Last month, I started a series about California’s nine national parks to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the National Park Service. This month, I’m continuing that series with a park that is closer to home but unknown to many locals.
Pinnacles National Park is our nation’s newest national park. Upgraded from national monument status in 2013, it’s a great place to visit in the spring. In addition to wildflowers, the park has caves with underground waterfalls, an exciting trail to the summit of an ancient volcano, and it’s a place where rare California condors are often seen.
Visitation has increased since the park’s status changed. When I brought some of my students to visit two weekends ago, the trailhead parking areas were full. Fortunately, the park now offers a shuttle on busy weekends to carry visitors from the larger parking areas to the trails. We had to wait about 20 minutes to get our whole group to the trail, but it was a minor inconvenience and the hike was worth the wait.
I recommend the Bear Gulch Cave Trail for first-time visitors. Rock staircases built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s allow you to climb up through the cave alongside a stream with several waterfalls. It’s completely dark inside, and a flashlight is essential. The lower part of the cave is open most of the year, while the upper part, inhabited by bats, is often closed to protect them.
The lower part has a few places where ducking or maneuvering around an obstacle is necessary, but the trail is accessible to most people. The upper part requires more squeezing and twisting, and there was one part where I had to crawl for a few feet since I was carrying a large backpack. This hike is different from most others in our state, and even kids who don’t like hiking will have the time of their lives.
Most people start at the bottom and hike upward through the cave. On busy weekends, it’s often difficult to go the other way. If you only plan to hike the cave, I recommend returning to the trailhead using the Moses Spring Trail, which parallels but bypasses the cave. If the upper part of the cave is closed, hikers are routed out of the cave onto this trail. The round-trip hike through the cave and back down is about 1 1/2 miles (shorter if the upper part is closed).
If you have more time and are up for a more strenuous hike, continue 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. We didn’t see any on our recent visit, but on my previous visit, they were soaring above our heads the entire time we were in the High Peaks area. With wingspans to 9 feet and bald, red heads, they’re impressive. Pinnacles is one of the best places in the state to see 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 among the most impressive rock formations. It’s another of California’s best hikes. Although steep, even the students in our group who were less comfortable with heights and drop-offs enjoyed it.
Many wildflowers can be seen in the spring. Fall can also be a good time to visit, though the park may look less green.
The eroded reddish spires that comprise the High Peaks and many other rock faces throughout the park are remnants of a volcano that erupted 23 million years ago. From the top, you can see the Diablo Range and the Santa Lucia Range of the Coast Mountains. The San Andreas Fault lay in the valley to the east of the park.
After the eruption that created the park’s formations, the fault carried the majority of them northward. Known as the Neenach Formation, the eastern portion remains in Southern California, where it can be seen from Highway 138 near the small community of Neenach.
Pinnacles is a popular rock-climbing destination. It’s also popular with families. At $23 a night for tent sites and $36 for RV sites, the campground is comfortable and provides flush toilets and hot showers. The pool opens April 1. When we camped there a couple of years ago, it was quiet from 9 p.m. until the calls of wild turkeys and quail awoke us in the morning. Go to www.recreation.gov to make reservations or call 877-444-6777.
The campground and hikes 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 Cave offers more rocky passageways to explore. If you’re up for a long hike, you can also reach these caves from the east entrance and the campground.
Unless you’re camping, the park is only open from 7:30 a.m. until sunset. The $15 per vehicle entry fee is paid at the visitor center, where you can ask questions of the rangers on duty and purchase a small selection of camping necessities, souvenirs and books.
Adam Blauert: firstname.lastname@example.org