Pinnacles National Park

PinnaclesPinnacles officially became a national park just a month or so ago. Since it’s reasonable driving distance from San Francisco – about two hours – we decided we should take a little day trip. Check out the photos on our Flickr site.

We got a ZipCar and took the 280 south (because it’s usually smoother and more scenic than Hwy 101), which turns into 101. After driving through Gilroy, we got off on Route 25. It goes through Hollister, then winds through rolling foothill ranchlands. This time of year is the best in this part of California, when the hills are actually green instead of golden brown. About 30 miles later we arrived at the turnoff for the East Entrance into the park. From there it only takes a few minutes before getting to the Visitor’s Center.

When we arrived at Pinnacles we found that it was fairly busy. The entrance doesn’t have a drive-through kiosk – you have to park and go into the Visitor’s Center to get a pass. We have a National Park Pass, so all we had to do was show them our pass, and get a receipt to stick in our car.

All of the trailhead parking lots were full, so we had to leave our car in the parking lot and take the shuttle. We ate a quick lunch and then managed to be the last two people on the shuttle. While on the shuttle, I had a nice chat with my seatmate, who was a spry older gentleman who has been coming to Pinnacles with his family for decades. He and his wife gave me some great advice as to how best to navigate the trails we were considering.

The shuttle left us at the Bear Gulch day use area, where there are a number of options for trailheads.

We decided to do the Condor Gulch – High Peaks loop trail, clockwise. It’s over five miles, and reasonably strenuous in parts.

From the trailhead parking lot, there is a short, flat connector trail before the trail starts a steady but reasonable climb to begin the High Peaks Trail. It was a bit steep in places, but then the trail goes along a ridge for a few tenths of a mile. This was a great place for views of both the eastern and western sides of the park.

PinnaclesThe trail then becomes fairly steep, with a series of switchbacks leading up to a rest stop of sorts, where there’s a bench and a restroom. We rested for just a bit, admired the views, and then continued along the trail.

The trail forks here, leading down to the Juniper Canyon Trail, but we continued up and along the High Peaks Trail. The trail became rockier and steeper, and we started to encounter stair steps carved into the rock.

Turkey Vulture at PinnaclesI had been admiring the birds flying around the tops of the rocks, especially a couple of crows flying in pair formations. We got to the top of one spot on the trail and stopped for a bit to watch the turkey vultures soaring around. They were really fun to watch.

We were on the lookout for condors, knowing that one of the gems of Pinnacles is the growing population of California condors that have been released into the wild. As we continued along the trail, we came across a guy with some serious equipment and a “Pinnacles Condor Crew” T-shirt. We inquired about the condors, and he shared that there had been a bunch of them flying around a couple of hours before, but that they had since dispersed. We were a bit disappointed, but we kept a hopeful eye as we continued along the trail.

Narrow Trail at PInnaclesThen we got to the part of the trail labeled “steep and narrow”. There were more stairs, with non-OSHA-compliant handrails. It’s really hard to describe just how steep and how narrow this carved-out-of-rock trail is… you’ll just have to check it out yourself.

We reached another ridge, forked off onto the Condor Gulch Trail, and it was all downhill after that. By “all”, I mean mostly downhill for about 2 miles. it was a relief after so much slow uphill climbing, but on the other hand, our feet got really sore from the pounding!

We reached a spot marked “overlook” on the map, which was not only disappointing, but filled with noisy small children. We didn’t linger; we hit the trail, which was a much flatter downhill slope. We were back to the Bear Gulch parking lot a mile later.

I highly recommend a trip to Pinnacles! There are two reasons why, in my opinion, this park is valuable enough to have been preserved with National Park status. The presence of the California condors, which very nearly went extinct, makes it a very important wildlife preserve. It’s also geologically significant. I’m not much of a geologist, but even I could tell that some pretty interesting activity created the different formations in the park. Less obvious to the layperson is the fact that the San Andreas fault runs right through the middle of the park. (One tourist at the beginning of the trail, when learning this, remarked that it was very unsafe for people to be doing rock-climbing if the fault is running through the park. We were amused.)

It’s also just cool. For those of us who can’t get to Colorado or Utah on a regular basis, Pinnacles is a worthy substitute.

