rolled up from the previous night, grew from the exposed gravel streambed of Chalone Creek. We wandered through majestic old oaks, their massive branches broken and worn to spikes by the elements, their dark gray remains shattered in the grass. Along the trail were patches of tiny yellow goldfields, assuring us that wildflowers that day would be plentiful.
We crossed Chalone Creek and turned up Bear Gulch at a meadow painted with miniature flowers: yellow goldfields dominated the area, and they were joined by white popcornflower and lavender filaree. The forest closed in as we climbed into the gulch. Bear Creek trickled beside us, winding through moss-covered boulders and around grasses and ferns growing in big bunches. Grasses and ferns also covered the hillsides, joined by the edible miner’s lettuce, a plant once enjoyed by Native people an gold miners alike. Buckeye of all sizes filled the gulch, their dark, palmate leaves in various stages of sprouting. But most enchanting of all were the California sycamore, their mottled cream trunks curving gracefully over the creek, splitting into a maze of beige branches far above us. A few them were the elders of the gulch, showing their age with thick, scaly bark at the base of their massive trunks. The fog had lifted while we walked, always remaining above us, but it still covered the peaks ahead.
Up Condor Gulch, we saw our first California condors. They were roosting on the orange spires of the Pinnacles Rocks and soaring through the clouds just above them, giant birds recently recovered from the brink of extinction. From 1987 to 1991, there were no wild condors, all of them having been captured for breeding to restore the population. Today there are over 150 living in the wild, in Baja California, California, the Grand Canyon, and Zion National Park. A little more than a dozen of these now call the Pinnacles home, often crossing the Salinas Valley to visit the mountains of Big Sur near the Pacific Ocean.
Condors as well as vultures circled overhead as we turned onto the High Peaks Trail and up into the chamise chaparral. Indian warrior, a small plant with fern-like leaves and claret flowers, grew underneath the shrubs. It is a root parasite and the ones we saw were, perhaps, attached to the the chamise roots, stealing nutrients and water from them. Ahead of us were the peaks of the Pinnacles Rocks and beyond them the Salinas Valley and the mountains of Big Sur. Behind us was the Diablo Range, a quilt of grass, chaparral, and forest. The terrain became rocky and steep as we entered the Pinnacles, but the trail doggedly traversed the otherwise impassable landscape by means of footholds carved into the rocks and steel handrails, all the while offering tremendous views.
Out of the High Peaks, we descended toward the Chaparral Ranger Station on the Juniper Canyon Trail. We were on the western side of the range, which received more rain, and the wildflowers were abundant. The hills and streamsides were graced with orange California poppies, yellow bush poppies, lilac shooting stars, and blue and purple lupines. Behind us the Pinnacles towered above arcing pines and oaks, their old orange rock contrasting with the young green grass, rising into the mist left by the morning fog. When we stopped for lunch near the ranger station, in the foothills, the sky was still clear and friendly. Some in our group declared that Friday’s forecast of storms would be wrong, and that it would not rain that evening.
After lunch we hiked through the Balconies Caves, not true caves but talus caves, passageways below massive boulders lodged into a steep-sided canyon. For us, a little adventure of tight passageways, running water, and utter darkness. Boulders merely covered the canyon at first, enough to fill it with their shadows. But they gradually closed in, making the canyon darker as we wound through it. We walked down wet stone steps, descending into utter darkness and turning on our lights. There was water on floor of the cave and it seeped into my shoes. In the dim light near the cave’s exit was a pretty little waterfall. But walking to get a better look at it, still in the darkness, I didn’t notice the clear water below it and stepped into it, thoroughly wetting my feet.
A stream ran over the trail beyond the caves. My feet already wet, and wishing to avoid the poison oak on its banks, I simply walked through the water. Anyway, I was wearing running shoes and thin synthetic socks – my feet would be dry again in minutes. Continuing along Chalone Creek on the Old Pinnacles Trail and the Bench Trail, our path was nearly flat and made an easy end to the day.
As we exited the canyons of the Gabilan, we saw dark clouds that had formed to the west. A stiff wind came from their direction, suggesting that it would rain after all. The clouds moved quickly, and we began to feel rain drops as we neared camp. By the time we arrived, the rain had become a steady pour and the mountains we had just left were obscured by a veil of even heavier rain moving toward us. Rain hadn’t fallen in weeks and the smell of wet earth and vegetation filled the air. After an hour or so, the rain subsided , giving us an opportunity to make and eat dinner. Passing clouds and light drizzle continued through the evening, but they were moderate enough to let us to enjoy our campfire well past nightfall.
