Visiting Pinnacles National Park
After visiting Death Valley I found myself the throes of national park fever and couldn’t wait to visit another one. I decided to capitalize on that feeling and started making plans for another weekend getaway. But where to go? Much of Sequoia was still closed due to the KNP Complex Fire, Yosemite was too expensive and it was too soon to return to Death Valley so I decided to head to one of the state’s lesser known parks – Pinnacles National Park.
Pinnacles is one of the newer parks in the NPS as it was designated in 2013. In fact, I remember traveling the 101 through Salinas many years ago and coming across its turn off sign and thinking, “since when is there a national park in this area?” Ever since the park lingered in the back of my mind as a place I needed to eventually visit and over a decade later I finally did just that.
So where exactly is Pinnacles? Well, it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere. Straddling two counties, San Benito and Monterey, it’s about equal distance between the 5 and 101 freeways. At just over 26,000 acres it’s one of the country’s smallest national parks yet it has two distinct regions, the East Side and the West Side, that aren’t connected by any road (though you can hike from one to another). As I had limited time to visit I had to decide which area I wanted to tackle. It took me quite awhile as both have interesting features but I ultimately decided to visit the East Side.
Now, if you’re a casual parks visitor Pinnacles may not be the one for you. As I said, it’s in the middle of nowhere and after leaving the major highways you have a 1-2 hour drive through windy, country roads with very limited cell service. The scenery is beautiful and you will see wildlife (I saw raptors, a coyote and wild turkeys) but it can be lonely. Also, the park has very limited amenities. There’s a general store with a small gift shop, a camp ground and lots and lots of hiking trails. Luckily, the trails do range from easy to strenuous so they can accommodate just about any ability.
What the park lacks in amenities it makes up for in natural wonders and it’s home to several unique features. There’s the pinnacles themselves which are eons old volcanic rocks that form a distinct topography not seen anywhere else. Several of the boulders formed unique talus caves which can be hiked through via the parks trail system. The park is also home to many distinct animal species including the California red-legged frog, Townsend’s big-eared bats and the famed California Condor. I was especially hoping the view the latter but, alas, it remained elusive during my visit.
Wanting to see as much as possible , I opted to hike the Moses Spring to Rim Trail Loop which would allow me to climb from the valley to the rim (and back) via the Bear Gulch Cave. The trail is considered moderate and I would agree, though there are several stair climbs throughout. When I visited it was a beautiful, cool day and I enjoyed listening to the tapping of woodpeckers and I started my ascent. Soon, I came upon the Bear Gulch Cave which proved to be a wonderful adventure.
Talus Caves are formed by boulders which make them pretty unique. At times you’ll see sunlight peeking through and at other times you’ll be in total darkness (so definitely bring a flashlight). The Bear Gulch Cave was much bigger than I expected and I spent a good deal of time climbing through it, shining my flashlight on interesting outcroppings. I must admit, I did feel a bit claustrophobic inside and, as cool as I found it to be, I was happy when I reached the end.
After exiting, I took a break to catch my breath and then headed up the short climb to the rim.
Up top is the Bear Gulch Reservoir which was created in 1935. It’s a picturesque spot and I spent some time admiring the view.
After a short respite I continued on the Rim Trail to head back to the valley below. As I walked along I kept my eye out for condors while admiring the spectacular view.
I returned to my car weary yet exhilarated by all the sights I had seen. I had no idea what to expect when visiting Pinnacles National Park and it absolutely blew me away. One of the least known (and visited) national park it’s the definition of a hidden gem. I had a wonderful time hiking its trails and discovering yet another fascinating corner of California.