When I was nine-years-old my dad had a lot of work in Washington D.C. and he would occasionally bring the family along on his trips. We would take a robber baron-dated Amtrak from New York to D.C. and stay at the pinnacle of luxury for a nine-year-old known as The Embassy Suites in Bethesda, Maryland. There were few things better in life as a nine-year-old than staying at the Embassy Suites.
When I stayed in the kind of tropical resort known as the Bethesda, Maryland Embassy Suites, there were few things I ever needed in life after that magical experience. I would say that Embassy Suites was a close second to Six Flags in terms of the potential for greatness that the human experience had to offer. Whether I was jumping on a bed covered in starchy sheets, revealing room service chicken tenders from beneath a metal saucer of a heat cover or sprinting laps around the perimeter hallways, I’m pretty sure it was the happiest I ever possible reached as a child. Forget about everything else, if I was nine and staying at an Embassy Suites I don’t think life got much better.
Twenty years later and my family’s annual roller coaster pilgrimages have been replaced by hunt to visit all 59 national parks in the country. When I realized that traveling to Northern California to see friends, family and Pinnacles National Park had the potential for an Embassy Suites stay, my life had gone full circle.
Pinnacles is located around two hours south of the San Jose airport and on first glance – like an Embassy Suites – it doesn’t seem all that special when you get your first glance from the parking lot. You have to really dive beneath the surface and explore both locations to find their truest majesty. Pinnacles looks like a bunch of really cool rock formations jutting out of a chaparral forest. The history behind the place has something to do with being the leftovers of an ancient volcano that moved a few hundred miles into the Central Valley because of the San Andreas Fault that will kill us all someday. But when you first look at the thing, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be as special as it is. You might be misled by the bland glass exterior of the Embassy Suites, but you really have to step inside to see what you’re missing.
There are two roads that lead to Pinnacles, one from the west off the 101 and one from the east that isn’t close to anything, except maybe San Jose, California, but I don’t think that counts. The roads don’t intersect within the park so you need a really trusty Uber driver who will go 60 miles out of his way if you want to do a one-way hike. The highlight on the drive was driving through Gilroy, California, which is the garlic capital of the country. In the same way that diabetics seize up in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Gilroy’s garlic-scented air can proudly proclaim itself vampire-free. We entered Pinnacles from the east, parked at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area and set out on the 5.3-mile loop along the High Peaks and Condor Gulch Trails.
Pinnacles National Park was one of those trips that was excellent because of the day we saw it. We went on an empty Wednesday in March with 60-degree weather, no crowds, green hills and rare wildlife sightings. We could’ve gone to the exact same place at the height of the drought and been miserable. Instead, we climbed along staircases carved out of the Pinnacles with nothing but a thin railing separating us from a vertical drop-off hundreds of feet below. We had to duck our heads to squeeze between boulders on the trail. We switchbacked up the rocks and had expansive views of both sides of the park with the snowcapped Sierras in the extreme distance. And that would’ve been cool enough but then we saw the condors.
We were at around 2700 feet of elevation when we crested another one of the staircase-carved boulders and saw four of the last-remaining California Condors in the world sitting sentry atop the mountain. Listed as extinct in 1987 (there were only 22 alive in the world at the time), the last handful were captured, nurtured and slowly reintroduced back into the wild. Today there are 128 California Condors flying over the state, each of them tagged and tracked like a kid with anxious parents, and we were lucky enough to see four of them. And then we got even more fortunate to see a glimpse into the future. We stumbled upon two soft-soften birdwatchers who were camped out all day to spot the birds. Basically, me in five years. They invited us to use their binoculars to see the birds up close.
These things were huge and vulture-like. They looked like they were wearing giant trench coats and when they flew overhead their nine-foot wing span let you know you were in trouble. California Condors are the largest North American land-birds. They are scavengers without any fur on their faces making them some of the least-attractive creatures in the animal kingdom but also some of the coolest. Their appearance is the last thing on your mind when you see them circling and you’re low on water. Seeing Pinnacles National Park was good. Hiking across the park and spotting the four condors was amazing. Seeing Pinnacles, spotting condors and then two nights later traveling up to Northern California for a stay at the Embassy Suites was everything I could ever want in life.
We extended the trip a couple extra days to see family and friends in the area. This involved a day trip to the Marin Headlands over the Golden Gate Bridge and Muir Woods a little further north. The views were amazing and redwoods spectacular but both of them paled in comparison to coming full-circle in life with our stay at the Embassy Suites.
