The natural inclination, upon leaving Carmel Valley Ranch for a little exploration, would be to turn left on Carmel Valley Road, and aim for the shops of Carmel and the beaches of the Pacific. Instead, though, turn right. Follow Carmel Valley Road, aka State Highway G16, up and over the Sierra de Salinas mountain range into the Salinas Valley—an almost unbelievably scenic, if twisty, drive. Hang a left after 35 miles, at Arroyo Seco Road, which will bring you, eventually, to the little Mission town of Soledad, which also happens to be the western gateway to California’s newest national park, Pinnacles. (In 2013, Congress and President Obama promoted it from the status of national monument to park.)
Photo Courtesy of Miguel Vieira via Flickr
Photo Courtesy of David Fulmer via Flickr
What, you say you don’t see anything particularly monumental on the horizon? Start driving east on Highway 146. Soon, spines of volcanic red rock will start appearing like the fins of a phantom Stegosaurus behind the dusty hills ahead of you. Like Yosemite, Pinnacles is a two-sided park, with eastern and western entrances. Unlike Yosemite, though, you have to choose which side you want to visit: there’s no road linking the two halves, just hiking trails. Most of the park infrastructure (visitor’s center, gift shop, campground, etc.) is on the eastern side, which means the western side is far less crowded. (There is a small, staffed gate and parking lot at the western entrance, where you can pick up trail maps and brochures.) Winter into early spring is definitely the best time to visit: the bush poppies and baby blue-eyes are blooming, temperatures are pleasant—in summer, the sun will punish you for daring to visit—and Bear Gulch Cave, which houses a protected colony of big-eared bats, is open to visitors. While you’re there, keep an eye to the sky: Pinnacles is also home to the imposing (ten-foot wingspan!) and very rare California condor.
Photo Courtesy of Pacific Southwest Region USFWS via Flickr
Photo Courtesy of Harold Litwiler via Flickr