Hikers, rock climbers, and cave explorers find their happy place in the playground of burnished gold boulders and spires at the heart of Pinnacles National Park in the Salinas Valley. The park’s cliffs, crags, and cave structures, formed by a volcano that erupted 23 million years ago and about 200 miles/321 kilometers southeast, were carried to this spot by shaking and quaking action along the San Andreas Fault. The strangely beautiful boulder formations jut upward from the surrounding grasslands, forming an easy-to-spot landmark.
Nature lovers will find plenty to do here. Follow your flashlight beam as you wind your way through dark talus caves (no spelunking experience is necessary, just a sense of adventure). Trek to the High Peaks, a volcanic labyrinth of jagged pinnacles and spires that can be seen from miles away. Show up in springtime to stroll and botanize amid a bounty of grassland wildflowers. Crane your neck to watch climbers scale the rocky pinnacles.
Keep your eyes and ears peeled for deer, coyotes, raccoons, and foxes, plus an array of birds, from the chatty acorn woodpecker to the amazing California condor, which soars on wings spanning nearly 10 feet wide. These incredible birds almost went extinct—by 1987 only 22 California condors remained in the world. Experts banded together to place them in a captive breeding program, and sixteen years later, the Pinnacles became an official condor recovery site. Currently, park biologists manage more than two dozen condors, each identified by a three-digit number on its wing tag. The condors come and go freely, often soaring west to Big Sur to mingle with the 30-odd condors that live there. For your best chance to see them, hike to the High Peaks in the early morning or early evening. Also scan the skies above the ridge southeast of the campground; spotting scopes are usually set up near the visitor center.
In summer, temperatures at Pinnacles can soar over 100°F during the day, but at night, uncountable stars sparkle in the cool night sky, which, of course, make the park’s nighttime activities all the more alluring. The region’s dark skies, far from city lights, ensure great stargazing, which can be enjoyed just by throwing down a blanket anywhere there’s a clear view. Check the park’s schedule for guided hikes under the stars.
Pinnacles National Park is divided into two sides—east and west—and there is no way to drive through the park from one side to the other (although you can cross the park on foot, a roughly 5-mile/8-km hike). The east entrance, off Highway 25 about 30 miles/48 kilometers south of Hollister, is where most of the action is: You’ll find the Pinnacles Visitor Center, a free weekend shuttle bus running to the park’s Bear Gulch region, and a 134-site campground with a swimming pool and showers. The camp store is surprisingly well-stocked, but you should still pack meticulously—the nearest supermarket is in Hollister.
The less-developed west side is accessible from Highway 101 near the town of Soledad. Head east along Highway 146 to the park entrance. The west gate stays open from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. (You can leave after 8 p.m., but you can’t drive in.)
After a long day of hiking, head to The Inn at Tres Pinos, a favorite watering hole of 1880s cattle ranchers that now serves up filet mignon, salmon, and veal; enjoy it all with a glass of local San Benito County wine served in an unpretentious dining room restaurant.