I took the boys camping at Pinnacles National Monument for two nights this week, a Thursday and Friday night (May 27-29). And now this is one of my absolute favorite memories.
It was touch-and-go until the last minute if Katrina and Dave would join us, but in the end, we decided it'd be best to leave tantrumy toddler behind. As it turns out, for this trip, that happened to be the right call. It turned out to be far more about hiking than camping, all of it best done by the self-propelled.
The Pinnacles is run by the National Park Service, and it's only 80 miles away from home. Incredibly, I've only been there once, and never made it past the parking lot. A National Park that close and I've never been there?! It's known for its phenomenal rock formations, and as a natural habitat for the California Condor, and for its bat caves.
It'd been cold, windy and semi-rainy all week, which didn't bode well for a camping trip. Indeed, it poured on the drive down, a downright deluge through Hollister. But 30 miles away, the Pinnacles was dry and comfortable, and unseasonably cool. Which turned out to be an excellent thing -- the peak season there ends in a week or two, because it can get unbearably hot. We hit remarkably agreeable weather.
I picked our campsite from a map because it was close to the bathrooms, but it also turned out to be one of the very few that was completely private. It was pretty small, had a lame grate over the fire, and a red-ant colony (I got bitten 3 times and THAT HURTS), but overall was a good site.
I had the boys help a lot more than before, including teaching them to set up and break down their tent. We camped in 2 tents because that's just what we have, but it worked out well. The boys are noisy and make horrible messes in their tent, so I'd just as soon they have their own space.
Meals were simple with just them and me. It was busy our first night, setting up camp and setting up to cook, but we pulled it off before dark.
Some other "luxuries" of camping. I've decided s'mores aren't worth it; roasting marshmallows by themselves is the real highlight. After this trip, these boys finally know how to roast marshmallows!
We apparently were visitors in this couple's home!
We had barely started our adventure, and already Gabriel had announced, "This is SO fun!"
The real attraction of the Pinnacles is the fabulous views and hiking to get to them. On the one full day we had, we went to the Balconies Caves, which was about a 5-1/2 mile round trip hike. This included touring bat caves that require flashlights and a willingness to climb a little.
I was blown away by how beautiful our walk through a valley to the caves was. the mountains, the flora, the amazing wildflowers. It was an easy walk and really really pretty. Julian too volunteered, "This is so beautiful, everything -- the mountains, the flowers, the sun!"
In wetter seasons, hikers are warned to be prepared to cross rivers and get wet. Our numerous river crossings were mostly dry.
As we approached the caves, there was one crossing that was tricky -- I can't even imagine if the water were higher. It was easy for me to jump across the water from the rock on the other side to a landing spot in the foreground of the photo, but if you weren't 100% certain you'd make it, you'd have a moderate fall into about 2 feet of sludgy water.
The boys opted to shimmy across this wall, but that was actually harder. I somehow stood at the bottom and helped them across, mostly giving them confidence and telling them where to put their feet. Neither were scared, but Julian wasn't sure how to cross.
Then, the caves!
Julian had a moment of panic when it got pitch-black and we had to really climb, but I reminded him what a good climber he is, and within moments he was fine. It really was fun figuring out how where to put feet and hands, and looking for the tiny white arrows guiding our path.
Sometimes we weren't sure if some huge obstacle in front of us was the path or not, and often, it was, but overall it wasn't difficult climbing, and all up in this direction.
There was a second section of caves that was mostly tunnels, and well-lit. Not jogging-stroller stuff.
It was over too soon. We stopped for lunch and a break, and a silly photo session.
My plan had been to cross back over the caves along a high hiking trail, to get a spectacular view of the Balconies. But the boys really wanted to climb back down through the caves again. So, I "took one for the team" as someone commented later, and we went doubled back through the caves, climbing down this time.
A little video of the initial descent, before it gets too dark to film.
I usually don't like going back on the same trail, but this one is so pretty it was perfect this time.
I had anticipated the boys would slow down toward the end, and I was right. I kept them going by stopping for breaks and snacks, and playing with sticks helped. I held their hands on and off and joked and told them stories, and pointed out birds and wildflowers. Julian made up the name "checker" for trees that had fallen across the trail and had been cut to allow passage, and we counted checkers and river crossings. Gabriel listened for crickets, since thanks to his insect research report, he's a cricket "expert" now.
I asked the boys why camping was so fun. Gabriel answered immediately, with his characteristic literalness and clarity, unfettered by introspection, "Because it's a completely different world!"
I can think of few happier, more peaceful, closer moments in my lifetime. Walking along happily chatting with my two sons, just us and the beautiful surroundings...heaven.
When we got back to the campsite, Gabriel went right into the tent to take a nap. That night, they went right to sleep, and slept late into the morning. They were tired. Good.
We packed up camp the next morning. I boiled water for instant oatmeal, and just as the water was getting hot enough, the propane canister for my borrowed stove ran out. Doh! I hadn't even thought to check it before we left. I got lucky this time, but this was a serious camping mistake.
The boys were initially reluctant, but I wanted to do another shorter hike before we headed home. This was the Bear Gulch loop, that can include bat caves, but they're closed right now for breeding season. Still, there were supposed to be lovely views of the Pinnacles rocks, and a reservoir. The loop was about 2-1/2 miles, so I figured it'd be pretty short. And it was short, but, I hadn't considered the terrain. This one was quality over quantity.
