Pinnacles National Monument is a different – and in many ways better – experience in winter.
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Freedom is just a tank of gas away. Incredibly, the cost to fund your adventurous spirit is downright affordable once again.
Big Sur is a treasure, of course. But try to find the solitude that your recessed nerves crave in a Big Sur campground, and risk having that necessary Zen torpedoed by roving gangs of wine-swilling Germans and herds of young tutu-clad Peninsulites. The party rarely stops in Big Sur, and there is no party worse than one in which you are a wishing participant.
Wander down Carmel Valley Road, deep into the Ventana Wilderness, and several excellent car camping areas await, but for now backcountry gems like Tassajara and Arroyo Seco sit in charred silence, torched and either off limits (the former) or campfire-free (the latter) after the Basin Complex Fire swept through this summer.
Fortunately Pinnacles National Monument has calm and beauty to spare. Reach it by pushing on down the twisted Carmel Valley Road and eventually you’ll hit the flat town of Greenfield. Hop briefly northward on Highway 101, and the Gloria Road exit comes soon. Its “minor-through dirt road” – impassible when wet, totally possible for most vehicles of decent clearance when dry – is a barren sand track cutting through verdant, spacious cattle country up into the quake-shaped hills that are the Gabilan Range. Often the only traffic is that of the occasional free-range brahma, which is something to avoid at any speed. It is also not a place to pick up any hitchhiker you might find, especially if they are wearing a cantaloupe colored jumpsuit. (Reaching Pinnacles via 101 south through Soledad is another, more direct route using Highway 146 east.)
At the top of the ridge, hook a right at Highway 25 and feel native balance return, brought on by the quiet inland specter of Pinnacles National Monument rearing up. The campground is large enough to accommodate an army of campers. There are more than 125 sites, and when I visited last week I encountered only two other tents and no tour bus-sized RVs, which was very pleasing, considering that during summer there rarely is a space available, and little peace to be found even with a site.
Hence, for a small fee, paid to the camp ranger at the small-but-well-stocked general store near the entrance, several acres of woodland camping area is your near-exclusive domain. The store operates on the honor system during the winter months, the process of which is aided by what might be the world’s largest calculator, a laptop-sized monstrosity with buttons big enough to hit accurately while wearing boxing gloves.
Once provisioned and legal, find a spot among the chaparral groves, and settle in for the night. Fires are permitted in the rings at each site, and once the sun fades, a good fire and proper cold weather gear are necessities. Overnight temperatures during winter can dip below freezing, so a well-maintained 0-degree sleeping bag is highly encouraged. The cold, of course, is one reason the park is so pristinely peaceful, and a hearty camper with a decent sense of adventure will see her perseverance honored by privacy in a breathtaking natural wonderland – no small prize in the human swarm that is California.
With little light pollution to contend with, by night unknowable fathoms of effulgent stars beam down, trickling through the oak branches overhead as a chorus of triumphant coyotes bray about, temporarily drowning out the mesmerizing night song of the cicadas.
Hiding food and locking the rig is wise, for there are bandits in these woods. A brave (or possibly crazed) raccoon tried to break into my truck, finally abandoning its larcenous ways when chased off by a flaming marshmallow spear.
By day Pinnacles, a world-renowned magnet for rock climbers, cavers, hikers, bat freaks and condor fans, presents its greatest prize: more than 30 miles of trails that wander over spectacular crag-studded ridges and into deep, wild gulches. It is home to big cats and even bigger birds, and holds the distinction of playing host to the most diverse population of bees anywhere on earth, with over 400 different species buzzing about the park.
Condor Gulch Trail – which leads away from the Bear Gulch Day Use Area, up into a breathtaking cluster of the Monument’s namesake limestone spires and rock goblins – is particularly good for an inspiring and lung-expanding stroll. Along the graded, handicap-accessible trail, thick stands of blood-barked manzanita appear, angular oaks crowd nearby ravines and booming shoots of gray pine peer out over the surrounding valley.
The trail covered a full five miles, rising 1,500 feet from the parking lot. At a good pace, the loop should take about three hours. There are 20 resident condors in Pinnacles. The giant buzzards tend to prefer the warmer thermal winds of summer, but can still be seen soaring along their home canyons during the cold months – if a dark shadow crosses your path, that is most likely a living dinosaur blotting out the sun.
A quiet winter day spent clamoring around is a mental, spiritual and fitness gift – a sure-fire remedy to the chronically insecure realities of a collapsing social machine. And what the hell? Gas is cheap. Live a little. It’s only a depression if you let it be.
PINNACLES NATIONAL MONUMENT located at 5000 Highway 146 in Paicines, is open 365 days a year. $5 admission, good for a week; $23/tent; $36/RV. Leashed dogs are allowed in camp, but not on the trails. 389-4485, www.nps.gov/pinn/.