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Weekend Escape

Rock 'n' Stroll in Pinnacles

Campers find a geologic wonder at a national monument to the north.

April 29, 2001|KATHRYN WILKENS | Kathryn Wilkens is a freelance writer based in Upland

PINNACLES NATIONAL MONUMENT, Calif. — I stood across from a fast-food joint in Gorman, looking up at a slope of purplish rock, the remains of an extinct volcano known as the Neenach Formation. It looked as though half the rock had been sheared off, and I wanted to find the rest. Glancing at my watch, I sighed. If only I'd gotten here 23 million years ago. Now I'd have to travel 200 miles northwest to find it.

"We'd better get started," I said to my husband, Ralph.

After a five-hour drive, the rocky spires of Pinnacles National Monument came into view. Geologists say they were once part of the Neenach Formation, and as the Pacific Plate slid along the North American Plate, it carried these rocks to this place on the border of Monterey and San Benito counties.

We had followed the same path on rural highways and back roads, right up the San Andreas rift zone, across the Carrizo Plain and through Parkfield, which dubs itself "the world's earthquake capital" because of its frequent shakers and the U.S. Geological Survey's extensive monitoring equipment in town. (The easier route to Pinnacles National Monument is U.S. 101, where exits at King City and Soledad lead to the west and east entrances.)

We had been curious about Pinnacles since spotting it on the map, so we decided to check it out during three days of camping at the end of March.

Pinnacles is a park you have to see on foot, but that's not difficult because of its compact size (16,265 acres, about 2% the size of Yosemite) and its 30 miles of hiking trails.

The park has no lodging, but Soledad and King City have motels, and a private campground lies just outside the eastern entrance off California Highway 146. That's where we pulled in on a Friday afternoon.

Most of the 103 tent sites are large and grassy. I had called for a reservation earlier that week and booked the last site available, inches from a mini-swamp that I was afraid would harbor mosquitoes. (The facilities also include 36 RV sites with electrical hookups, restrooms with showers and flush toilets, and a pool open April to October.)

At the Bear Gulch Visitor Center we looked at maps and asked questions. According to Ranger Charles Ewing, the park is most popular in spring and fall; summer can be hot and dry, although mornings are cool enough for hiking.

Several hikes start at the visitor center. We went up Moses Spring Trail to a view of a reservoir, then partway up the Condor Gulch Trail as it ascends 1.7 miles to a rocky ridge. After returning to the visitor center, Ralph drove back to the campground while I walked 21/2 miles back via Bear Gulch Trail, a cool streamside stroll under oaks and sycamores, and the more open Bench Trail, where poppies and lupine bloomed along the sandy path.

We had brought our own food for the weekend, and that night we dined alfresco on salad, rice and barbecued chicken breasts. Whatever snacks, sodas or other supplies we needed we could pick up at the camp store.

Our campsite was small, but we liked its isolation and the giant valley oaks and a tall gray pine that ringed it. We counted a dozen species of birds, including quail, woodpeckers and a wild turkey we heard but never saw. With binoculars and patience, I'm sure we could have identified more. I grew especially fond of a magpie that monitored our activities from a branch overhead and a diligent towhee that hopped around the table searching for crumbs.

It was sunset when we realized who inhabited our pond: not mosquitoes, but a chorus of croaking frogs whose serenade went on until early morning.

The park is divided into western and eastern halves, with segments of California 146 jutting into each but not connecting in the middle. So Saturday, over bacon and eggs, we came up with a plan to see the west side: I would hike five miles via the High Peaks and Juniper Canyon trails, and Ralph would drive 60 miles around Pinnacles to the Chaparral Ranger Station and walk to meet me.

When Ralph dropped me off at a trail head, temperatures were in the low 70s, but the sun made it seem hotter. Luckily I had a hat and water for the steady climb through chaparral, the trail brightened by clusters of pink shooting stars and yellow wallflowers.

The trail topped out after two miles, with views of crags and peaks; then I was among otherworldly shapes. Most of the formations were rhyolite, an igneous rock similar to granite but not as coarse. Some were breccia, angular pieces of rock embedded in a finer-grained matrix.

A sign warning that the trail ahead was steep and narrow gave me pause. Soon I found myself clinging to a sturdy pipe railing and inserting my feet into hand-hewn steps to ascend vertical walls. In another spot, overhanging rock forced me into an awkward crouch to get across a ledge. I hadn't seen any other hikers. Who would know if I fell off a cliff?

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