California condors are so big they make eagles look small. Sometimes when flying, they are mistaken for small aeroplanes. They’re the largest of all North American land birds with a wingspan of more than 9 feet.
Alas, being big did not protect these incredible birds from near-extinction. By 1987 only 22 California condors remained in the world. At that time, experts banded to together to make a critical decision to capture the last of the wild condors and place them in a captive breeding programme.
Sixteen years later, the Pinnacles became an official condor recovery site. Currently, park biologists manage more than two dozen condors. Each bird is 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 condors at Pinnacles, hike to the High Peaks in the early morning or early evening. Also scan the skies above the ridge south-east of the campground; spotting scopes are usually set up near the visitor centre.
California’s newest national park is home to cliffs, crags and cave formations that were formed by an ancient volcano. Shaking and quaking along the San Andreas Fault carried volcanic rocks from the eruption, actually 200 miles south-east, to their present home at this spot in the Salinas Valley. Now, millions of years later, the site is a visual and physical stunner. Follow your torch beam as you explore winding caves. Crane your neck to watch climbers scale the rocky pinnacles. Scan the skies for California condors and hike among spring wild flowers. In summer, temperatures can soar over 37°C during the day, but at night, uncountable stars sparkle in the cool night sky.
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 (though you can do it on foot—a roughly 5-mile hike).
The west side is accessible from Highway 101 near the town of Soledad. Head east along Highway 146 to the park entrance. A small visitor centre is located there, but there are no overnight accommodations and no campground. Gates on the west side stay open from 7:30am to 8pm daily. You can leave after 8pm, but you can’t drive in. The east entrance, off Highway 25 roughly 30 miles south of Hollister, is open 24/7, and there is camping, a visitor centre and a camp shop.
Pinnacles’ caves are nothing like the limestone caverns found in many places in the U.S. Technically, they are not caves at all. Over thousands of years, running water slowly eroded deep and narrow chasms amid the Pinnacles’ giant rocks. Huge chunks of these rocks fragmented, broke off, and fell into the chasms. Sometimes these rocks were too large to fit inside, so they were caught, forming a ‘roof’ and creating these rocky tunnels, known as talus caves.
“Wow, it’s dark in here.”
The park has two sets of these caves open to visitors. Balconies Caves, on the park’s west side, stay open year-round, except after very heavy winter rains (call ahead to check status). Bear Gulch Caves, on the park’s east side, are sometimes closed to protect the Townsend’s big-eared bats that live and rear their young (usually mid-May to mid-July, when the caves typically close). Check status in advance.
No matter where you want to explore, no spelunking skills are needed, but bring your sense of adventure. As you enter, turn on your headlamp (or mobile phone light), then squeeze through narrow clefts, duck under ledges and twist through narrow passageways. Listen and see if you catch your fellow visitors saying this common refrain: “Wow, it’s dark in here.” Yup.
The park’s most exciting hike is the trek to the High Peaks, a series of jagged pinnacles that can be seen from miles away. The highest of the High Peaks sits at 2,720 feet, which may not seem like much until you’re on top looking down. Though you can reach the peaks from either the east or west entrance station, the trek is shorter from the east side at Bear Gulch (6-mile round-trip, depending on which trail you take). Either way, you’ll climb about 1,400 feet and be amazed by the final mile of trail: a feat of very creative trail building by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The path wanders through a rocky labyrinth, tracing along a series of narrow passageways, and ascending over, around, and in between a maze of boulders. Handholds and footholds are blasted into the rock; steel guardrails are embedded for safety. (If you’re not crazy about heights, take the alternate Tunnel Trail.)
When you reach High Peaks’ summit, look down and across at the park’s huge expanse of undulating grasslands and rock monoliths. Look up for condors too—you might be closer to them here than anywhere else in the park.
This park’s rocky spires and pinnacles, created by volcanic activity and earthquake chaos, have long attracted rock climbers. Both the east side and west side entrances provide access to numerous climbs for all levels of climbers, and the most popular routes are clearly marked. If you have climbed elsewhere, keep in mind that this rock is not solid granite; it’s much weaker volcanic breccia, and it ‘gives’ a bit more easily than granite. The park’s east side tends to have harder, less crumbly rock, and more routes that can be top-roped.
