Pinnacles National Park

Located east of California Highway 101 and just south of Monterey Bay, Pinnacles National Park is a little-known treasure. We hadn’t heard of it until friends told us about it, and tips from those friends have always been great. Once again they were right – there were rock spires, soaring California condors, and talus caves to explore – a terrific place!

Pinnacles has two entrances – one on the east and one on the west, with no road to connect the two sides. The campground is on the east side, so we started over there. Quail and ground squirrels traipsed through the campground and nearby meadows, as well as flocks of wild turkeys. Rangers and locals left the hoods of their cars open – they explained that a warm car attracts the ground squirrels and they like to chew on wires. Cute, but troublesome.

Ground squirrel

We also saw acorn woodpeckers in the trees – plentiful and colorful!

Juncos flitted about as we hiked, as well as little lizards. Pinnacles is a smaller park, but it’s full of life!

Along with buzzards, falcons and golden eagles, the park is best known for a large population of endangered California condors. The buzzards are often confused with the condors, large black birds soaring around the rock spires, but once you spot a condor, it’s unmistakable. Be sure to bring your binoculars, because the condors like to fly high in the sky.

Note the large white patches on the underside of the wings – that’s the way to distinguish a condor from a buzzard in the sky. The condors also had red tags on their wing edges – to help scientists monitor individuals among these endangered birds.

Hiking trails criss-cross the park, some wind among the trees, some climb the hills to access the steep rocks, and some traverse through talus caves. These caves were formerly canyons, and large rocky debris has fallen to turn them into caves. The caves in Pinnacles were thought to be formed during the last ice age. They are closed at certain times of the year to protect a bat population, but they were open when we visited in March, and we had a ball climbing up and over the boulders and through the caves. Bring your flashlight!

It was well worth the long drive from the east side of the park to the west side of the park. The west side has a little different feel, and closer access to another cave.

Overall, Pinnacles is a lovely park, and particularly nice to visit in the cooler months. Because it’s close to San Francisco and San Jose, it can get very crowded on weekends, but Tuesday-Thursday makes a perfect span of time to explore it when it’s quiet.


Fueled by anti-Asian sentiment which began long before the attack on Pearl Harbor, in 1942 the U.S. War Department established 10 “Relocation Centers” to isolate Japanese and Japanese-American citizens from the U.S. west coast. This horrific forced relocation began in February-March of 1942, and continued until the end of 1945. Manzanar, located 230 miles east of Los Angeles (and not far from Death Valley), is one of the 10 internment camps, where 120,000 innocent men, women and children of Japanese descent were deprived of their freedom. 10,000 people were held at Manzanar.

With only days or at most weeks to prepare, people from the Los Angeles area as well as Bainbridge Island, WA were transported to the hastily constructed camp at Manzanar, forced to live in tarpaper buildings with little or no privacy from other families, use shared latrines with no partitions, and eat in large mess halls.

Typical bunk house shared by multiple families

At 4000′ elevation, this desert camp endured temperatures from 100+ degrees during the day in the summer to 40 degrees at night in the winter, with a typical day-night temperature differential of 30-40 degrees. The indignities were countless for these people, 2/3 of whom were native born American citizens.

Mess hall for 300 people

Manzanar is now a National Historical Site, run by the National Park Service. It is a sobering, eye-opening place to experience – to see some of the facilities, as well as the museum which told some of the heartbreaking stories, and made us feel the shame of what our country did to these people. Only a few buildings remain today, but the foundations and footprints give just a hint of the extent of these spartan quarters.

Racism and discrimination have no place in our world. We are all part of One Human Family. Equal – each and every one of us. This photo (below) makes me sick, but we have to face the reality of hatred and misunderstanding if we want to counteract it. We can’t pretend it wasn’t happening then, as it is now. Love thy neighbor as thyself. Period.

The thing that struck us most about Manzanar was the indomitable spirit of the prisoners, building furniture for themselves, creating a “lending library” for toys, establishing schools, a hospital, an orphange, an orchard, and a farm – to improve their quality of life as well as the variety of food served in the camp. We were so impressed at the industriousness of the prisoners to make their situation as good as it could possibly be, and to re-create many things that were important in their culture.

Remains of a beautiful garden and pond in the desert

Historical photos of the lovely gardens helped us imagine what the barren remains of the Pleasure Park looked like, tended with loving care as a respite from the unthinkable treatment of their captivity.

Loyalty questionnaires caused confusion and division in the camp, asking if the younger men would agree to serve in the U.S. military, as well as other difficult questions. I suggest that you read the book “No-No Boy” by John Okada for more insight into the complexities and conflicting emotions of the loyalty questions.

Grave marker
“Soul Consoling Tower”

The “Soul Consoling Tower” was constructed in 1943 as a place to attend religious services during the war, and is now the focal point of an annual pilgrimage to Manzanar.

A recent Washington Post article illustrated the unusual relationships between the prisoners in the camps, their guards, and the people in the surrounding areas. This particular article was about former Congressman and Cabinet Secretary Norman Mineta and former Senator Alan Simpson, and the life-long friendship that began when 11-year old Alan Simpson’s Boy Scout troop generously held their Jamboree with the internee’s Boy Scout troop in the Heart Mountain, Wyoming Forced Relocation camp, which included the young Norman Mineta.

National Parks can inspire and inform, whether they’re wild places or historical areas. Never stop learning – go experience your parks!

Death Valley – Last One

We explored more than just Death Valley on this trip, but we spent the most time there after having such a great time back in 2017. Here are the last of the photos and stories from this year’s adventure.

