Buenos Aires, by Noelia Diaco. Photo is not visible, used only for sharing on social networks.

Road trip: Pinnacles National Monument

December 2, 2012

Start from the beginning of our road trip.

At this point in our trip, we've traveled for three days out of five, and are happily camped at a state park in the middle of Big Sur. We knew that this would be our farthest point south and it was time to start heading home. When we had asked Google how to get back, it recommended just retracing our route. How boring, we thought. Ben found Pinnacles National Monument online, about 40 miles northwest as the crow flies and boasting "massive monoliths, spires, sheer-walled canyons and talus passages."

We booked a night of camping at Pinnacles and didn't think much more about it until the night before we left, when I started collecting the maps we would need. We knew we had to cross the Santa Lucia Mountains to get from Big Sur to Pinnacles, but our Rand McNally California Road Atlas didn't include any roads across the mountains (it's not a very good road atlas, and we wouldn't recommend it). Ironic, since the atlas claims on the cover: "Streets Mapquest and Google don't have. More accurate than Internet directions."

I double-checked Google, which once again told us the road existed. Wikipedia confirmed it. The road even has its own entry:
Nacimiento-Fergusson Road is the only road across the Santa Lucia Range in the Central Coast of California, connecting California State Route 1 and the Big Sur coast to U.S. Route 101 and the Salinas Valley. ... The road is well-paved and maintained over its length, but is winding and has precipitous drops at almost every turn. ... Nacimiento-Fergusson Road is widely regarded as one of the best motorcycling roads in central California due to the premier ocean views and forest setting.
Awesome. By chance we had planned to take one of the best motorcycling roads in California.

The turns in the first 10 miles were indeed precipitous as we climbed the mountains, gaining gorgeous views of Route 1 behind us. The water was unfortunately misty, obscuring the beauty of the photo on the left (our eyes were better at cutting through the fog, and for views of Route 1, this was one of the best we got). Coming into this trip, I had expected Route 1 to present a scarier drive. Our guidebook goes so far as to recommend driving from south to north if you're afraid of heights. But there are guard rails everywhere and in most cases, several feet of ground at least between road and ocean.

Nacimiento-Fergusson Road was closer to what I had envisioned of Route 1 — sharper turns and less room for error. But we took it slow for the first 10-15 miles as we climbed the forested slope. We saw only a few other travelers and were happy to leave the crowds behind. After we reached the apex, we passed a sign that said "Icy" and as if on cue, the temperature dropped at least 15 degrees. We were out of the reach of the sun as we descended, though luckily there was no ice on the road.

Eventually the road flattened out and we reached my favorite part of the drive: Hunter Liggett Military Reservation. The base is primarily used as a training facility, and most of the time, civilians are allowed to pass through (neither of the two checkpoints we passed was manned). The road curves through rolling hills, a kind of mountainous prairie, with no posted speed limits.

We stopped in King City for gas and food. While Ben ate, I scouted out a nearby coffee shop, which claimed to serve espresso but was closed. When I reported back, lamenting the dearth of good coffee, a woman overheard me: "You're in the middle of nowhere. You have to go an hour in either direction if you want coffee." Oh well.

Route 25 to Pinnacles was similarly beautiful, with wonderful winding curves you can lean into on a motorcycle (the turns on the first part of our drive were too sharp to take with any speed and there were two many cars on Route 1 to get a real feel for the curves). I was enjoying the ride too much to even take out my camera.

At Pinnacles (a national monument run by the National Park service, which is asking to become a national park), we embarked on our final day hike to see the Bear Gulch Cave, created by huge boulders that formed a roof over a narrow canyon.

The park apparently attracts a lot of rock climbers. According to our brochure: "The rock at Pinnacles, mostly volcanic breccia and tuff, is weak compared to the granite and basalt of many climbing areas.  ... Pinnacles rock can be so unstable that even new bolts may fail."

We shared our campsite with some wild turkeys (Ben was surprised when there were no roosters crowing the next morning, having confused turkeys and chickens) and packed up the next morning for a boring drive home. Whereas Route 25 had twisted and turned leading to Pinnacles, to the north it straightened out into a windy stretch of boring. That led us to 101, again not exactly a scenic roadway, where we located a Denny's (I had never been to one). We picked up 280 in San Jose but even that was too windy for our taste (in a car, it would be a beautiful highway), so we cut across the peninsula back to Route 1, our old stalwart. 

By 4 p.m., we were home, exhausted but happy. Our gear had held up (finding a motorcycle jacket for me was a multi-week affair), our new bike seemed perfect for cruising (though it had a few wiring problems that are hopefully now solved), and we couldn't wait to get back on the road. We want to head to Napa and Sonoma soon (hopefully before Christmas, if it ever stops raining), and explore Mount Tamalpais and Marin right over the bridge.

Our next big trip? Destination TBD.

- Steph

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