First we stopped by the nature center to talk to the ranger. We asked about Sticky Monkeyflower, a plant Julian and I had seen on the Native Gardens tour a few weeks back, and the ranger told us where to find some. Which, it turned out, was all over the place.
Now that's a California Native! The ranger said the miners hated this plant, because the underside of the leaves really are sticky and it got to be a mess to walk through all day.
(See my separate post on the beautiful wildflowers we saw.)
He also reminded us of the rule, "Leaves of 3, leave it be." I tried to impress him with my boys' knowledge of how to recognize poison oak (red leaves, shiny, three leaves), but he re-emphasized that the 3 leaves was the most important characteristic. He said there was poison oak on the trail, so we were on the lookout.
This hike took us through a valley -- a gulch, I guess, toward some of the Pinnacles rocks. Much more canyon-like than yesterday, and very scenic in its own way.
The hike itself proved to be far more technical than I expected, especially when a navigation error took us on a detour past a rock-climber's area.
Still, even the regular trail wasn't exactly all regular walking. This made it way way more interesting!
Fabulous views though.
That's Julian down there.
As I took this photo, I heard a woman admonishing her 8-year-old for getting too far ahead. Hey mom -- whaddya think about my 6-year-old down there! I wasn't worried.
In fact, Julian really surprised me. He did great. Had I known how much climbing there was on this hike, I'd have reconsidered, but in fact, he does better when the trail is more interesting. It's the regular walking where he drags down and complains.
Apparently neither of them have any real fear of heights either (yet?).
After some really fun tunnels, we were approaching the reservoir. The way to get up to it is to walk up these steps that have been carved into the rock.
Gabriel found a creative way to avoid getting his shoes wet, though really, the water only skimmed the surface.
Voila. The reservoir. Beautiful, though the man-madeness of it seemed a little wrong here. As lush as it all was, the stark desert nature was looming, and a idyllic lake seemed out of place.
It was much much warmer than yesterday. I was glad we'd all changed into shorts and T-shirts, and that we were hiking in the late morning. The afternoon would be much hotter, and that's only in late May. I can barely imagine in August.
The way back was up, where we got a good view of the reservoir again.
I promised the boys that for all the up you go, there's just as much down. Soon enough, we were taking switchbacks back down to the nature center. After all the fun technical hiking we'd done, the walk back seemed dull to them, even though it was laden with views and features.
We stopped for a snack break, and to watch some climbers. Julian was fascinated, and so impressed by this woman climbing, and then descending, this rock. I know zip about rock-climbing, but the signs all indicated that only experienced climbers should try these.
Hmm, now that I see this photo, the rock we stopped on has quite the dropoff itself. We were safely 5-6 feet from the dangerous edge, and no one was nervous...but this photo sure makes it look like we should have been!
We'd taken the left fork to go gradually up, bypass the caves, to the reservoir, then a sharp descent. Next time, we'll go the other way, where Julian is pointing -- steep climbing at first, but a gradual downhill the rest of the way. And next time, we'll do it when the bat caves are open.
And there will most definitely be another next time!
We still had a short walk to back to the parking lot, but as is so often the case, that's where the trouble is. Julian tripped on the trail back, pretty much in the parking lot as we approached the car, and really skinned his knee. I drummed up an old band-aid in my purse, but really, I should have had more than that on me. That was another big camping mistake I made: not having a first-aid kit with me. I also wished I had alcohol and hydrocortisone for the nasty red-ant bites I got. They kept me awake the 2nd night, partly because of the painful throbbing, and partly because I was so so grateful the boys had avoided it.
The boys seemed elated over our fun challenging hike, Julian's knee notwithstanding. Before we'd even gotten into the car, they asked when we could come back. I'm not sure hiking will ever seem the same to them again, because most hikes don't involve so much scrambling around! But I loved it too.
One passerby smiled at the boys and joked, "Are you wearing out your Mom?" She smiled at me too, expecting me to confirm this. I smiled back and said, "welllll, sort of." They didn't wear me out at all; indeed I'd have gone a lot faster without them, and I had no trouble scrambling on the same obstacles they did. I have advantages of course; my legs are a little longer and I have more experience. Regardless, I was delighted and very very proud at how well they did, how they met challenges eagerly and found fun in just about everything.
(I'm keenly aware that the tipping point when my young sons are physically more able than I am isn't far off, especially as 50 looms, but it's not there yet. I'm intrigued that people assume it's here now; perhaps other 6- and 8- year old boys are more athletic. Or perhaps I underestimate how even the little amount of running I can fit in these days counts. In any case, they don't wear me out yet. Next year...?)
We stopped for lunch in the tiny town of Tres Pinos, took a scenic detour on the way home, and got back at about 4pm. This was the first time in two days we'd looked at a clock. While camping, we never asked what time it was, beyond curiosity. It just didn't matter. What a necessary change from our usual daily lives!
I'm so glad we have two more days off of school and work to recover, and to just totally completely enjoy this wonderful experience. This was SO FUN, and I am completely hooked on camping with my kids!