Friday, March 13, 2015


I have traveled all over the world, but why is it that I've never been to one of nature's greatest gifts that sits in my own backyard?  

This is something one of my Facebook friends asked when I posted a photo of Bruce and me hiking at the Pinnacles National Park. Although the newly-designated National Park is only a two hour drive from our house, neither of us had ever been there, and I've lived in California for close to fifty years.

Located just south of Hollister and east of Soledad, the Pinnacles National Park consists of eroded leftovers of an extinct volcano that over thousands of years moved almost 150 miles from where it was originally sited on the San Andreas Fault to where it now sits near  the Salinas Valley.  The park can be accessed from both the East side and the West side, but the only way you can travel within the park itself is on foot, hiking on beautiful trails through a series of large boulders and huge colorful rock formations that in some ways reminds you of our country's beautiful Southwest.  As you will see in the pictures included with this post, some of the trails are scary, precariously sited on the steep edges of rock formations, especially if you hike the famous High Peaks Trail.  

Ever since last summer when hiking became a weekly activity for me, I have wanted to organize a group trip to the Pinnacles, but choosing the right time of year to go is critical.  Spring is definitely the best time, if you want to see an abundance of wild flowers.  The air is cool and perfect for hiking.  Also, if you are fortunate enough to visit during a rainy winter season, when we are not in a drought like we are now, you would witness multiple waterfalls cascading down the beautiful red and black volcanic rock.   However, summer months can be brutal as temperatures often climb into the high 90s, and since there is little shade within the park, hiking can be quite uncomfortable and even dangerous. 

photo by Bob Yee

Finally, last week Bruce and I plus a group of six friends arrived at the Pinnacles for a hike led by Lynette, a veteran Pinnacles hiker, whom I was fortunate to meet last fall at a travel presentation.   When she talked about her extensive hiking experience,  she also mentioned her love for the Pinnacles.  I told her of my interest in getting some friends together to hike there, so she generously offered to be our leader and take us through a maze of trails, so that we could have the best hiking experience that the Pinnacles has to offer.   We also hoped to see the adult and juvenile condors that live within the park, but since early morning and sunset are the best times for viewing, we weren't sure we'd be so lucky to see them on this trip.  


Bob and Shannon


Photo by Bob Yee

The weather on March 10th was ideal for hiking, especially since our very dry winter and now dry spring has also been unseasonable warm.   Luckily for us the sky was overcast, and the temperatures ranged in the low 70s.   After discussing our hiking options, we all agreed to take on the challenge of the High Peaks Trail, knowing that if we couldn't climb those rocks this year, we probably would never do it.   I had watched a YouTube video of some folks climbing the High Peaks Trail, and it looked pretty scary, especially for someone, like me, who has a fear of heights.  On the other hand, I knew that it was just mind over matter, and that as long as I held on tight to the iron railing bolted into the rock for protection, and if I walked slowly and carefully, I'd be o.k.   

Around 10:30 a.m.,  we began our ascent on a dirt but slightly rocky trail that was not as difficult as I expected, especially since Lyn warned us that the first half mile was pretty steep.   Although we were just a little ways out of the valley, the views looking out were beautiful.  I thought this might be a trip I'd blog about, so I took out my small point and shoot camera and began snapping away.  After taking about 20 nondescript photos, I was stunned to see the message out of memory show up on my camera screen.  Since I don't use this camera that often, I charged the battery the night before and even noticed a message that said no images in camera.  What the hell? I thought.  I looked inside my camera and saw that the chip slot was empty.  I couldn't believe I'd been so dumb, beating myself up as I saw one prize-winning photo opportunity after another, but couldn't take a picture. It seems that the twenty or so photos, most of them pretty bad, were captured on my camera's internal memory, and the internal memory doesn't have much space.  And stupidly, it didn't occur to me to erase the twenty lousy pictures, and capture some better scenery along the way.  Fortunately, other people in our group kindly agreed to let me use their photos in this blog. Thank you Bob Yee and Bob Ende. Anyway, enough of this camera crap talk and back to the hike.  

Photo by Bob Yee 

After walking uphill for about an hour, we came to the scariest section of the High Peaks Trail -- the portion I'd been really dreading -- climbing up the sides of pinnacles and boulders, either on medium-sized rock steps that had been placed one after the other on a steep trail of smaller rocks and then more steps that had been carved deep into the sides of the rock where we could take one small step at a time.  With each high step and each deep breath, I hung on to the iron railing that was securely bolted into the solid rock and looked straight down at my feet as I carefully ascended one step at a time.  I wanted to make sure that each foot was firmly planted on a rock step or placed squarely in the dugout step before continuing on.  

All climbing photos by Bob Ende

It wasn't as scary as I thought it might be, but it did remind me of the first time I discovered my fear of heights.  It was a few years back when I found myself standing precariously on a narrow ledge while hiking in Zion National Park.   I panicked and froze until I was brave enough to inch my way to safety with Bruce inching right behind me.  He wasn't any braver than I was, which made me happy that I had someone to share my fears with.   I was also reminded of the time I was driving solo in an ATV (all terrain vehicle) in Namibia, Africa at the precipice of one of the steepest sand dunes I'd ever seen and the guide telling me that there was only one way to get back to the camp and that was for me to take that mother of an ATV down the steep side of that soft sand dune.  When our guide saw the tears on my face and heard that god-awful wail, he knew that the only thing he could do was hold on to the back of my ATV with his hands and dig his feet deep into the sand to  slow my steep descent down that bleep bleep sand dune.    Compared to the fear-of-height experiences in Zion NP and Africa, climbing the High Peaks Trail at the Pinnacles was a piece of cake.

Once we reached the top, similar rock steps took us down the other side.  Again I held on to the iron railing until I reached safer ground, but the descent was pretty easy compared to hiking up.      Once we made it to a large ledge that offered safety and a fabulous view, we took out our home-made sandwiches from our packs and enjoyed our well-deserved lunch.   I'm sure the others had the same glorious feeling of accomplishment that I did, not to mention a sigh of relief -- the same sigh of relief I felt when I reached the bottoms of the canyon at Zion and the sand dune in Namibia.

Photo by Bob Ende

After descending the precarious high peaks, the trail led us through tunnels of boulders and around green and red lichen covered rocks. While some hikers brought poles to assist them with steep pitches, I left mine at home thinking that a stick would only create problems for my already fragile shoulders.  That was a good decision because when Lyn gave me her second stick thinking it might be helpful, I realized it was more of a hassle than a benefit, especially when I needed two hands to keep myself steady. 

None of us knew what to expect in terms of the wildflowers.  We wondered whether our three years of drought might impact the abundance or perhaps we were too early or too late to get the flower show that others have raved about?  There were some beautiful flowers, but not a huge amount, but I did enjoy seeing a new flower called a shooting star which I had never seen before.  We came across a reservoir filled with water and walked through narrow rock tunnels and sulphur-smelling caves.  We also saw some young climbers hanging on the sides of steep pitches with their ropes and pitons.  We wished them well as we headed back down to the parking lot for a total of 7.5 miles of hiking.  We weren't able to assess our elevation gain, but my Fitbit said we'd climbed 181 floors.