With rock spires, talus caves, and endangered California condors flying freely, Pinnacles National Park is the newest addition to the list when it was changed from a national monument to national park in 2013. The park was created by an ancient volcano along the San Andreas fault but has since shifted 200 miles. Located just two hours south of San Francisco, this made for an enjoyable day trip in February where the temperature was still moderate and comfortable to hike in.
The park is the remnants of an ancient volcano some 23 million years ago that erupted along the San Andreas fault. Due to a series of tectonic movement and activities (which I don’t fully understand), part of the original volcano broke off and shifted 200 miles to where Pinnacles is today. The giant rock spires are a result of lava spewing out and trickling down the edges of the volcano. These are the jagged pinnacles we see and they make up the notable High Peaks.
Pinnacles is also known for talus caves, formed by giant bounders toppling into the canyons. The erosion from running water created chasms between the Pinnacles, and when boulders break off and fall onto the chasms, those that were too big become wedged in and created “roofs” for the caves. The two caves open to visitors are Bear Gulch Cave on the east and Balconies Cave on the west, some of which are homes to bats during certain times of the year.
Pinnacles is located between San Benito and Soledad, just two hours south of San Francisco. The park is divided into an eastern and western region connected only by foot trails; there are no through roads connecting the two entrances. The main visitor center is on the east side and it is recommended to enter from the east if it’s your first time visiting the park.
When to Visit
The temperature varies significantly at Pinnacles between seasons, so choosing the right months to visit can make or break your trip. Summers are dry with uncomfortably hot days averaging in the mid-90s, making hiking through the park miserable. While winters are moderate with temperatures in the mid-60s with more favorable hiking conditions. I hiked in February and the weather was just right for a long sleeve and shorts.
I hiked the Condor Gulch trail to the High Peaks Loop and added on the Rim and Moses Spring trails to hike through the Bear Gulch Cave, totaling 6.1 miles. The hike was considered strenuous, but you hike through the main attractions of the park and see most of the eastern section. Depending on your preference, starting clockwise is a more gradual ascend up High Peaks Trail while counter-clockwise is a steeper ascend up Condor Gulch Trail.
I chose to hike counter-clockwise to get the strenuous part of the hike over with first and made my way leisurely through the Bear Gulch Caves in the end. The ascent up Condor Gulch Trail wasn’t the worst, but it was a steady incline and slowed me down after a mile or so. Once at the High Peaks, the trail became steeper and narrower, but never did I feel unsafe. At some parts, I hiked up steps carved into the rocks and ducked my head as the clearance was lower.
The view from the peak was beautiful with pinnacles surrounding the region and mountains in the background. There were also endangered California condors flying overhead and perching atop the pinnacles. California condors are the largest North American bird and they almost became extinct until conservationists captured the remaining 27 birds and force-bred them. Now there are a couple hundred in the wild and you could see the tag number under their wings.
The hike down Rim Trail leads to Bear Gulch Reservoir and the entrance for the Bear Gulch Cave. Inside the cave, I saw giant rocks wedged between the canyon walls making the caves pitch black except for the occasional ray of light. Remember to bring a headlamp otherwise you’ll have to rely on just your phone flashlight. It was very interesting to see how talus caves were created, but terrifying at the same time because who knows how wedged in these rocks were. Hiking through the caves was my favorite part because the geographical formation was interesting and the hike was so unique.
I completed the hike in three hours going at a pretty steady pace, so I’d budget 3-5 hours for the hike to be safe.
Although Pinnacles is one of the smaller national parks, it has a lot to offer and is definitely worth a visit. I enjoyed hiking through the High Peaks and Bear Gulch Cave and would recommend others to take the same trail I did. You get to see beautiful landscape and wildlife as well as hike through unique geographical formations.