Make California’s newest national park part of your next road trip

A view from the west side of Pinnacles National Park. Park access is split between its eastern and western halves.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, fellow Escapists. I come bearing news that you might consider good or bad, depending on how you look at it: Pinnacles National Park — the youngest and smallest national park in California — is no longer as “secret” as it once seemed.

My colleague Christopher Reynolds recently reported on the record number of visitors to the park, asking: Is this where we should all be going?

I visited in May 2019 and must tell you that Pinnacles is well worth the hype. It’s also a convenient stop on a road trip through Central California. Reynolds suggests including Pinnacles on a wine-tasting trip to Paso Robles, a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium or a relaxing vacation in Carmel. I paired it with a farm stay in Hollister, a kayak excursion in Moss Landing and a drive through Big Sur.


In this edition of Escapes, we have the ingredients for the ultimate Central California road trip — great places to visit, from the Basque restaurants of Bakersfield to the caves of Pinnacles National Park to John Steinbeck’s old stamping ground and beyond.

Where are you excited to visit this spring? Let me know, so I can pass your ideas along in a future edition of Escapes.

Feast on Basque food in Bakersfield

Three decades ago, L.A. Times food critic Jonathan Gold extolled the virtues of Bakersfield, a city off Highway 99 that is both well-traversed and often unfamiliar to many California travelers.

“Sometimes the rest of California seems like little more than a squeaky-clean L.A. suburb,” Gold wrote in 1992. “Bakersfield is, arguably, the nearest city that is demonstrably Somewhere Else.”

The “Somewhere Else” quality possessed by Bakersfield manifests in a few different ways — for example, it’s both a country music capital and a haven for thrifters and collectors of antiques.

Another interesting fact: The city’s Basque food is, as Gold wrote, “prepared by descendants of the Basque shepherds and businessmen who settled the area” — and it’s not to be missed.

My colleague Daniel Hernandez visited Bakersfield in spring 2020 not long after the start of the pandemic, which led to the permanent closure of the Noriega Hotel, considered to be the best Basque restaurant in town.

In his reporting, Hernandez found himself at Wool Growers, another family-style Basque eatery. “It has a classic neon sign and is decorated inside with floral wallpaper and paintings showing the old country,” he wrote. “In a hallway between dining rooms, dozens of photographs documenting the past century of local Basque migration adorn the walls.”

If you go, you might try Wool Growers’ California-Basque house favorites, which include shrimp scampi, tomato salad and fried chicken. The restaurant is open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch (11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.) and dinner (5-8 p.m.).

Make sure to fuel up, because your next stop is three hours away up Interstate 5, a journey that will take you across the town of Coalinga and through rolling country hills.

Closeup of a neon sign on a building says Wool Growers Restaurant; another photo shows several entrees on a table.
Entrees at Wool Growers include oxtail stew, shrimp scampi, fried chicken and beef tongue.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times; photo illustration by Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

Take a hike in Pinnacles National Park

What does a day in Pinnacles offer? Condor-spotting, cave-climbing and hiking around lots of needle-like rock formations.

And — perhaps until recently — a mellower vibe than Yosemite, Joshua Tree and other frequently overcrowded parks.

“The tentative visitor count for January 2022 — about 900 people per day — would be a pittance at larger, more navigable parks,” Reynolds reported. But at Pinnacles, which was a national monument before it gained park status in 2013, it was the busiest January in at least 40 years.

Due to its increasing popularity, the park gets “extremely high visitation” on weekends, holidays and many weekdays in spring, according to management. “Expect long lines and delays getting into the park between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.”

“Pinnacles is a tough nut to crack,” Reynolds writes. He advises that visitors hoping to catch the park’s wildflower bloom try a weekday camping trip to the east side of Pinnacles in spring.

When I visited Pinnacles in May 2019, I found the 5½-mile Condor Gulch Trail to High Peaks Trail Loop to be an ideal way to see the birds, caves and the pinnacles themselves, all in one go.

