Insider's Guide to Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park.
Pinnacles National Park. Miguel Vieira
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Mountainous, rugged, otherworldly: just a few of the descriptors used when talking about Pinnacles National Park. Its craggy spires pierce the cloudless California sky, while rolling green hills dotted with sage, juniper, and wildflowers of every shape and color add fragrance to the dry air. Boulder-strewn gorges form unique talus caves that beg for exploration. Overhead, falcons, golden eagles, and mighty, majestic California condors soar.

Millions of years ago, two massive tectonic plates crashed into each other while pushing molten magma skyward, creating a volcano 15 miles long, five miles wide, and 8,000 feet high, slightly smaller than present-day Mount Saint Helens. A crack 600 miles long formed, now called the San Andreas fault. After several thousand millennium of erosion and constant movement, Pinnacles National Park now rests about 200 miles north from where it started life near Los Angeles. In fact, it's still moving, as the San Andreas fault zone slips about an inch per year.

Fast forward to about 10,000 years ago, when Native Americans intermittently passed through the park, as evidenced by arrowheads and bedrock mortars left behind; proof of settlers date from about 2,000 years ago. More modern visitors immediately recognized the need to protect the area's beauty. It was named as a 2,000-acre Forest Reserve in 1906, proclaimed a National Monument by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, and finally got national park status by President Obama in 2013, making it America's newest national park, protecting over 26,000 acres.

The park is separated by its namesake rock formations into two sides: the East side and the West side. There is no road connecting the two, though a 5-mile hike does link both entrances. The west side is accessed from Highway 101 near Soledad with a small visitor's center, but no campground or accommodations. Gates on the west side are open from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. everyday, though you can exit at any time (good to know in case a hike takes longer than expected). The east entrance is about 30 miles south of Hollister, off Highway 25. It's open 24 hours a day, and has a visitor's center, campground, and small camp store.

Pinnacles' relatively small size means that visitors can hike all 30 miles of trails in just a few days. What the park lacks in size, however, it makes up with grandeur, scenery, fascinating geological history, and wondrous biological diversity. The area is home to 149 species of birds, 49 mammals, 22 reptiles, 8 amphibians, 71 butterflies, 41 dragonflies, and 400 bee species—the most bee diversity of anywhere on earth. 

Here's an insider's guide on how to explore this California gem the right way.

Classic Adventures

Exploring the High Peaks Trail.
Exploring the High Peaks Trail. Miguel Vieira

If there is only one can’t-miss hike to do in the park, then it has to be the High Peaks loop. Hikers tackle a 9.3-mile loop with a taste of everything that Pinnacles has to offer. Explore wild talus caves, weave through the park's volcanic spires, scramble over and around lichen-covered boulders, and even climb stairs chiseled into the soft rock itself, all while being rewarded by sweeping views, wildflowers everywhere, and if lucky, sightings of a California condor. The whole hike has 1,575 feet of elevation gain, and the high point of the trail hits 2,575 feet above sea level.

If time is short, there are still options to experience the essence of the park. Condor Gulch Overlook is a moderate, 2-mile hike with 1,100 feet of elevation gain. It takes hikers to a glorious view of the famous High Peaks without scrambling through them. If you're feeling strong after the overlook, continue uphill and meet up with the High Peaks Trail.

To see the talus caves, follow the easy Balconies Caves trail. It's just over five miles with minimal elevation gain, and gives the hiker a good variety of the park's features, from a sunny stream-side saunter to cave crawling. The last half mile is spent climbing carved staircases, hopping over gaps, and ducking through overhangs inside the cave. Flashlights are essential and required.

Secrets of the Park

Along the trails of Pinnacles National Park.
Along the trails of Pinnacles National Park. Harold Litwiler

Pinnacles is a rock climber's mecca, with more than 188 routes from 5.6 to 5.14, the majority in the 5.8-5.10 range. Most are bolted sport climbs, but there are plenty of traditional routes as well. Climbing areas are broken into three areas: East side, West side and High Peaks. The lion's share of routes are on the East side and tend to be a single pitch, with most of the routes being in the 5.10-5.11 range. The West side routes are longer, multi-pitch affairs. For those looking for a High Peaks adventure, climb the 1,000-foot Feather Canyon route, one of the best 5.8s out there.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Visit

Welcome to Pinnacles National Park. 
Welcome to Pinnacles National Park.  Ken Lund

  • Spring and fall are the best times to visit. Avoid the summer: With temperatures over 100 degrees, hiking can be downright dangerous in hotter months. Conversely, with mild temps and good weather, winter is the perfect time for those looking for quiet solitude.

  • Bring a headlamp or flashlight for the caves, which can be quite dark, and many of them require lights for entry.

  • Check the park website for cave closures. Often, the park service closes certain caves during bat nesting or flooding.

  • Nighttime is wonderful for a visit to Pinnacles, since it's far enough away from big city light pollution to ensure clear stargazing. There's a better chance of spotting deer, coyotes, raccoon, and foxes and if really lucky, a badger or bobcat. On full moons and most Saturday nights, rangers lead a 1-mile hike illuminated only by the galaxy above. They also do cave explorations and nature walks looking for big-eared bats and great horned owls. Reserve a free spot at the visitor's center.

  • California condors are the biggest birds in North America with wingspans of more than nine feet. Pinnacles is an official condor recovery site, managing 25 of them. The best chance to see one is by hiking the High Peaks in early morning or early evening. Also, rangers often set up spotting scopes near the visitor's center. Keep an eye on the ridge southeast of the campground.

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