There is no sight more gratifying to me than the open road, for the open road allows the body to wander and the mind to wonder. It offers an escape for the imagination and a way of life governed by freedom and fueled by curiosity.
My name is Alexander, and I am a first year in Timothy Dwight College studying political science. Naturally, my day is complete with writing papers, reading research articles and attending lectures. And as much as I am a Yale student, I consider myself a student of the world with the open road as my classroom.
This travel column, On the Road, recounts several of my adventures on asphalt and all the lessons I have learned from the people, places and things I have encountered on all roads, from those well-traveled to those not taken.
Five miles east of Soledad, nestled in the Gabilán Range, lies a series of unique rock formations. These formations — these so-called “pinnacles” — pierce through the azure sky in shades reminiscent of rust and of tangerines growing in the late summer. They gaze out on the valleys below them as wise and austere sentinels. While static today, they were, in their youth, travelers. Over the course of 23 million years, these pinnacles traveled 200 miles north from Southern California as a result of tectonic movements along the San Andreas Fault. Today, they grace the Gabilán Mountains in quiet and gentle magnificence.
The rock formations are one of the many natural wonders to behold at Pinnacles National Park. Though only designated as a national park by then-President Barack Obama in 2013, it has spent nearly a century as a national monument. While it stands in the shadow of its more famous sister parks in the Golden State, such as Yosemite and Joshua Tree, its pinnacles cast a greater impression on hikers entranced by its splendor such as I.
Earlier this month, my parents and I took a day trip from the Bay Area to hike at Pinnacles for my birthday. With the park offering a western and eastern entrance, each one hosting a different set of features, we opted for the more popular eastern side. On the way to the park, we followed the highway across endless stretches of farmland and vineyards. A few minutes into the drive, what was flat land soon became mountains that slowly climbed higher within the frame of my car window.
The last time I visited a national park was the summer after my sophomore year of high school; my parents and I took a road trip to the Grand Canyon. While I recall the beauty of the park, I also vividly remember the line to get in. From the perspective of a Yale student, the wait was as long as the TD buttery line at 10:30 in the evening. In comparison, at Pinnacles, a line was non-existent. It took us three minutes to get into the park, in stark contrast to the nearly 40 it took in Arizona.
Driving into the interior of the park on the floor of Bear Gulch, the cliffs grew taller as the valleys grew deeper. Despite arriving on a weekday in early January, many of the parking spots were already full. Stumbling on an open space, we prepared for the day’s adventure and walked to the trailhead.
Pinnacles offers a variety of trails on a spectrum of effort and exertion. From the slate of options, my parents and I decided to hike the Moses Spring Trail and the Rim Trail. This path would take us to the Bear Gulch Reservoir and offer a loop that features some of the national park’s popular sites. We began the steady climb on the Moses Spring Trail, slowly gaining in elevation as we meandered through the rich canopy of oaks and pines watered by the rain days earlier. The rock formations on the facade of the gulch loomed over us, their orange tint proudly bursting through the brush that scaled the heights. From a distance, we saw rock climbers on a cliffside. Some were bouldering. Others wrapped the cliffs with their ropes with an expertise akin to that of veteran fishermen casting their lines on the steady sea. I paused often to dissect their voices sifting through the air and to hear their laughter, cheers and words of encouragement disguised as echoes in the wind.
Continuing the trail and following a stream, we found ourselves parallel to the edge of a cliffside overlooking the gulch and its fallen boulders below. High in the sky, the sun illuminated the rocks across from us, gleaming them in a humble and radiant golden glow. Stopping for a while to immerse ourselves with the sight before us, we kept on hiking until we reached the entrance to a talus cave on the way to the reservoir.
Talus caves, a well-known feature of the national park, are formed when large boulders fall into a chasm; these giant rocks form the roof of a cave tunnel. Given the varying shape of the boulders, windows of light would allow sunlight to pass through the rocks. For the most part, however, these caves would encapsulate any hiker in absolute darkness in the blink of an eye. Additionally, this haphazard arrangement makes it so that tight squeezes are all but necessary to make it through the cave. In short, navigating a talus cave is a lesson in acrobatics in the dark. Mustering the best of our agility and vision, we moved through the cave without much difficulty and with much fun. Shortly after this rocky ordeal, we climbed a staircase hewn into a cliffside and reached the Bear Gulch Reservoir.
The reservoir was clear and sharp. A family was there before us. The kids were running around, hopping near the trees and walking on the edge of the water. The parents tried, in vain, to assemble a family portrait. Watching the scene before us unfold, we relaxed and sat on a set of rocks above the reservoir and gazed at some of the pinnacles. The spires seemed to touch the clouds drifting by, forming a cathedral of stone that would inspire anyone to admire them from a place of awe and reverence. Rested and ready for the next stage of our hike, we followed the Rim Trail. Owing true to its name, it led us through the rim of a mountainside that offered breathtaking views of Bear Gulch. The landscape before us prompted us to stop and pause. In doing so, it offered us a respite from our busy lives and an opportunity to ground ourselves in the sights surrounding us. Overhead, a solitary falcon soared above, flying over its domain with an air of majesty. Its dark wings danced as it traveled through the fresh and rarefied air. It dove behind a mountain shortly after and disappeared from my sight.
Moving downward to complete the trail, we hiked through chaparral and back into the cover of oaks and pines that welcomed us hours earlier. By the time we returned to our car, the trailheads were packed by hikers ready to start their own adventurers. Campers were bundling their tents in their backpacks. Families were preparing their sandwich lunches on the benches at the picnic grounds nearby. Packing up and heading home, I resolved to return someday. Perhaps I might finesse myself through another talus cave. Perhaps I might climb a taller peak or tougher trail. Perhaps I might strain my eyes skyward in the hopes of sighting the rare California condor that calls the park home. Till then, one day at Pinnacles was enough for me to consider the park a hidden and humble gem of the California landscape and a site worthy of a visit by any adventurer, wanderer or admirer of what beauty the world has to offer.