Thursday, December 24, 2015

Camping at the Pinnacles National Park

Dates: Camping is available year-round.  I camped there on December and April.
Place: Pinnacles National Park (eastern entrance), Paicines, California
Coordinates: 36.49141, -121.146351

The past year has been my Pinnacles year. And it took me as long to post all my of my Pinnacles hikes here too. This has also bee the first year I had camped at the Pinnacles, although I hiked there many times before.  This post is sort of a wrap-up for the year, focusing on my camping experience there. Today is exactly one year from the first time I had arrived at this park to stay for the night.

I have visited the Pinnacles National park many times before, yet never camped there until last year. And why would I, if it's only two hours drive from my home. But when I started planning my group hike camping trip I figured I should test that campground in person before I take people there. By now I have camped there three times, once in December and twice in April. Twice I camped alone, at the family campground area, and the last time I camped with the group at the group camp area.

On December 24, Christmas Eve, I was driving Papa Quail's little hybrid to the Pinnacles. Right after I passed Tres Pinos, at about 9:00 pm, I got a phone call. Thinking that Papa Quail who stayed at home with the chikas had needed to ask me something, I pulled over and took the call. It wasn't Papa Quail, but regardless of the caller identity, I soon found myself in a predicament: the road shoulders that looked perfectly firm from the road had turned out to be a mud trap. I had sank pretty deep and couldn't get out. It took nearly 2 hours before the tow truck showed up and put me back on my wheels on the road (The tow truck driver told me that sinking by the shoulders on that road is one of the most common calls he get.)

Take home lesson: If you drive at night on CA-25 from Hollister to the Pinnacles in winter, don't pull over to the shoulders. 
Bottom line: It was almost midnight when I finally arrived at the Pinnacles campground and found a spot. It was very dark and very cold, and I had to put up a brand new tent that I had purchased just a day before and had no time to open and study at home.

Acorn Woodpecker, December 25, 2014
After the tent was set I made a quick dash to the restroom and nearly had a heart attack when a large animal with wide eyes that shone brightly in the beam of my head light emerged from the vegetation. It was a large buck with a full rack of antlers and he was staring me down. I moved carefully with my back to the building wall and slid into the restroom. When I got out the deer was no longer there but my heart was still racing. I made it quickly back to the tent and took a long while to fall asleep despite my fatigue.
California Quail, male, December 25, 2014
I woke up to a chilly morning and a noisy and very merry choir all around me. I recognized the familiar acorn woodpecker's knocks and rusty door hinge calls, the quail's bottle cork-pooling, the chilling call of a red-tailed hawk, and othed song birds  did not recognize by ear.
Later that day, after finishing my hike to the Pinnacles Shoulders I sat at the campground and watched these birds at their activities.
Varied Thrash, December 25, 2014
It was very cold that night. I had brought the needed equipment and so had a comfortable night sleep but the cold spell of that week had deterred my hiking group from signing up for a camping trip in January. (Needless to say, the planned January date had a wonderful, ambient weather).

So my planned Pinnacles group camping trip got pushed back to April. A week before the group trip I came once more to camp at the park and do some more trail preparation. This time cold was not an issue at all. The main problem was to find a vacancy. April is the busiest time in that campground and I had not reserved a spot. Thank to last minute cancellations I was able to find a spot for two nights and had a very good time hiking and camping.
I was very happy to meet  more quails :-)
California Quail, male and female, April 9, 2015
The quails of the Pinnacles NP are all over the campground, seemingly unhindered by the human activity there. Even the normally shy females were out and about.
California Quail, female, April 9, 2015
 My first hike that visit, to the Balconies via Chalone Creek, I had finished at sunset. By the time I made it to the campground there was barely any light left. But that's the time the Indian tobacco opens up, and I strained my camera to get a photo of this pretty flower.
Indian Tobacco (Nicotiana quadrivalvis), April 8, 2015
The campground was at full occupancy. On my second day I realized than many campers simly enjoyed hanging out in the campground, playing ball and other games, riding their bike, drinking and eating, or going for a swim at the swimming pool that operates in the campground during spring and summer. Not everyone is into hiking, but the campground itself offers ample chances to encounter wildlife, so their's no need to go far for tha.
And it is a birding heaven.
I returned from my High Peaks Trail with enough daylight to spare so I walked over to the visitor center area and checked out the local residents.
Western Bluebird, April 9, 2015
As the light faded the vultures started circling down, pulling home to their roost from the skies all over. 
Turkey Vultures fly-in, April 9, 2015
Their roost - a large pine just over the ranger's residence, soon filled up with turkey vultures. They like to sleep in colonies like that. I didn't get close enough to smell them but I can imagine.
Turkey Vultures roosting for the night, April 9, 2015
The campground at the Pinnacles NP is very family friendly. While only few spots offer relative privacy, there are a number of separate loops that give the impression of several small adjacent campgrounds and not of a huge tent city. There are quarter-operated showers by the swimming pool, but only two stalls. I didn't bother. There is also a campers store that carries essentials (such as beer) and a friendly, helpful staff both at the store and at the visitor center. And there is the swimming pool, too. It is a very good place for families and beginner campers to start at.

On the following week I was back at the Pinnacles campground - this time in the group camp area. The major drawback there is that is has a single restrooms facility for the entire group area. Realizing that I had booked the group site that was closest to the restrooms. Having some very young kids in the group, as well as some beginner campers, that choice turned out to be a very wise one.
Also - the drinking water tap was in our site. Very convenient for us. Less convenient to the neighboring groups who had to come over to fill their containers, then haul it all the way back to their site. Conclusion - better do the homework before reserving a campsite. Particularly when other people's convenience is in consideration.

It was fairly hot when we were there and on the second day we finished our hike with enough time for the families to go to the pool and take a refreshing swim. I preferred to stay at the campsite by myself and enjoy a cold beer. I also enjoyed the visit of a wild turkey pair in the neighboring camp site.
Wild Turkey, male in courtship, April 13, 2015
There were just two of them. The female was walking to and fro, seemingly uninterested in the show that the male put up for her. The poor dude fluffed all his feathers, spread his tail, puffed his chest and wiggles his wattles, but the girl kept her back to him, slowly walking away. There were there the next day too. It's good to see a stable couple like that.
Wild Turkey, female, unimpressed. April 13, 2015
But the prized sighting at the Pinnacles NP is always the California Condor. Since the Pinnacles have been selected as a release site for these majestic birds the park was promoted from National Monument to a National Park status. Every time I go there I keep checking the sky for them.
And so it was that I was lying on the bench alone with my beer when the condor swooped over my, quite low. I yelped and run to the car to fetch my camera. By the time I had it on the condor had already gained altitude. But still - a condor! 
California Condor, April 8, 2015,
I am sure to visit the Pinnacles again soon. I also plan to camp there again, and with my family. I have no doubt my chikas will have a blast there.


  1. The hardships at the begining are not nice at all... but the birds are wonderful and even though I don't like camping in general, this sounds as a place I would like to be at :-)

  2. I'm planning to camp at the Pinnacles National Park but I'll make sure I get there in the daytime. I don't think I could set up camp in the dark like you did! It looks like a really peaceful spot and the chance to see and photograph so many varieties of bird is awesome.

    Andrea Wilkins @ Get Away Outdoors