There's a place not too far from home where you can explore caves with underground waterfalls, climb to the jagged summit of an ancient volcano, and see some of North America's largest birds soaring overhead.
This place is the Pinnacles National Monument, about 30 miles south of Hollister on Highway 25. The eroded reddish spires rise above other summits of the Gabilan Range in the Coast Mountains. Directly to the east lie the San Andreas Fault, the Diablo Range and the San Joaquin Valley. To the west are the Santa Lucia Range and the Pacific Ocean. Few people live in this part of rural San Benito County and a surprisingly limited number of people visit this spectacular park.
That's no excuse, however, for not checking it out. Go before it gets hot, or plan a visit for the fall. Despite the relatively dry winter, some vibrant wildflowers dot the flanks of the summits known as the "High Peaks."
The trail through Bear Gulch Cave is one of the best in the whole state. Rock staircases built by the CCC in the 1930s allow you to climb up through the cave alongside a stream with several waterfalls. It is completely dark inside and a flashlight is absolutely essential. There are a few places where ducking or maneuvering your body around an obstacle is necessary, but the trail is accessible to most people. Although part of the cave is closed much of the year to protect bats, the part that remains open is truly worth a visit. Even kids who don't like hiking will have the time of their lives here.
If you have more time and are up for a more strenuous hike, continue up to the summit of the High Peaks -- the iconic volcanic formations that gave the park its name. This is one of the best places to see rare California Condors. During my visit last week they were soaring above our heads during the entire time we were in the Peaks area. With wingspans up to 9 feet and bald red heads, they're pretty impressive. The Pinnacles is one of the best places in the state to see them. For a population of less than 500 total throughout the state, we saw an incredibly large number of them.
The trail through the High Peaks includes steps cut into steep rock faces, metal railings along especially dramatic drop-offs, and breathtaking views. You end up climbing right in and among the most impressive rock formations. It's another one of California's best hikes.
The Pinnacles is a popular rock climbing destination. It's also popular with families. At $23 a night, the campground is comfortable and provides flush toilets and hot showers. Go to www.recreation.gov to make reservations or call (877) 444-6777.
The campground and the hikes I've described are accessed from the east side of the park. On the west side of the park (not connected by road to the east entrance), the Balconies Caves offer more rocky passageways to explore. If you're up for a long hike, you can reach the caves from the east entrance and the campground. No matter which trail you choose, don't forget a hat, sunscreen, plenty of water, and your camera.
Adam Blauert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.