I was happy to report that nothing has changed since my residency as a nine-year-old connoisseur of the Embassy Suites. You still walk inside and get hit with the overpowering odor of chlorine from the swimming pool and fountains. The depressing koi still call the atrium pools home. The diluted sunlight filters through the greenhouse ceiling. The breakfast buffet is still all-you-can eat with a line of sticky children pushing their way to the hot chocolate machine. You can get the signature Embassy Suites headache from forgetting what actual sunlight feels like. Annoying kids continue sprinting laps around the atrium while the hum of the ice machine keeps you up all night.
If that sounds like a miserable night in a hotel, you’d be sorely mistaken. It was everything I hoped it would be. It was the anti-AirBnB. It was the absolute peak of mediocrity and you can’t manufacture that kind of comfort. It was like drinking the perfect glass of milk. Just like their counterpart – the California Condor – there are only hundreds of Embassy Suites left in the world. They were added to the endangered species list only a few years ago but we all have to do our part to nurture them back to the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet, nacho cheese plate happy hour and fax machine business center greatness that we all know they can be. And that is what makes the National Park Service the bastion of protection that we are all thankful to have, both as Americans and as Ambassadors to the Embassy Suites and California Condors in the world. It was truly a majestic trip.
I can’t tell if the Sierra Nevadas are the most beautiful place on Earth or if it just feels that way because you arrive there via Fresno. Either way, there is a decent collection of mountains, lakes, rivers and volcanoes a few hours from L.A. and it never hurts to spend a weekend camping when Southern California is on fire.
Everyone told us Lassen was better than Yosemite, which I refused to believe. If Lassen was better than Yosemite then I would’ve heard of Lassen. There aren’t many poems and works of art about flying into Sacramento. But after this trip I can unconfidently say, yes, Lassen is better than Yosemite. In fact, out of all the national parks on this silly adventure to see them all, Lassen might be the best of the bunch.
That’s not to say it’s the most beautiful or awe-inspiring, it doesn’t come close. Zion and Yellowstone can smite down Lassen like a freshman trying to sit at the senior table. But it has all the beauty, scenery and relaxation of the best parks in the system without the tour buses. Lassen isn’t the most jaw-dropping national park in the country, but in terms of getting out of town and camping in paradise for a weekend, it’s hard to beat. When we crossed the Canadian Rockies, traversed Yosemite and Zion, we were racing motorcades of tour buses and getting elbowed by tourists and poked by selfie sticks. Lassen is a few hours away with a tenth of the visitors (400K to 4 million), even though we make up the deficit by hitting the car alarm button the middle of the night.
We started the trip with what’s becoming my latest national park pastime: dodging suicidal animals with an SUV in the dark. This time the West Texan bunnies were replaced by Northern California deer. The one-hour drive up the mountain at 9pm was spent slamming the brakes as antlers and eyes darted along the side of the road like an 80s arcade game. Sort of like a Grand Theft Auto version of the E.T. Ride.
Day two we lucked out with the Bumpass Hell trail by arriving on the first day it was open for the season due to snow and ice, which, I apologize for this, meant we got to throw snowballs in Hell. It was a three-mile hike to one of the largest thermal vents outside Yellowstone, which belched up steam like a Turkish bath. We took the King’s Falls trail along a creek that cut through some meadows. Then circled Manzanita Lake doing our best to hope that none of our tens of thousands of mosquito bites contained any Zika.
Per usual for any national park adventure, the largest group of visitors were from Germany. I have no idea why this is, but anywhere we go in the world – Vietnam, Australia, the furthest reaches of Texas and the Sierra Nevadas – we always encounter people on vacation from Bavaria. I have a feeling that if we were to spelunk down an ancient cave in Central America and push aside a hidden door to find Mayan ruins leading to an untouched palace, waiting for us would be a guy named Hans telling us about a great schnitzel place in Munich. I’m pretty sure there are no Germans in Germany, but rather roaming the world with a sensible supply of sunscreen and hiking poles.
On day three we took the long way back to the airport, driving north on the Volcanic Legacy trail with Mount Shasta 50 miles in front of us. It was a quarter-mile hike through the pitch black subway cave, which provided some excellent opportunities to scare the hell out of people (“What’s the date? No, the year. The year!!!”). Then one more hike at McArthur-Burney Falls State Park. The falls were around an hour north of Lassen and looked like someone took a small chunk of Brazil’s Iguazu falls, or the setting for a reality show date, and stuck it in Northern California.
But the best part of the morning was definitely admiring the small coalition of Pacific Crest Trail hikers we encountered. As they took down camp, filtered water and lifted 50 pounds on their backs in the midst of their 500-mile hike, I checked the tire pressure in my Avis rental and ensured we hadn’t lost our phone chargers. Pretty much equally badass.
All-in-all it’s way better to be underrated than overrated. You can do whatever you want, you’re never accused of selling out and you avoid the downfalls to fame and celebrity that comes with being overrated. The Grand Canyon is super sexy, but it’s dealing with the drug addiction, STDs and recklessness that accompanies fame. Meanwhile just a few hours away from L.A. and S.F. is a little indie rocker putting on an amazing show and couldn’t care less if you notice or not. Even if the only other people at the show are a group of loyal Germans who you see at every single show.
Ten months ago I took a job with a production company to get a crash course in the film business. The job is going pretty well, except for the thing that impedes me at every job I’ve ever had, which is that I don’t really like having a job very much.
I love earning a paycheck so that I can spend it traveling around the world, which – to my constant surprise – is not something employers desire. So whenever a gig offers the chance to go somewhere, especially if it contributes to my foolhardy national park adventure, I jump at the opportunity. Suddenly I become a model employee.
My boss needed a coffee table picked up from her cousin’s storage unit in the middle of Arizona. Google Maps had the storage unit two hours from Petrified Forest National Park, so I packed a backpack and took off to hang out in the Sonoran Desert just in time for a mid-June heat wave.
The first thing I noticed after my LAX to PHX flight was that every Arizona bathroom I entered – from the Phoenix Airport SkyTrain to the national park pit-stops – contained an insulin needle disposal bucket. It was kind of nice to know that if I picked up a light case of diabetes on my adventure that dropping off my copious accumulation of sharps would not be a problem. I picked up the coffee table in a pleasant mountain town called Payson. It was sort of like Phoenix’s answer to Big Bear, except there were a lot more places to buy assault rifles. So far my impression of the local experience is an insulin needle in one hand, AR-15 in the other while I ask the park ranger to kindly stamp my national park passport booklet.
Getting out of an air conditioned car so you can look at old tree fossils in the Arizona desert is one of those moments that makes you question your life choices. There’s no actual forest in the Petrified Forest, which I had to explain to a disappointed biker. He kept looking at the sparse shrubs and tumbleweeds asking if they were part of the forest. I was braced for my disappointment in advance.
Three hundred million years ago when Arizona was in a rainforest on Pangea, some trees fell into a river. The few trunks that didn’t disintegrate got wedged in the riverbed, where, over the course of few hundred million years, they filled with silt, copper, carbon, micah, quartz, crystals, iron and manganese. The river, rainforest and Pangea are long gone (never forget Pangea), but these tree fossils are now mutated into rocks that reflect beautiful colors in the relentless Arizona sunshine.
And that’s pretty much the main attraction. There’s a cool painted desert lookout, some old adobe houses and petroglyphs (Native American graffiti), but the park ranger assuaged my guilt when I arrived at the visitor center. I was deeply apologetic that I only had three hours for the park, but she couldn’t have been friendlier when she told me the average time that visitors spent was a two hour drive-through. She just seemed happy that I was there. It was like an old relative who I see once a year. “A short visit from you is better than nothing.”
And if I’m going to tie this whole thing together, it would be that not every national park has a spectacular vista or jaw-dropping attraction. They’re not all Yosemite. But they tend to offer one specific thing better than anywhere else. And if I’m going to go for one hell of a stretch, it would be that I might not be the most inspired employee at every company I’ve worked for, but maybe if I can do one thing really well I’ll actually find some success. I’m the tree-rock mutant fossil of employees, and that is sitting proudly on my resume as I begin my next job hunt.
And sometimes the best part of going to the smaller national parks is knowing I don’t have to go back. That was the best part of West Texas, was that I never have to return to West Texas. And now there is another excellent national park with a niche and unique attraction notched on the belt. With many more national parks to look forward to visiting that, someday, I’ll never have to see again.
Flew into Portland where my friend picked me up. Drove over to the coast, then took the 101 and the 1 back to L.A. It was cloudy.
Northern part of the coast was covered in fog, best parts are the rocky coasts, massive cliffs and lighthouses, if you’re into that kind of thing. Screw lighthouses if you’re not. Newport was a neat town with amazing fish and the Rogue Brewery. Then it started to clear up a little bit before Oregon Dunes National Rec Area, giant sand dunes where they filmed Star Wars (the, uh, sand dune parts). The southern part of the coast was clear and desolate. Giant rocks jutting out of the ocean, and then hippies at the California border. Redwood National Park had some nice trails and big trees. They’re like trees, but taller. This trip is good for you.