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One of the best things about San Benito County is the national park right in our backyard. On the final Thursday morning of summer, under a perfectly sunny blue sky decorated with puffy white cumulus clouds, it was time to head south on the Pinnacles National Park Highway to go for a hike.

There are many trail choices in the park, some long and strenuous and others more moderate. Hiking pal Mike was scheduled to pick up his grandson early that afternoon, so we decided on a quick morning adventure on the South Wilderness Trail. Parking at the Peaks View parking lot, we walked southeast on the Bench Trail to connect with our target. A mostly flat 6.5 mile round trip hike, the South Wilderness Trail is described as “unmaintained” by the park, but it gets enough traffic for the tread to be pretty easy to follow. From the Bench Trail, walk the fire road for a few minutes until you see the signed trail splitting off to the south. The one tricky part comes a few minutes after that, where you must turn right down into (seasonally dry) Chalone Creek and cross to the other side to continue.

It pays to start early. Right away we were greeted by a startled bevy of quail, a few shy cottontails, a lone busy woodpecker, and a few docile, photogenic deer. Rust-colored California buckwheat covered the ground, giving way to oak forest interspersed with Jeffrey pine as we proceeded along the creek. I think trees are like people – they get more interesting as they age. Okay, yes, I suppose I am prejudiced.

There is a good bit of poison oak in places along the creek bed, so make sure you know the rules. Rule #1: leaves of three – let it be.  Rule #2: if it’s hairy, it’s berry. Berry plants have three leaves, too, but their stalks are not smooth like poison oak stalks are. Rule #3: if you can’t tell the difference, see Rule #1.

The trail was blissfully quiet and lined with brown dry grass, reminding us of the extreme fire danger. Soon it led out of the trees to clear views of the ridgelines high above the drainage. We were treated to the sight of an inflight California condor soaring way up next to the clouds, much too distant for my camera phone to capture, a true Pinnacles National Park spectacle.

At our feet, a few lichen-spotted rocks appeared now and then, but mostly there was a variety of plants and fungi and branches in varying states of decay, returning to Earth to start the life process anew. The towering, jagged peaks for which the park is named are not part of this hike. For rock climbing locations, talus caves, and more challenging adventures afoot, check back here in coming months for articles on other routes. But if you are looking for a fast hike with great views and lots of wildlife, the South Wilderness Trail fills the bill.

Earlier that same morning, a southern California couple camping in the park was walking along the road near the Visitor Center as we arrived. They flagged us down and we agreed to give them a lift up to the Bear Gulch trailhead before starting our hike. In the course of a friendly conversation, one thing led to another and it turned out that the woman and my good ole hiking pal Mike were born in the same SoCal hospital (nearly a century apart, haha). That is one of my favorite things about traveling, even close to home. You never know when a completely serendipitous meeting will yield a coincidence you could never have predicted. Don’t be afraid to talk to strangers, folks.

And please, my friends do not litter.

For a location map of Pinnacles National Park, please click here.