Pinnacles National Park: Flying to the Bay Area

If I asked 100 people to name a national park in California, I imagine a few responses would dominate. There would be a huge group of “Yosemites”, quite a few people mentioning “Death Valley”, and maybe a smattering of others would mention Sequoia, the Redwoods, or Joshua Tree. I’m pretty confident none of those 100 would mention Pinnacles National Park unless they live within an hour of it – and maybe not even then. Those people, I’m a little surprised to say, are missing out.

Those who know me know that I will be getting married next month (holy cow) in Estes Park, Colorado. I did a little destination wedding invite exchange with a friend of mine from grad school, Matt, when he told me he was getting married in a traditional Indian Hindu ceremony (Matt is white as can be, but his now-wife is Indian) in the same year that we were getting married in his beloved Colorado mountains. Matt’s a nice guy and we were excited to see his whole ceremony. Plus, given that it was in the Bay Area, I was excited to see a whole other part of the country that I’d never been to before.

Elizabeth and I reached out to our friend Stephen to see if he wanted to join us in traveling to California early. The wedding was on a Monday (Memorial Day 2023, to be exact), and I already had a 3-day weekend from Saturday to Monday. Using the time-honored tradition of “counting on the NWS to grant a 2-hour early release”, we could get to California late on Friday evening, spend all of Saturday doing what we wanted, and then work our way over to the wedding location in Walnut Creek Sunday afternoon. I tacked on an extra day of vacation on Tuesday so that we didn’t have to rush back. Then it was just a matter of making plans.

Originally, Elizabeth and I considered going to Yosemite National Park and spending our Saturday there. On second thought, though, a holiday weekend in Yosemite sounded like an absolute nightmare of little piggies. But just an hour and a half south of the San Jose Airport sits humble Pinnacles, buried on the inland side of the coastal range. From there we could drive up to San Francisco, spend some time there, and then cross the Bay to get to Walnut Creek. Why not, right? It was a little too late to book campgrounds in Pinnacles since they’d already gone on sale, but with a little of the magic that only Elizabeth seems to possess, she found a rudimentary cabin with a pair of beds in it. It was space enough, in fact, for ourselves plus Stephen, as long as we were willing to bring our own bedsheets.

And so it was that Elizabeth and I boarded a Southwest flight headed toward the first of four new airports for me in a one-week span – Austin Bergstrom, our connection on the way to the second, San Jose (we flew back from Oakland, and I flew to Jackson Hole later in the week). I’m so proud of Southwest – their skill in creating absolute overcrowded hellholes out of all of their regional hubs is unparalleled, and Austin is rapidly becoming yet another. We bounced around people at the airport like ants milling around a Froot Loop. Dinner consisted of a couple of reasonably tasty but small tacos from Earl Campbell’s taco truck, all while a literal country band played live music. Once again, this was past security at an airport. It was like a Nashville horror film come to life.

After jostling our way back to the gate, Elizabeth and I were soon in the air again, this time bound for a date with new airport number two – San Jose. We flew over the hazy desert for a while, sipping on a Dogfish seltzer (Elizabeth) and a rum and Coke (Nolan) with expiring Southwest drink tickets. We were treated to an equally hazy sunset view of the Coastal Range upon descent into the Bay Area, and then a lush green view of San Jose and its suburbs.

Stephen was taking a separate flight into San Jose that was supposed to land shortly thereafter. Much to my surprise, although we’d been slightly delayed upon landing, his delay matched ours almost perfectly. The coordination of two groups landing at the same airport at the same time on different itineraries – similar to what Napoleon called the toughest maneuver in war – had been executed somewhat flawlessly. Looked like the vacation was going to go our way!

Well… not so fast.