No luck snagging a campsite, or prefer a hot shower after a day of exploring? I opted to stay at an Airbnb that was formerly a veterinary clinic in nearby Hollister before the next leg of my journey (the listing is no longer available to rent, but there are several others in towns north of the park).

A rock outcropping is seen through an opening in trees.
A view on the west side of Pinnacles National Park.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Walk in Steinbeck’s shoes in Salinas

John Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley: In Search of America” details the writer’s journey from Maine to California in 1960, a trip taken in the hopes of better understanding America. It remains a classic, continuing to inspire adventurers to embark on their own cross-country drives, often in the company of their own beloved canine (Charley was Steinbeck’s poodle).

Steinbeck devotees — or just curious passersby — can glimpse a relic from the duo’s journey at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, the writer’s hometown. The camper Steinbeck named Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s steed, has found a home at the center.

Cost for entry is $15 for adults. It’s open from Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

In addition to learning about Steinbeck, visitors to Salinas might also consider a stop by the Old Town farmers market, open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays, to pick up some fresh produce. Salinas is known as the “salad bowl of the world” for good reason.

illustration of books being tossed in a salad bowl.
You can fill up on Steinbeck and greens in Salinas.
(Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

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Choose your adventure

At this point, your road trip could take you in a few different directions.

On my weekend trip to Pinnacles National Park a few years back, I spent Day 2 kayaking with otters in Moss Landing, visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium and driving back to L.A. by way of Big Sur. It was too much; I let my weekend warrior get the best of me.

Next time, I’ll plan to spend a few days in Monterey and Carmel before heading home. Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, included on Reynolds’ list of the 40 best California outdoor experiences, looks particularly promising.

Or I’ll take more time to explore Big Sur — or maybe I’ll venture north to Santa Cruz instead.

Regardless of where you choose to roam, I recommend stopping at Barn Fresh Produce off Highway 1 near Moss Landing. My now-husband and I loved our brief visit to the market, its walls covered in the scrawls of fellow travelers. We picked up fruit and candy as road trip snacks before continuing on our adventure.

A person sits at an easel that's set up along a dirt path.
Plein air painter Hilary Mills paints China Cove at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve on the Big Sur coast in 2018.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times; photo illustration by Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)

📰 What I’m reading

  • Want to go to Yosemite this summer? Reynolds explains how to snag a reservation. Hint: You’ll want to set your alarm for 8 a.m. on March 23.
  • Speaking of Yosemite, it’s firefall season! The Wild newsletter writer Mary Forgione breaks down how to catch a glimpse of the “the spectacular ribbon of light.”
  • Highway 1 is beautiful, but Highway 395 is the state’s “real gem,” writes Emily Pennington in Condé Nast Traveler. “This is the California road trip for people who could take or leave the ocean but feel a special lift in their chest whenever a snowy mountain range crests into view.”
  • Heading up to Mammoth for a late winter adventure? There’s a new whiskey bar you can ski directly into, Stacey Leasca reports in Travel and Leisure.
  • The “golden age of air travel” doesn’t feel so far away at PS Air Bar in Palm Springs. Gabriella Marzola offers an inside look at the Palm Springs speakeasy that comes complete with eight first-class and 27 coach seats in Atlas Obscura.
Closeup of a stream of water falling off a cliff face that glows orange and red.
The Horsetail Falls firefall in Yosemite on Feb. 23, 2019. The lava effect only happens during the middle of February if conditions are just right.
(Raul Roa / TCN)

📸 Photo of the week

Taillights are seen as a red stream of light on a curving open road.
An extended exposure shows vehicles traveling south along California 33 north of Coalinga on Feb. 12, 2020.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

🎸 Road song

Song: “Thank You, John Steinbeck,” from Trampled by Turtles

Favorite lyric: “I left in a hurry, my clothes barely buttoned and ‘Travels With Charley’ tucked under my arm”

Where to play it: while searching for parking near Cannery Row in Monterey

An illustration of a road with buildings on either side and the words "Thank you, John Steinbeck."
(Todd Trapani / Unsplash; photo illustration by Jade Cuevas / Los Angeles Times)