Although Friday’s weather forecast had predicted strong, fast-moving rains overnight, I could still see the stars through the car window when I went to sleep. The rain was another reason I’d decided to sleep in the car: if storms came during the night, I, along with my tent and other equipment, would stay perfectly dry. I opened my window for some fresh air and the smell of pine and wet chaparral blew in with the breeze. Waking during the night I’d look out the open window to check for stars. Partly cloudy skies. Maybe the weather report was wrong after all. Maybe we’d have another clear, dry day tomorrow. But when I woke up around 2, the stars were gone. Raindrops hit loud on the car’s roof and I rolled up the window. Lights turned on in a few of the tents outside, but as the rain fell harder and lightning flashed, I just went back to sleep.
The rain continued, in downpours and drizzles, all night. Just before sunrise, I woke up and went outside and the rain had diminished to a few drops. Low, heavy clouds borne by a cool, damp wind moved across the sky, just above the hilltops. As the sun rose and the light increased, we could see blue sky and bright white cirrus through the breaks in the clouds. The sky was clearing up. This could be a fair weather day after all.
- Start & End: Bear Gulch Visitor Center, 36.4813, -121.1812
- Route: Bear Gulch Trail, Bear Gulch Caves Trail, Rim Trail, High Peaks Trail, Bench Trail, Bear Gulch Trail
- Distance: 8 miles
- Elevation Gain: 2000 feet
- Highlights: Scrambling and an underground waterfall in Bear Gulch Cave, lots of California Condors, spectacular scenery in the High Peaks, deep forests in Bear Gulch, wildflowers March through May
The weather was clear and brisk as we drove to the Bear Gulch Visitor Center. We left our cars and hiked up Bear Gulch again, past where we’d turned toward Condor Gulch the day before, toward Bear Gulch Caves, another set of talus caves and another small adventure. As we walked below the enormous boulders near their entrance, we could see that the sky was once again covered by low clouds. Gray light illuminated the drops that began to fall through mossy gaps between the rocks. The path ahead was dim and grew darker as we went further into the caves. The walls narrowed. The ground was wet and puddled and we could hear echoes of rushing water. This was Bear Creek, which flowed through the caves and was swollen by the heavy overnight rain. Turning toward the creek, we could see its cascades with our lights. The gaps between the rocks became smaller and the water in the bottom of the cave was ankle deep. I crouched to get through the passageways. Ahead of me was a small waterfall, emptying directly onto the trail.
But the trail turned past the waterfall and out of the caves. After walking a little farther we were next to the Bear Gulch Reservoir, its surface chopped by stiff winds. Raindrops pelted us. We went uphill on the Rim Trail and then the High Peaks Trail. Once on the ridge we could see that the highest elevations of the Diablo Range were covered in snow from the cold overnight storm. But below them the valleys were a wet, radiant green.
Nearing the High Peaks, we saw that the previous night’s storm would not be the last. Gray clouds were moving in quickly, obscuring the hills and valleys below them with precipitation. They covered the summit of North Chalone Peak, and within minutes we were hit with rain, sleet, and snow, all of it blown sideways by the wind coming up Juniper Canyon.
These were conditions rarely experienced in California’s coast ranges, and I found them a delightful reminder of my winter trips in the Appalachian Mountains. But I still worried about lightning on the crags we were about to cross on the High Peaks Trail. So we waited out the storm and passed the time eating snacks. It was brief and cleared out after a few minutes, rewarding us with a bright rainbow over Juniper Canyon as the morning sun shone through the lingering mist.
Crossing the High Peaks a second time, the steps and railings still gave good traction despite being wet. We again enjoyed the chamise and Indian Warrior, staying on the High Peaks Trail past past Condor Gulch. We were on the leeward side of the mountain now and the storms were clearing. The blue oak and gray pine savannas along the trail were filled with tall, green grass, curling fiddlenecks, shooting stars, and star lilies. The sun grew warmer. By the time we reached the Bench Trail, the sky was clear and we were in short sleeves. The dry season was beginning and in a few weeks the grass would dry out and turn golden. The sleet and snow of the High Peaks were a distant memory and I wondered if the Pinnacles would see rain again before the next rainy season in October.