Elizabeth had walked over to the rental car center while I waited at baggage for Stephen to arrive. Figuring it would only take her a few minutes to get the car from Budget, I expected that the two of us would be picked up in style once he had his bags. Boy, was that wrong. Thanks to a (no-doubt-holiday-weekend-induced) shortage of rental cars, Budget had a very long line that necessitated an hour and a half of waiting inside their lobby while Elizabeth snaked closer to the front, sending me ever-angrier texts all the way. Finally (to my relief), an employee pointed her in the direction of the car pickup spot, and the three of us got ready to Cali it up.

The mix-up had used up what little daylight remained, and only a late-spring dusk remained by the time our Chevy Malibu was able to get out and onto the roads of southern San Jose. Pinnacles was about an hour and a half to the south, tucked into a little nestle in the Coastal Range. We had to make one stop along the way at Target so Elizabeth could pick up one or two things she needed, and so the three of us could get some food so we didn’t starve to death inside the national park. Fortunately, there are absolutely no shortages of Target in Silicon Valley, and shortly Elizabeth was pulling into a lot just ahead of the store’s close so we could grab some food. Mindful as always of overspending on food (something we have certainly done while camping before), I tried to keep our food purchases to practical stuff that would get eaten in the next few days – bananas, bagels, everything pretzels, a jar of Nutella. To be honest, we ended up doing a not-bad job.

The rest of the drive down to Pinnacles seemed like it would have been beautiful during the daytime (spoiler: yes). There were mountains silhouetted against the moonlight as each successive mile down California-25 became more and more remote. Elizabeth did an admirable job handling the dark road without flipping out too much, and we never ran into a deer or anything, so all was well that ended well. Finally, after an hour of driving, she pulled into a sandy intersection with (an extremely lame) sign – Pinnacles National Park! I was now 19/63 on visiting US national parks.

Park number 19 was going to need to wait a little bit before we could explore it – it was after 11:00 local time, late enough that all the rangers had gone home from the welcome station (it was 1:00 a.m. in Oklahoma, making this an especially long day for those of us who had gotten up at 6:00 to save a day of vacation time). Elizabeth finished off the short drive by heading up the park road to the Pinnacles Campground. Looking out at the pitch-black night interspersed occasionally by campfires and headlamps, I was so grateful in that moment that Elizabeth had rented a cabin and I didn’t need to pitch a tent at 11:30 p.m. We searched for cabin site number 81, and, in a minor miracle, found it without too much of an issue. Nicely done, Elizabeth.

The three of us got out of the car to stretch our legs and bring suitcases into the little cabin. Immediately, I knew there was a problem. There was a real chill in the air. In packing light for the trip, Elizabeth and I had foregone too much in the way of bedsheets. All we had for ourselves was a sheet for the bed, a blanket and pillow for Elizabeth, and a blanket for myself. Also, a certain idiot had sort of just assumed California was warm by Memorial Day weekend and hadn’t packed anything (literally) that had long pants or long sleeves outside of a suit for the wedding. That certain idiot was bound to be cold on the 40-degree night that it had already plummeted to.

The cabin itself was a charmingly quaint affair, adorned only by a couple of beds, and Adirondack, and a nightstand. Also, a space heater. My eyes lit up at this one. The cabin didn’t have central heating, but how bad could it be?

Within minutes, the three of us had gotten all of the bedding onto our college-dorm-style mattresses and were ready to go brush our teeth and call it a night. The stars shone like confetti out of a surprisingly dark sky on the walk to the bathrooms. Was this really California? Were we really only a few dozen miles from Monterey? It was pretty impressive. After blundering around for a little while in the dark, we found the bathroom. Stephen and I brushed our teeth then waited for Elizabeth to emerge so we could blunder around a little bit more back to the cabin. It was about midnight by the time we got back. I improvised a little pillow from one of Elizaebeth’s sweatshirts and used the blanket that was supposed to be my pillow to actually keep myself warm. Apparently that wasn’t enough, because at some point in the middle of the night Elizabeth half-rolled-over on the lumpy mattress and told me to steal the space heater. The blast of hot air against my lower back helped ease me back into a few more hours of deep sleep to prepare for tomorrow’s big hike.

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