Pinnacles makes a great destination for taking those rock wall skills you learned in a gym and testing them out in the real world. Classes for all levels are offered by several companies and some offer multi-day climbing camps. The beginner climbs ‘Tourist Trap’ and ‘Discovery Wall’ are found a few minutes walk from Bear Gulch. The park’s west side offers more multi-pitch routes that require lead climbing. A bonus is that the season runs most of the year except for summer, when the temperatures get uncomfortably hot. Some routes close for part of the year, usually January to July, to protect nesting birds, especially peregrine falcons and eagles.
If you would like to learn how to climb, several companies provide lessons and multi-day rock climbing camps at Pinnacles.
Located on Pinnacles’ east side, the park’s sole campground has 134 sites, a swimming pool, showers and flush toilets, and a surprisingly well-stocked camp shop that sells a lot of ice cream. (Pack meticulously: the nearest supermarket is in Hollister, 32 miles away.) Pinnacles’ night sky is sufficiently dark for stargazing, and campers have a good chance of seeing wildlife; keep your eyes and ears peeled for deer, coyotes, raccoons, foxes and a wide variety of birds, from the chatty acorn woodpecker to the enormous California condor. The campground’s busy season is spring and autumn (it’s very hot here in summer). Be sure to choose a site that has shade, even in cooler months.
Spring comes early to Pinnacles National Park, and with it swarms legions of wildflower lovers hoping to catch the bloom at its peak. Thanks to its rich volcanic soil and vast grasslands, Pinnacles is an ideal spot for wild flowers. California poppies line the creek beds, mariposa lilies shine bright white in the tall grass and shooting stars cluster in wet meadows. The intoxicating scent of lupine can almost knock you over. Over 80 percent of the park’s plants flower between March and May, but in many years you’ll find blooms as early as January or February. The flowers are just about everywhere you look, but the High Peaks Loop, Balconies Trail and Juniper Canyon Trail are sure bets. To check species, scan the online wild flower gallery or print the wonky but useful plant list.
First-time visitors are surprised at how ‘out there’ Pinnacles National Park is. Eighty percent of the park is wilderness, but what surrounds the park is also mostly wilderness—the undeveloped foothills of the Gabilan Mountains. No restaurants. No petrol stations. No supermarket. If you’re camping, you may grow weary of blackened hot dogs. If you’re driving back to civilisation after a long day of hiking, your stomach may be growling. Head to the Inn at Tres Pinos, a restaurant where they won’t scoff at your hiking boots. In fact, you can wear your cowboy hat.
The inn was a favourite watering hole of 1880s cattle ranchers and the site of a one-time brothel. In the centre of Tres Pinos, a town of about 500 residents, this historic landmark serves up filet mignon, salmon, veal (thankfully, no hot dogs); enjoy it all with a glass of local San Benito County wine served in an unpretentious dining room. Check out the saloon’s antique brass cash register and rickety wooden floorboards.
Pinnacles National Park is a hiker’s paradise in the daytime, but it’s equally intriguing at night. 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 of the night sky. On most Saturday nights, you can join a park ranger for a one-hour, 1-mile hike under the stars. The walk starts at the Peaks View parking lot on the park’s east side and heads to the South Wilderness trailhead and back. A similar trip is offered on full moon nights throughout the year. Between spring and autumn, rangers also host night-time cave explorations—what the heck, the caves are dark anyway—as well as excursions to look for resident Townsend’s big-eared bats. Check the park’s website for a list of monthly offerings, and be sure to reserve a spot at the Pinnacles Visitor Center (events are free but limited to 25 people).
There’s nothing quite like a glass of wine to cap off a day of hiking. Fortunately, two separate wine trails lie within about an hour’s drive from both of Pinnacles’ entrances. From the east entrance, head north on Highway 25 for about 30 miles to the Tres Pinos area, where the Cienega Valley Loop travels past a half-dozen San Benito County wineries, including DeRose, the oldest winery in California, started by a French immigrant in 1855. (Side note: the winery happens to sit right along the San Andreas Fault.) The Cienega Valley’s soil is rich with limestone deposits, making ideal growing conditions for pinot noir and chardonnay grapes.
From the west entrance, explore the River Road Wine Trail of the fertile Salinas Valley. Head west on Highway 146 toward Soledad and U.S. 101, where you’ll find Hahn Estates Winery, Paraiso Vineyards, Wrath Winery and many others on the River Road Wine Trail winding through the Santa Lucia Highlands.