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Twenty years later and my family’s annual roller coaster pilgrimages have been replaced by hunt to visit all 59 national parks in the country.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.