Park #1: Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles National Park is located in central California, a land of agriculture in all directions as far as the eye can see. The nearby towns of Salinas and Soledad are supporting the wine industry with hundreds of vineyards and other produce being grown year-round in the arid climate. Water can be seen running on the farms all day. I wondered where they are getting the water because this place is dry as a bone. There is no visible water source around.
I drove north on 101 past miles and miles of agricultural fields and headed into the barren hills of Soledad. As I drove up past the cattle ranches and vineyards along a winding and narrow road, I reached the west entrance to Pinnacles National Park. I stopped to capture a photo of the mountains in the distance and one in front of the iconic National Park sign, and all I heard was silence. I heard nothing at all, which seemed odd as I knew I was very close to the park entrance.
I figured maybe the crowds were further up at the visitor’s center. As I drove into the park, past the entrance station, which was unmanned due to COVID-19 (no entrance fees these days), I could see the parking lot for the visitor center and the only other car in the lot was a park ranger National Park Service vehicle. There were literally no other cars! I saw a park ranger exit his truck and walk down the trail. And I thought, “Am I the only visitor at the park today?”
I walked up to the closed visitor center and secured a map of the park which was left outside and read some of the interpretive signs. I decided I would hike along the Prewitt Point Trail where I had seen the park ranger go. I figured if I got injured, at least he’d be coming back my direction to get his truck, so that seemed like the safest idea. I said my standard prayer to the universe before trekking on any trail, that I come in peace, I mean no harm to any creatures large and small and I ask that I be granted safe passage as I visit this place, which is not my home.
About five minutes into my hike, I ran into the ranger traveling back towards me on the trail. We exchanged some niceties, although he didn’t seem in the mood to talk much. I asked him if it was safe. I quickly added, “you know, with the rattlesnakes and all,” although I was really more worried about being out on the trail by myself in the middle of nowhere, without any other visitors in the park. And he said it was too cold, so the rattlesnakes weren’t likely to be out today. I said, “Am I the only person here today?” and he said, “Yes, but there will be hordes of people here on the weekend.”
I wished him a good day and he went on his way back to the parking lot. I trudged forward. And as I kept walking towards the amazing pinnacles overlook, I began to relax into the wilderness and realized I really was at home. I was at peace. There were broad swaths of silence and birds chirping in between. And although I was alone, I knew as I had felt so many times before in my life, that I was not alone at all. I was sharing this space with all of the living beings who live here and call it home, seen and unseen. And I felt that same knowing that I have felt since losing Riley, that he, my parents who are also gone, and all of my ancestors were watching over me, ever present.
When I got to the Hain Wilderness overlook, which was stunning with craggy mountains spiking up to the sky, I decided to find a spot to sit, what nature-based healers call a “sit spot” and offer an ecotherapy meditation for all of the essential workers, especially the doctors and nurses working in the ICUs, the grocery workers, the agriculture workers of Salinas and Soledad that I had seen in the past few days and all of the other workers who have been taking care of us throughout the COVID-19 crisis. I found a spot in front of the mountain view, closed my eyes, and meditated a silent prayer to these unknown people. I cried for them, for the beauty of this place, and for making it here after so much preparation and anxiety.
I cried tears of joy that my dream of visiting all 62 National Parks, which was ignited more than seven years ago, had finally come true. I was here in Park #1 and had made my dream a reality.
I hiked a loop around the overlook and down along the Jawbone Trail, enjoying the sunny 60-degree weather, listening to the beat of my hiking boots, left, right, left along the trail and the chug a lug of my water bottle in my backpack. The trail was covered in junipers, many with berries and the hawks were flying high above. I had no place to be, no one to answer to, no stress, no deadlines, no meetings. My time was my own. And I traveled until it felt like time to turn around. And then I walked back to a bench, ate my lunch, welcomed three new visitors to the park and decided this was my cue to leave.
My journey had started. I had found solace. And I knew I had a long way to go and a lot to learn.
Today, I visited the other side of Pinnacles National Park, the east side. I traveled south on 101 to King City and then headed into the hills. I had read on the park map that I was near the San Andreas Fault and you could see the cracks and folded remains of the plates moving in the surrounding hills. The park ranger at the bookstore at the east entrance said that I had driven right through the San Andreas Fault. It wasn’t just nearby, Highway 25 which I had used to get there was actually in the Fault.
The park ranger recommended a hike that was moderate and scenic. I’m out of shape and it will take me some time to have the stamina for longer hikes. The east side of the park is known for the Bear Gulch caves, but the caves were closed due to COVID. I drove down to the end of the road which is where the trailhead for the Moses Spring Trail begins. Right when you arrive, you can see the spectacular red boulders up high above you. I knew this would be an adventure. While the parking lot was not full, there were a good number of hikers headed up the trails this time. I wouldn’t call it crowded though. The ranger said here too that it would be swamped with people on the weekend (note to self, try to visit the parks on weekdays before summer!).
Unlike the west side of the park where you are a great distance away from the spires that are the pinnacles and you are looking at a vista, on the east side you actually hike right up into them. It was stunning to see the gradations of color and varying layers of rock and boulder in the formations. And although the grand caves were closed, this trail took me through some small caves and the temperature dropped about 20 degrees when you entered them. It was about 70 degrees when I started hiking and dropped to what seemed like 50 degrees in the small caves. I almost got lost at one point, but found my way back onto the trail. As I moved further into the forest of boulders, I finally reached a grand stone staircase with an attached railing to climb up to the top. The stairs themselves were so narrow that a single foot almost didn’t fit on each one. At the top was the “money spot,” a reservoir of water with a mirror image of the rock formation in the water and several monoliths. I arrived at this place alone and again was able to sit and be still in complete silence for about ten minutes. Heaven on earth!
When other hikers arrived at the reservoir I headed up the Rim Trail to travel along the top of the boulders and spires overlooking steep drop-offs and cliffs below. Apparently, this is a rock climber’s paradise. I winded down the trail and drove back to the bookstore and thanked the ranger for recommending such a spectacular hike. I mentioned to her that I was visiting all 62 National Parks this year. She said, “You mean 63 parks.” I said, “Wait...What??!!! There are 63 parks now?” She said that one was just added as part of the COVID relief package. She said it’s called the “New River Gorge National Park” and it’s in West Virginia. I must say, I was a bit overwhelmed in my first park to learn that I needed to add one more to my list, but at least it’s on the east coast, so I have time to figure out how to get there!