Just five miles east of Soledad in California is the National Parks Service’s newest addition: Pinnacles National Park. Upgraded from a National Monument to Park in 2013, this volcanic playground actually came to be more than 23 million years ago.
The park’s unique mountainous topography was formed in part to the shifting earth along the San Andreas Fault that moved half of the extinct Neenach Volcano 200 miles to the northwest. Fault lines are visible today on multiple trails throughout the park (and the park land continues to move six centimeters every year!)
Today, Pinnacles is mainly known for its talus caves and impressive volcanic spires and pinnacles that stretch their ancient bodies toward the sky at viewpoints from hiking trails all around the park.
Here’s how to experience the park in two days of hiking, camping, spelunking and climbing.
Because this place gets HOT, the best time to visit Pinnacles is in spring or fall. Pinnacles is a fairly small park, so you’re unlikely to get lost (but there is no service in the park so don’t rely on Google maps) but be aware that there are two entrances to the park and they do not connect. To follow this itinerary, you’ll want to enter on the park’s east entrance.
Reserve a spot at Pinnacles Campground on the east side of the park. It’s the only campground in or near the park and offers tent and RV spots. A fun little treat, too: the campground has a swimming pool open from April through September.
Visit the Caves
These talus caves were formed when boulders fell into narrow water-carved canyons due to seismic activity in the area. If you plan on exploring these natural wonders, you’ll need to bring a headlamp!
Bear Gulch Cave is the more user-friendly, accessible of the talus caves in the park. Its underground maze comes with handrails and carved steps and footpaths to guide the way as cool water pours through the boulders around you. To get to the cave, park at the Bear Gulch lot and take the Moses Spring trail to the Bear Gulch Cave trail. This cave is home to Townsend’s big-eared bats and is occasionally closed to protect them. You’ll see the source to the water as you continue the hike and you arrive at Bear Gulch Reservoir.
Balconies Cave requires a little bit more spelunking. If it’s rained at all recently, prepare to wade knee-deep through water as you explore the cave interior. The hike totals about 5.3 miles. To access the entrance of Balconies cave, park at Old Pinnacles Trailhead. From there, a flat path leads you 2.5 miles to the cave.
As you approach the cave entrance, you’ll find that following the trail requires a little bit more work as you scramble over boulders. Once at the cave, the real spelunking begins as you climb under and around and through a labryinth of boulders inside, ending with a walk through a narrow passageway (this is where you might find water if it’s rained recently, making the path reminiscent of The Narrows in Zion.)
See the Spires
High Peaks-to-Condor Gulch trails showcase the jagged pinnacles from which the park earned its namesake. The 6-mile roundtrip trek (which you can continue on from the Bear Gulch cave loop) takes you 2,700 feet up, where you’ll often see endangered California condors up close as they soar across the skies, displaying their impressive nine-foot wingspans. The end of the trail is perhaps the most fun, as you traverse a rocky path of handholds and footholds and steep ledges with only steel handrails carved into the landscape: a trail system made by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
Pinnacles is a popular spot for climbing thanks to its breccia and rhyolite rock walls and wide range of routes. Two go-to routes: “Tourist Trap” and “Discovery Wall” near Bear Gulch cave on the Moses Spring trail.
During your visit, keep an eye out for bats, frogs, endangered California condors and other wildlife! Nature abounds in this national park!
–The Wandering Alligator
Need more National Parks in your life? Plan your next weekend adventure to Joshua Tree National Park!