Pinnacles National Park, CALIFORNIA

The final National Park of the trip – man, it came so suddenly

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“Like a river that don't know where it's flowing
I took a wrong turn and I just kept going”
—Bruce Springsteen

Just like that, three months on an epic road trip winds down to its end and the final National Park in an unbelievable series of them: Pinnacles, as of now America’s newest National Park, situated down obscure roads in a desolate part of central coastal California. With heavy hearts Masayo and I spent a day in and around Pinnacles (it being one of those Parks with two entrances, east and west, and no road through) and just like that, the trip’s final big destination was over.

And it was not a super spectacular end to the trip, to be honest. Maybe it’s the memory of all that’s gone before, but I found Pinnacles underwhelming. It may be that we never really got out of the car to explore the interior, or it may be that I was benumbed by the prospect of the voyage coming to its conclusion, and the feeling I still have that the last few weeks have been something of a missed opportunity. Just dutifully cranking out miles without much joy and inspiration.

On the plus side, Pinnacles was nearly empty of other people, we had a final picnic in a hot but eminently attractive setting, and finished the day with a long and friendly conversation with the laid-back staff at one of the Park’s visitor centers. On a road trip like this, two people cooped up in a car every day together, outside human interaction has been all too rare.

My blood sugar got the day off to a great start: 111 before breakfast. For some reason I felt uneasy about the Humalog shot I took for the small in-room self-catered breakfast. Nothing to do but guess and hope.

The drive to Pinnacles from our hotel in Monterey was quite nice, leading down small two-lane roads with few other cars through golden fields and big welcoming hills. As we entered the Park I still couldn’t see any pinnacles – having been to wondrous Bryce Canyon a few weeks ago, I imagined something similar, or different but equally impressive.

All I could see so far was that the visitor center, a nice and modern-looking building, was closed. Closed! It was early afternoon and I’d never seen anything like this. Just then a ranger walked by and I asked him about the center being closed and what there was to do.

This ranger, unusually, was not especially friendly. His attitude was more like a policeman – mirror sunglasses, overly impressed by the “power” of his uniform, and frowning in boredom as he mumbled impatiently to this lowly civilian about possibly finding a park map at a nearby sign-in station. No smiles, no apologies or explanations. Move it along, sir.

But there were indeed maps and Masayo got back in the car out of the increasingly brutal California heat to drive to the end of the road. It wasn’t far; Pinnacles National Park seems rather small and its road infrastructure very slight, almost as sparse as that of Kings Canyon National Park. Just a couple of miles and we were at a small parking lot – the end of the road.

With only about four other cars there, we took stock of our surroundings because it was lunch time. Perfectly, there were some tables and a restroom building here. I lugged the cooler from the car to the table and we had a picnic in the hot sun, squinting up at the rocky crags above us while a family laughed and chatted on a trail winding into the hills.

I was in a bad mood though. It seemed a dull place for a grand finale. Checking my blood sugar at the picnic table I found out part of the problem for my grouchiness: I was 272. Curse that Trader Joe’s protein bar at breakfast.

Masayo prepares for a Pinnacles picnic.

“Excuse me, waiter, there’s a fly in my curry salad pita with olives and guacamole spread.” A real California problem.

I’m not sure we were looking at the pinnacles from our picnic spot; there were some rocky tower things but nothing as dramatic as the orange Martian landscape of Bryce Canyon. Maybe the good part was over these ridges, in the interior where we non-hikers wouldn’t be going. Well, if nothing else, at least there was some compelling mystery to Pinnacles. “Why is this a National Park anyway?” isn’t an especially promising thought to have leap to mind but hey, we travelers will take a diverting conundrum wherever we can.

Then it was back out of the Park whence we’d come, on a long arc to the south to the eastern entrance of Pinnacles. The landscape on this drive was gorgeous: tall golden hills, sometimes with a herd of cattle or fat little trees standing in groups, rose around us. To tell the truth, this lonesome California highway was a lot more interesting than western Pinnacles had been.

Into the east entrance!

The east part of Pinnacles National Park had its own visitor center, and while this entrance seemed even more obscure to me, everything was open on this side. In the log cabin-like center I fell into conversation with the ranger working the cash register and put my foot in my mouth when I mentioned we’d just visited the western side.

“Oh, so you saw the best part! I think the Park’s best views are in the west part,” she said.

“Oh, you mean if you go hiking into it from there?” I asked.

“No… just anywhere,” she said in an awkward voice.

I gulped and tried to smile and agree. Hoo-boy, yeah those views were sure nice! Forget that thing I said about having to hike in. Ahem.

Nice job if you can get it: staff swimming pool at Pinnacles.

Masayo went to the bathroom while I sat on a bench on the covered porch, sipping a Coke Zero and thinking. I was pondering the end of the trip. This was it. I was even growing to like Pinnacles – the National Parks of America cover every sort of terrain, come in all sizes, and exist for different purposes. Why not have one like this, a curious and out-of-the-way place to sigh about the heat, watch the birds fly around the metallic yellow grass fields, and gaze into the distance at the big grey columns of rock.

We did drive further into the Park again, this time stopping at a nature center which was staffed by two very kindly ladies who were working for the NPS as volunteers in their retirement. After watching the short film about Pinnacles, we fell into conversation with them which was easy since there were no other visitors.

A bit of free advertising for the site.

The ladies told us how competitive NPS jobs were, and how they loved the agency and were volunteering out of sheer love for it. They talked about a trip to Crater Lake they’d taken once when all they could see was snow and fog – snow blocked our way but the lake views were spectacular, I said.

There was an almost small-town southern charm to this scene, chatting with two ladies while the sun lit everything bright outside. If we’d had some ice tea it would’ve been perfect.

But eventually we were on our way – the ladies knew all about Salinas, where we were headed for the evening, and one of them even knew our exact hotel and what restaurants were around it. After a quick drive to the road’s end – where we got out for an even closer view of some of the rock pinnacles, we headed back for the entrance.

Final view, just before exiting Pinnacles.

Before leaving, though, I pulled over for one last look and one last photo. And one last blood sugar check. It would be my last in a National Park on this trip and I wanted it to be good.

It was 102. My One Drop meter and I winked and smiled at one another. A perfect reading to say goodbye to the National Park system. Goodbye for now, that is.

Have you ever been to a place like Pinnacles?
Share your travel stories, give advice, or ask a question in the comments section.

Next page: Day 80: To lose all sense of time in the thick mists of the sea

“The north California coast may change your life even after a brief drive. But then again, is a "brief" drive through such a wonderland really possible?”

About the author

Jeremy has traveled to over 40 countries, taken several road trips across the United States (and Canada), and lived on and off in Japan for several years. He was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1982 but doesn't let a little thing like that stop him from exploring the world.

Jeremy writes about his travels with diabetes on 70-130.com as a way of logging his excursions and of inspiring others who might be feeling hesitant to take their own big bite out of life.

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