This year, the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary. They encourage everyone to get out, find adventure, and explore the gems of our park system — the nearest park is closer than you think. So, find your park. This Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016 — most of the 400 national forests, monuments, and parks will be free.
As the ribbon of highway 101 bends ever so gently to the east, toward the city of Soledad, you are surrounded by lush landscape surrounding you— much of it agricultural, from farm-fresh tomatoes to colorful store-ready flowers.
The fact that for many years, the city’s slogan was, “It’s happening in Soledad” is only slightly ironic. Perhaps civic leaders were inspired to run counter to to its Spanish meaning for solitude. Today, the Salinas Valley State Prison lies five miles north of town.
Its most famous connection may be when Soledad was the literary setting for John Steinbeck’s pivotal novel, “Of Mice and Men.”
Nestled within the 90-mile long Salinas Valley, Soledad lies within close proximity to one of the great agricultural landmarks — the San Joaquin Valley, which comprises the central portion of California, forming the spine of the state and producing a significant portion of the United States’ produce.
Salinas Valley, small as it may be in comparison to the dominant San Joaquin, is known as the “Salad Bowl of the United States” because it churns out many of the ingredients you’d toss into a salad; lettuce, spinach, broccoli, and peppers.
One of the biggest employers in the region is very closely related to the land — Dole Foods. As forceful as agriculture is in the area, produce rarely becomes a forceful driver of tourism. A few wineries are cropping up in the area because three American Viticultural Areas are nestled within the confines of the Salinas.
Today, the old signs promoting Soledad’s slogan have been replaced, and in a bid to capture some of the influx of new visitors to the nation’s newest national park, the city now welcomes adventurers and hikers to “The Gateway to the Pinnacles.”
It’s an important distinction. The country is littered with hundreds of National monuments and recreation areas. Pinnacles itself was one of the first, when the Gabilan Mountains were granted the status from President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908.
Aside from the honorable inclusion into a very select group of 59 of the country’s National parks and the distinction that comes with it, the park can be a harbinger of tourism to an area that has so desperately needed it.
When the park was officially recognized by the signature from President Barack Obama, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar commented on the importance of the park to the revitalization of the Salinas economy.
“As with our other national parks and lands, Pinnacles also is an economic engine, supporting jobs in local communities,” he said.
In its final year as a National monument, Pinnacles welcomed 343,000 visitors responsible for pouring almost $5 million into the local economy. Those numbers seem pretty decent, especially when you consider its relative proximity is dwarfed by California tourism magnets like Kings Canyon, Yosemite and the dramatic cliffs of Highway 1 south of Monterrey.
For much of its existence, this place has been a Golden State secret known to savvy central coast Californians, bird watchers, and rock climbers.
Little has changed in the park itself, but the status will help to save some of the national resources that are so scarce and vital within the boundaries of the Pinnacles including its unique habitats of grasslands, majestic valley oak, and blue oak woods.
In addition to the unique, almost desert-like appearance, the park also is home to one of the last vestiges of the ancient California Condor, the venerable bird that was virtually brought to extinction. In the early 1980s, only 22 of the Condors were living.
With the help of local conservation experts and the existence of Pinnacles, a few Condors returned to the park. Today, volunteers and park rangers assume the responsibility of watching vigil over these soaring beauties. It’s one of the more prominent places to see Condors because it’s on the path of visiting birds from the coast near Monterrey and it’s also an official release site.
Today the park is a day-use facility so you can enjoy activities like hiking the well-maintained 30-miles of trails, exploring the network of talus caves (bring your flashlight), and watching the condors. There are a few major loops that start in the floor of the park and rise to the rocky spires of Pinnacles offering prominent views in all directions and unimpeded views of
Back in the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps installed hand railings and carved steps into the rock and the trails that make getting into the heart of the park an easier feat.
A long, empty country two-laner heads directly into a vast swath of golden nothing, framed by a canopy of grape vines and a sign for Pinnacles beckons. Today, there are two major routes into Pinnacles. The one we took was California 146, which you can pick up heading out of Soledad.
No matter what season you visit Pinnacles, be sure to pack plenty of appropriate clothing, hiking boots, sun protection and more than enough water for every single person hiking with you. These trails are moderate to strenuous and the weather can be drastically different than that of the nearby coast. Prepare like you are hiking in the desert.