Of course we had to visit the Devil’s Golf Course – it’s just too stark and weird and inhospitable not to see.

Devil’s Golf Course

Another bit of Death Valley history happened when borax was found in the valley in the 1880s, and was mined and processed there for several years. Unfortunately, heat in the summer made processing impossible so the mine and processing was abandoned after only five years. However, the iconic “20 Mule Team” brand of borax (sold primarily as a laundry additive, but it has other uses) is still sold today, and the brand refers to the massive mule teams needed to haul the borax from Death Valley, up and over the mountains to market.

– Part of borax mule train

Another marvel in Death Valley’s harsh climate is the existence of natural springs and the endemic pupfish. Salt Creek is one of the few remaining wetland areas since Death Valley’s more plentiful marshes and lakes disappeared about 15,000 years ago.

Salt Creek

What makes the creek truly fascinating is the presence of little inch-long pupfish that have evolved to be a unique sub-species. Some other isolated bodies of groundwater in the Mojave desert also have pupfish populations, but each has evolved to adapt to its local conditions. Imagine – these little fish live in water that is 2.5 times saltier than the ocean, and where water temperatures can spike to 107 degrees (F). They may be little fry, but they’re tough!

Salt Creek Pupfish

Since we’ve visited the park once before, we wanted to find new places to explore, particularly off the beaten path. A ranger recommended Room Canyon, well past all the popular spots, and towards the south end of the park.

The trailhead was vaguely located at a mile marker along the road, and the directions said to trek across open land for almost a mile and a half to find a small promontory that marks the actual canyon. The open land was cut by dry washes, rocks and scattered scrub, but we tended to stay in the larger washes and we eventually spotted the canyon’s entrance.

It was a really neat area, eventually opening up into a bigger space with a few wildflowers to remind us that there really is a lot of life in Death Valley.

Flowers were a welcome splash of color, but the rocks continue to dazzle with interesting shapes and colors too.

After a few hours of exploration, we decided to venture farther south, out of the park. We ran into a nice couple on another trail earlier in the week, and they recommended a visit to China Ranch – a date farm in the middle of nowhere. With the description of delicious date shakes on our minds, we set out to see if we could find some cold treats on a warm day. The drive south was gorgeous, with ever-changing colors and formations, eventually giving way to a few small clusters of scruffy civilization scattered in the desert. We followed the sun-faded signs down a twisting dirt road into an improbable barren canyon, and at the bottom, the fields of date palms were a happy surprise to see. The date shakes lived up to their billing, and we bought a pound of dates in different varieties to take home too. You just never know what you’re going to find – that’s the fun of exploring, and of following the suggestions made by nice people you meet on the trail.

Happy Jim after enjoying a date shake

We capped off the trip with a sunset at Zabriskie Point, a nice viewpoint, probably better suited for sunrises than sunsets, but we didn’t want to get up that early.

In the next post I’ll show you a very different place about 100 miles from Death Valley – Manzanar National Historical Site. Still no bears. Stay tuned.

Death Valley – Part 2

Another post without a single bear… That’s two in a row, for those of you keeping track.

Ah, but Death Valley has so much to show us – so much beauty even in the stark landscape, the unreal colors, and the infinite ways that rocks and minerals can be arranged to create stunning and fanciful formations. Where to begin? Let’s start with the Ubehebe Crater – 600′ deep and 1/2 mile across, this monster was created when magma from deep within the earth hit ground water, causing a massive explosion of steam and hot gasses. The event that formed Ubehebe occurred as recently as about 2,100 years ago – a little too recent for comfort!

There are a few trails down into the crater, but we chose to hike the rim instead, since hiking on fine cinders is hard enough without a very steep slope on a hot day. In the photo below, this nearby smaller crater is Little Ubehebe, and if you look closely, you can spot the two people on the trail leading to it, on the right. It’s difficult to grasp the scale of things in this 140-mile-long park.

60 miles south of Ubehebe Crater is the trailhead for a popular hike – Golden Canyon, nearer to the main Park Service ranger station centrally located at Furnace Creek. The contrast in colors and formations is striking, and that’s what makes Death Valley so special – the incredible variety.

Narrow side canyons off the main canyon beg to be explored, and it’s easy to appreciate how terrifying this place would be during a flash flood event. Our imaginations were on overdrive – so many things to wonder about this landscape, especially the chemistry that produces so many soft colors in the rocks.

Not too far down the road from Golden Canyon is a short hike to see a Natural Bridge. Can you spot the man standing underneath for scale? It was also a perfect spot to get some welcome shade on a 90 degree afternoon.

Imagine the velocity of flooding rain that form the carved falls like the one pictured below! A couple of people could stand together at the bottom of the curved vertical pipe.

Death Valley becomes almost impossible to visit starting in April and lasting into October, due to the extreme temperatures. The record was 134 degrees (F) at the aptly named Furnace Creek, and daytime highs in the summer are routinely over 110 degrees.

At 282′ below sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America, and I think the landscape there best fits the image conjured by the park’s name.

You can walk out to explore a tiny part of the 200 square miles of salt flats in the park at Badwater. The well-worn path from the parking area is salty white where mud deposits are loosened by foot traffic and blown away by the wind, revealing the salt beneath.

The real secret is to take a few careful steps beyond the worn path and look for the hidden gems… like these tiny salt formations, each about the size of a grain of rice. Such fanciful shapes – easily trampled, easily missed.

Late afternoon is a perfect time to cap the day by driving the nine mile loop called Artist Drive, as the western sun really lights up the fantastical colors of the rocks.

And there is still more to show you from Death Valley… stay tuned. Yes, there are more bear-free posts on the way.