California Crags and Caves: Pinnacles National Park

America’s newest national park is Pinnacles, established in 2013, and located about 80 miles southeast of San Jose, California. After arriving there on an extremely hot afternoon, with temperatures approaching 100 degrees F, our first impressions were of nothing special – just many large oak trees and chaparral covered hills. But when we started hiking the next morning we were blown away by the beauty of the volcanic rocky crags within the dry hills. During our two days in the park we hiked 17.2 miles, scrambled in two talus caves, and scanned the skies for the endangered California condors that glide over the peaks in the early morning and late afternoon.

Pinnacles National Park

The San Andreas Fault runs 600 miles through California and just east of the park. Along the fault is the tectonic boundary between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate, with the North American Plate moving west and the Pacific Plate moving north. As the Pacific Plate moved north millions of years ago, it split a volcanic field, carrying two-thirds of it away, creating today’s Pinnacles. These volcanic formations are a sort of island located in the midst of the rolling hills and mountains of California’s Coast Range. While the other piece, known as the Neenach Formation, lies 195 miles away, near Lancaster, California, the Pinnacles are still moving northwest at the rate of one to two inches a year.

Declared a national monument by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, Pinnacles continued to add land over the years to grow to its present size of 27,214 acres. There is no road through the park, but rather entrances on its west and east sides. We drove in from the east, where the park’s visitor center and campground are located. Thankfully for us, with the extreme heat, there were coin showers available, as well as a pool, which was quite crowded when we arrived to set up camp.

Pool at the campground

The volcanic High Peaks area of the Pinnacles were not visible from the visitor center or campground, but our campsite had a view of a ridge with large birds soaring over it early and late in the day. We sat at our picnic table while eating dinner and breakfast each day scanning the sky for a possible endangered California condor sighting.

In the 1980s the birds were all but extinct in the wild, with only about 25 left. The major threat to their survival was the ingestion of animals shot with lead bullets. Condor recovery programs were established, and Pinnacles joined in 2003. Today, 60 condors have been re-introduced in Central California. Those within Pinnacles are monitored by park biologists, using each bird’s tracker.

With a 9 ½ foot wingspan, condors are huge birds. But since our sightings were all so far away, it was hard to tell if the bird was a condor or a turkey vulture. One tell-tale sign was the white spot on the underside on each of the condor’s black wings, but sometimes that was even hard to distinguish. So we don’t know if we actually saw a condor, but it was still thrilling to watch the birds glide above the ridge during our meals.

There are over 30 miles of trails in the park, with many of them intersecting. We created a partial loop of several paths to take us to the Balconies Cave on the west side of the park, a 10 mile round trip hike. From our campsite, we began on the Bench Trail and joined the Old Pinnacles Trail, which took us along the dry Chalone Creek. Along the creek we has some occasional shade from trees, which was welcome on the hot day.

Large oak tree along the Bench Trail
Walking along the Bench Trail
Darren hiking in the tree shade along the Old Pinnacles Trail

Eventually we came to a fork of two paths and continued to the left to enter Balconies Cave. This was not a traditional cave, but was formed when a deep gorge filled with boulders that fell during earthquakes and lodged between the high rock walls. To enter the cave we needed to remove our sunglasses and turn on our headlamps. Inside was a series of rocks to climb over. It took just a few minutes to scramble the short distance through the cave, but it was challenging and fun.

Entrance to Balconies Cave
Climbing down a steep series of rocks in the cave (with a rail for help)

On the other end, we joined the Balconies Cliff Trail, which took us up on a steep path to a viewpoint of the Balconies, a series of terraced mountain spires. There was no shade during the climb, and we felt the heat. After coming down the other side and rejoining the Old Pinnacles Trail at the fork before the cave entrance, we took an extended break to eat our lunch and drink plenty of fluids.

Hiking along the Balconies Cliff Trail
Looking toward the Balconies as we hiked

Our return to the campground was back the same way on the Old Pinnacles and Bench Trails. While the entire hike was relatively flat, except for the Balconies Cliff section, we were tired from the heat and made a beeline for the visitor center store as soon as we were finished. There, we purchased some well-deserved ice cream and a cold drink.

Sign in front of the visitor center

At breakfast the next morning we were greeted by a doe and fawn that walked through our campsite.

Doe walks through our campsite…
… her fawn follows close by and they both hide among the trees

Our second day of hiking took us on a more strenuous series of trails into the park’s High Peaks section. The heart of Pinnacles National Park, it is comprised of a group of volcanic crags, precipices, and ramparts. Another hot day made us start early up the steepest section of our loop. The Condor Gulch Trail gained 1,100 feet in just 1.7 miles, but we had great views of the High Peaks before us. The area was another place for condor sightings, so we kept our eyes peeled there as well. We joined the High Peaks Trail and climbed further into a cathedral of black rocky spires.

Darren hiking the Condor Gulch Trail
View of the High Peaks from the Condor Gulch Trail
View from the Condor Gulch Trail

At the next intersection we had a choice: either continue straight on to a steep section, with hand railings to support a walk along a narrow trail with drop-offs, or turn on to the Tunnel Trail, which went down a ridge and through an actual rock tunnel before rejoining the High Peaks Trail. With my fear of heights, we opted for the Tunnel Trail. Darren reluctantly went along with me.

The path wound around some rock formations as we descended and lost a significant amount of our climb. But it was all worth it to walk through the actual tunnel and emerge on the other side. We turned on the Juniper Canyon Trail and steeply ascended to meet the High Peaks Trail at Scout Peak (2,605 feet).

View from the Tunnel Trail
Entering the tunnel
Coming out the other side of the tunnel

After the climb it was time for a lunch break, and we found some shade under a rock overhang to rest and relax. Even though it was close to 100 degrees F again, we knew that the hardest part of our hike was over. It was a steep downhill walk to Bear Gulch, and we marveled at all the people we saw making the climb in the opposite direction in the mid-day heat.

Darren hiking down the High Peaks Trail from Scout Peak
View while descending the High Peaks Trail
View while descending the High Peaks Trail

At the bottom of the descent was the trailhead to the Bear Gulch Cave, and we turned to follow it to its entrance. Formed similar to the Balconies Cave, Bear Gulch did not require as much scrambling inside and actually had a staircase to climb up in one section. There was water present in several places, making it seem otherworldly inside. We could walk through about three-quarters of the cave, with the final section closed due to breeding of the Townsend’s big-eared bat, one of 14 species found in the park.

Walking through Bear Gulch Cave
Looking up at the rocks in Bear Gulch Cave

In order to leave the cave at the closure, we needed to crawl under several rocks. Back on the trail, we returned to the cave entrance and then walked down the hill to our car that was parked at the Condor Gulch trailhead, ending our 7.2 mile day of hiking.

Darren crawling out of Bear Gulch Cave at the closure

While enjoying another cold drink purchased at the visitor center store, we discussed our park impressions. Pinnacles is California’s ninth national park, and it certainly can’t compete with the likes of Yosemite, Death Valley, Sequoia, or Redwood, found elsewhere in the state. Nevertheless, we were pleasantly surprised to discover Pinnacles’ unique volcanic rock formations, as well as the scenic hiking. And with only 285,555 visitors in 2016 (ranking it 47th overall), we did not experience any of the crowds that would be present in the more popular parks. We left Pinnacles pleased with our time there and with its elevation to a national park.

Pinnacles National Park

The final park on our TTP NPS journey lies in the Pacific Ocean: Channel Islands National Park.

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