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Chatfield Hollow State Park, Connecticut

Schreeder PondTaking advantage of what will likely be the only beautiful day in our Thanksgiving week in Connecticut, we went for a hike at Chatfield Hollow State Park in Killingworth, CT. It’s a great place for a hike. There are quite a few trails, at difficulty levels appropriate for everybody (including a road that is closed to cars during the off-season, so if you just want to go for a flat walk along the brook, you can). We hiked parts of the Lookout Trail and the Ridge Trail, which got our blood pumping and our legs a good workout.

Dave and JennWe ate our picnic lunch next to a covered bridge, then strolled over to check out the water wheel that has scenically remained part of the state park.

We also got to say hi to a couple of nice dogs, including a largish Yorkie and a big black dog about to celebrate her 13th birthday.

It was so nice to have an opportunity to hike through some wooded hills!

Prince William Forest

On our way back to Maryland from visiting friends in Richmond, we stopped for a quick hike in Prince William Forest.

It’s convenient and easy to get to – just off I-95 next to the Marine base at Quantico. There’s a $5 fee (a bit of a hassle because you have to go to the Visitor’s Center first to get a little receipt), a drop in the bucket to help defray the costs of maintaining the park. Of course, silly me, it should have been free because we JUST bought a National Parks pass – but of course I had left it at home.

Prince William Forest isn’t anything particularly special, but it’s nice to have a large chunk of protected forest land (15,000 acres) with many different trails and bike paths. The park also features campgrounds and picnic areas. Dave also learned in the Visitor’s Center that there are various small, historic cemeteries located in the middle of the forest, which are difficult to find unless you’re with a ranger (or you just stumble across one).

We hiked a trail called “Farm to Forest”, which got its name because that particular spot was once a farm, and has now been allowed to return to wilderness. I was aiming for a 1.7 mile hike, but once we got there, we realized that there were really two trails – a 1-mile loop, and a 1.7-mile extension. So, we ended up hiking more like two and a half miles. Fine for me, but maybe a little much for Lucas, since his elbow’s not 100% yet.

It was a very nice hike, and it was perfect weather. It was labeled as “moderately strenuous”, which really means it’s perhaps on the slightly strenuous side of “moderate”. There were a few ups and downs, but no major inclines or much elevation change. The trail ran along and/or crossed Quantico Creek for the middle part of the hike, which wasn’t as scenic as you might think. The best feature of the trail was all the evidence of beavers – we had never seen so many chewed trees. The beavers had obviously been quite successful, actually, because a number of the tree trunks had been chewed all the way around and had fallen. There were one or two very effective beaver dams on the creek as well. Unfortunately we didn’t actually spot any of the critters.

If you live in the DC area and are looking for a place for a quick hike, or if you’re visiting the area and are looking for a place to camp near the nation’s capital, check it out: http://www.nps.gov/prwi/.

Cleveland National Forest Day 3: Blue Skies Smilin’

Cleveland National Forest: San Mateo CanyonOn Sunday morning we woke up around 8:15 am, after a somewhat restless night (the lack of clouds and rain meant that the temperature was quite a bit lower than the night before). The only water we could hear was the creek rushing along next to us. Other than that, we listened to the frogs finish up their nighttime conversation, and the birds pick up where the frogs left off.

We got up and started our day. We heated up some water to make oatmeal and tea for breakfast, and ate as everything started to get bright and sunny around us. Then we proceeded to clean up and pack up.
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Cleveland National Forest Day 2: Unavoidably Wet

Large bird soars over San Mateo CanyonAs we were hiking on Friday, we pondered how to make sure we got back to civilization at a decent time on Sunday, given that we would lose an hour due to Daylight Savings. Dave suggested that we “spring forward” on Saturday instead of Sunday, since it wouldn’t really make a difference either way. I thought it was kinda a weird headgame, but I figured it’s all a construct anyway. So, when my alarm went off at 6 am on Saturday, I sprang it forward to 7 am – and then promptly went back to sleep.

We woke up around 9:15 am (Pacific Daylight Time) to the sound of a steady rain falling onto our tent. We laid there for quite some time pondering the situation, wondering about the possibility of waiting out the rain in our tent versus proceeding with our plan despite the weather.
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Cleveland National Forest Day 1: All Alone

Dave and Jenn at the trailhead, San Mateo CanyonFriday, March 31 is Cesar Chavez Day here in California, which meant that I (as a quasi-County employee) got the day off. So we decided to take a three-day weekend to go backpacking, hoping that it would work out better than last time.

To play it safe, we planned our trip for nearby Cleveland National Forest, which is just barely north of San Diego County.
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