The first National Parks my husband and I visited together were Zion and Bryce Canyon back in 2012. We’d camped together several times but we’d recently inherited a bunch of my parents old camping gear and were ready for a longer camping trip. I think it was the combination of the sheer beauty of the parks, the next-level comfort that we had with all of our new gear, and the fact that we were disconnected from our daily routine for five blissful, dusty days that made us fall in love with the National Park Service.
There really is no better place to be wowed by nature and the outdoors all day long than in one our nation’s parks. Since that Utah trip five years ago, we’ve camped at or visited Yosemite, Joshua Tree, Glacier, Kings Canyon, Sequoia, Death Valley, and Rocky Mountain National Parks. We have list of parks we want to visit (hint: it’s all of them) and as soon as we wrap up a park trip, we begin talking about where we want to go next. Some time last summer we decided that we needed to visit Pinnacles National Park, which has been a National Monument since 1908 but only became a National Park in 2013. #thanksobama
We didn’t know a lot about Pinnacles other than that it was located east of Monterey in San Benito County, that there were some caves to hike in, and that we wouldn’t have cell service. Sign me up! We planned a trip for the end of March knowing it gets really hot there in the summer and really chilly there in the winter. We extended the camping invite to some of our Bay Area friends and I set an alarm on my phone to book the campsites 6 months out. If you’re not a planner and you’re not familiar with the National Park reservations system, sites typically only open up to book 6 months prior. With really popular parks like Yosemite, the spots are snatched up the same day they open so you have to be prepared. A lot of parks have first-come, first served campgrounds but that kind of flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants gives me anxiety. I like to have everything buttoned up when I’m traveling with my entire kitchen and bedroom in my car.
We had a great group of families camping with us and we took up four campsites in a prime location in the campground. We had hammocks strung in the shady spots. We watched condors soar overhead in the evening. Our cooler nearly got carried off my a family of dog-sized raccoons. It was dreamy. The campground was green and wooded, hilly and peaceful.
It wasn’t until we hiked deep into the park to explore the caves did I really understand why Pinnacles is National Park status-worthy. It’s an ancient lava bed that formed towering red rocks, canyons, and talus caves that create awe-inducing views. We hiked through meadows of wildflowers, criss-crossing over streams until we reached Balconies Cave. Balconies was no joke.
It’s pitch black and headlamps are a must. There’s a lot of scrambling over rocks in the dark and some tight squeezes involved. At one point, I was on the verge of turning around out of sheer panic but then I heard my sweet 3-year old whimpering as he climbed into the darkness towards his dad whispering “I’m being very brave, I’m being very brave” over and over again. I realized I better get my sh*t together for my preschooler’s sake. It was well worth it. When we emerged into the daylight on the other side of the cave, we were gifted some gorgeous canyon views on the meandering downhill trail.
We hiked Bear Gulch Cave a few days later which is probably the most popular hike in the park and a lot easier to navigate. Headlamps are still handy but it’s not as dark and spooky. When you climb out of the cave, you end up at a reservoir surrounded by red rock. It’s a perfect spot to picnic and squeal at water snakes swimming around.
There’s a small general store in the campground and a swimming pool that opened for the season the weekend we were there. The rangers are super-friendly and even after four nights of tent sleeping, we were not quite ready to leave.
On the way home, we talked about the Grand Canyon and Great Basin and Yellowstone and Crater Lake and daydreamed about where we’d go next. We imagined ourselves back in the hammock, swaying lazily, watching the sunlight filter through the leaves overhead. We pictured our cell phones with zero bars and their only functions to take pictures or play music. We thought about the kids running around squealing and climbing trees and toasting marshmallows. We thought about the laughing and the smiling and then smiled some more. And we knew it was possible to be homesick for somewhere you don’t live and may never go again.