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Pinnacles – America’s newest national park

With all the national parks in California, it’s surprising how many people don’t know about Pinnacles. Located just south of Hollister, in 2013, this century-old national monument became our 59th national park.

It’s a hidden gem, home to the endangered California condor, where rock formations drip down canyons like molten wax, stone spires soar to form a saw tooth pattern against the sky, wildflowers freckle the slopes, and bizarre talus caves beckon the curious.

26,000 acres wild

Pinnacles is nestled in the heart of a 23 million-year old volcano, originally 15 miles long, five miles wide and 8,000 feet high. Erosion and tectonic plate movements have produced a dramatic landscape. Carving through the many-colored volcanic layers, water has sculpted bizarre monoliths before gathering into creeks that sliced exits through the crater’s walls.

Early settlers named the place Palisades due to the rock spires, and it was a popular destination by the 1860s. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed 14,080 acres of San Benito and Monterey counties to be Pinnacles National Forest Reserve.

Here, you step back into an ancient California, before agriculture and people redefined the landscape. Multiple ecosystems coexist in small spaces. Riparian (streamside) habitat, foothill woodlands and chaparral mingle with warped stone to create a colorful panorama. There are greenish granite boulders, banded rhyolite that looks like petrified wood, and pink breccia. Gold moss drapes a sparkling mica boulder. Gnarled gray oaks arch over the trail; a condor may spiral overhead.

Mega-boulder caves

Bear Gulch Caves and Balconies Caves surprise visitors. They are not caves in the true sense, but “talus” caves, canyons with a “ceiling” comprised of a jumble of multi-thousand ton mega-boulders (known as talus). It‘s believed that the massive volcanic boulders slid down the steep narrow canyons and became wedged between the walls to create a roof. Their cool interiors have been popular with visitors since the 1800s.

Pinnacles has east and west entrances that give access to different parts of the park. The east entrance is open year ‘round, and features the Visitors Center, Bear Gulch Nature Center and Bear Gulch Caves. Balconies Caves are accessible from the west entrance, which is open 7:30AM-8PM.

Be advised that the caves have “controlled” access, because they are inhabited by the protected Townsend's big-eared bats; you should check the park website when planning your trip to make sure the caves are open. And bring a flashlight.

Hikes galore

There are 30 miles of maintained trails ranging from easy to strenuous. Detailed profiles of each trail can be reviewed on the park website. I enjoyed the moderate High Peaks Trail which reveals a good cross section of the park’s eco-diversity, zigzagging up through woods towards spires and canyons that edge the volcano’s rim. It actually can get warmer the higher you go, because of the lack of trees and increasing sun exposure, so wear a hat and carry plenty of water.

Want more to do? There is rock climbing, wildlife viewing, bird watching, and interpretive programs. Spring is popular for wildflower walks.

Pinnacles’ parking lot inside the volcano fills quickly. There is overflow parking with shuttle service up into the east side Visitors Center. It’s a great ride, providing a nice overview of the area. You can also hike from the parking lot to the Center or hike back. With everything else to do inside the crater, I recommend doing the easier downhill return hike. The route accompanies the lovely Bear Creek through old growth trees and brush, then follows a sandy flat river plain.

If you go

Pinnacles is the perfect day trip for families and individuals who enjoy the outdoors. A pleasant 1.5 hour drive, head over Pacheco Pass, then south on Highway 25, and take a right on Highway 146 into the park to the east side entry (note: Hwy 146 does not cut through the park).

The park is open to day use all year. Entrance fees are $10 per vehicle. Pinnacles Campground, on the park’s east side, offers tent, RV, and group campsites. Hours of operation for the Visitors and Nature Centers vary during the year, so check for current times and other information.