If it wasn’t already obvious, we love America’s National Parks. There’s a map of them in our house, and when we visit one we put a little tree sticker on its location (it’s one of the best parts of coming home). If Ken Burns’ National Parks series is on Amazon Prime, we’re watching. Several of the Instagram accounts we follow are National Parks pictures or Parks gear. Etcetera, etcetera. It’s safe to say we’re fans.
With good reason! There’s nothing like some time in nature to balance the effects of city living. National Parks are the planet’s spas and sanctuaries—sacred spaces that calm you and reenergize you.
But they’re not always the easiest to navigate. Some Parks have a lot of amenities, with guidebooks and websites listing several tips and starred attractions. Other Parks are more minimalist and mysterious—leaving you to find out for yourself what’s interesting and where you can go pee. Even the most visited and highly regarded ones have hidden gems and overrated tourist traps.
So we thought we’d share our own experiences and favorite things whenever we visit one. Let us know what you want to know, and which Parks you’ve been to!
We got back from Pinnacles a few days ago. It’s perfect to start these posts with because there’s not a ton you can find out about Pinnacles in advance.
Like many Parks, it’s inconspicuously located on a quiet back road you probably wouldn’t drive on otherwise. You can easily miss the turn (like we did, even though we’ve road-tripped to Parks several times now🤦♂️. Lush coastal hills and gentle brown cows lull you into a trance. Keep an eye on a map because there are just one or two humble signs letting you know Pinnacles is getting closer.
The Park is very spartan on amenities. At the (supposedly busier) east side, there’s only one small building that serves as the visitor center and store. We were able to get firewood and a couple other small items we needed. Plan to buy as little as possible there.
The Pinnacles campground is decent, with some sites much more shaded and secluded than others. We ended up at #50, which was pleasantly veiled from other sites by trees and a small stream at the bottom of a short hill. It was just right for the time we spent there when we weren’t hiking. Over the course of a few days, we saw a raccoon couple waltz through, heard countless wild turkeys, and hung out in our tent for a bit during a full day of rain.
On this trip, we proudly nailed our campfire-baked pizza log after a few frustrating efforts at other Parks. The secret was to do two smaller logs instead of one large one, and to lay them right on top of some glowing coals. There’s nothing like hot pizza flavors in a crunchy, gooey wrapped form after a long day hiking. Check out the recipe below!
Speaking of hiking, Pinnacles has some of the most enjoyable hikes we’ve ever done. On our first day, we did Condor Gulch to High Peaks and then back down through the lower Bear Gulch Cave. There’s a notable elevation change, but it’s fairly gradual. A section of High Peaks requires you to scramble around some boulders with a guiderail (neat!). Going through a cave as part of a trail was pretty cool (that doesn’t exist everywhere). Make sure you have a flashlight in your pack. Getting to see several California Condors in the air—and Condor 606 just hanging out on a boulder for awhile along the trail—was super memorable. A number of these rare birds call Pinnacles home.
Day two of hiking was a rainy stroll along Old Pinnacles Trail, then up through the Balconies Cave and around the Balconies Rim. We got absolutely soaked. But Old Pinnacles is pretty flat, so we got to enjoy walking and talking for several hours with hardly anyone else out on the trail. It kinda felt like we had the Park to ourselves. Those are magical moments.
All in all, we got to visit another National Park just a handful of hours from our home. We ate well, hiked well, and managed to have fun even as it rained a lot.
Pinnacles is an intriguing little Park. There’s less there than busier and larger Parks. But with the Condors, hikeable caves and peaks, and saturnine colors, you can’t really experience something like it elsewhere.
Pros: lower visitation, so there’s more space to yourselves; easier to get a campsite on short notice compared to many other Parks; unique, moderately challenging hikes; California Condors; not super far from San Francisco or Los Angeles
Con: very few amenities (limited restrooms, no covered picnic areas, one tiny store, no local restaurants/cafes)
Pro or Con (depending on how much you want to disconnect): no cell reception or WIFI
Rating: Four Condors out of Five
Campfire Pizza Logs
Adapted from Shock Munch (shockmunch.com)
1 batch store-bought pizza dough (or make your own!)
½-1 cup pizza sauce
8oz shredded mozzarella cheese
Grated Parmesan cheese
Your favorite pizza toppings: pepperoni, mushrooms, etc.
2 tbsp melted butter
Construction at home
- Divide the dough into two equal parts and roll them out on a lightly floured work surface to rectangles ½” to ¾” thick
- Gently spoon pizza sauce onto both rectangles, leaving about ½” border between the sauce and the edge of the dough
- Lightly sprinkle Parmesan cheese and dried oregano onto the sauce
- Sprinkle mozzarella evenly onto both rectangles
- Add chosen toppings—be careful not to overload
- Carefully roll each rectangle into a log, pinching the sides and sealing the end
- Melt butter and gently brush onto outside of both logs; sprinkle on salt and dried oregano, to taste
- Wrap logs separately in two layers of aluminum foil or one layer of heavy-duty foil
Cooking on the campfire
- Get that thing lit
- Let the wood burn down until you have a good amount of coals an inch or two deep
- Place the two foil-wrapped pizza logs on the coals
- Cook for 16-20 minutes, flipping halfway through
- Pull from fire and let cool for 5 minutes or so before eating
- Unwrap from foil, crack open your favorite camp beer or wine, and enjoy!