California’s newest national park, Pinnacles National Park is a relatively small park with a lot packed into it. The landscapes are unique, the wildlife different with bats and bees at the forefront, and the hiking usually includes a bit of spelunking.
Lying along the San Andreas Fault, the park itself is a 23-million-year-old geological phenomenon spewed into existence by a volcanic eruption that occurred 195 miles south. Debris and erosion have formed the massive pillars and walls over time, but this majestic mountain’s crowning glory is its two talus caves, composed from the large boulders that have fallen down into random piles.
The park was designated in January 2013, and hosts several healthy populations of smaller animals including bobcats, bats, the endangered California condor, and the highest bee variety in the world. Miles of hiking trails traverse the edges of an abundance of diverse habitat, offering ample wildlife viewing. Hike to Balconies Cave (9.4 miles round-trip) via Chalone Creek on the Bench and Old Pinnacles trails where you can explore the cave (a flashlight is required) and marvel at the views of the largest rock formations in the park. Or, opt for the shorter Balconies Cliffs-Cave Loop (a flashlight is required), which, after crossing up to Balconies Cave, heads down to the Old Pinnacles trail and through the cave. You may get wet, as wading may be necessary during winter months.
Other features of the park include Bear Gulch Cave, which is closed mid-May through mid-July to protect the park’s colony of bats as they raise their young. The campground (reservations 877/444-6777, $23 tents, $36 RVs) is located near the east entrance and is open to tents and RVs. It is outfitted with picnic tables, electrical hookups, water, showers, bathrooms, a swimming pool (Apr.-Sept.), and a store (831/389-4538, 3pm-5pm Sun.-Thurs., 2pm-5pm Fri., 10am-4pm Sat.).
There are two entrances to the park, one to the west off US-101 at Soledad and the other to the east on CA-146.
The Pinnacles National Park Visitor Center (5000 CA-146, 831/389-4485, 9am-5pm daily, $10 parking fee) provides information on ranger-led programs, hiking trails, and rock-climbing routes, and it has several displays on the geologic history of the region.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip.