We’ve visited Pinnacles National Park previously about two years ago, but this time around we decided to take a slightly different route through Bear Gulch cave and then up to the High Peaks pass. Pinnacles is just under a two hours drive south of San Jose and makes for a great day trip, and we’d been itching to go since we arrived back in California.
The park itself offers more than 16,000 acres of dramatic spines of rock and and fallen boulders. And this time of year is a great time to visit because the weather compliments the location pretty well. In the summer it can get hot and the sun brutal. But spring is great because the recent rains have turned the landscape green and vibrant with wildflowers and the temperature allows for a comfortable climb.
We arrived at a seemingly inopportune time; as this is the best time of year to visit, the park can get crowded pretty quick, and with us arriving at noon we had to wait about fifteen minutes before we could get parking, but that was about our only set back.
We parked near the trailhead for Bear Gulch and began making our way towards our first destination – Bear Gulch caves. The path gently rose, through the well shaded riparian forest and rising monoliths of stone.
We could see numerous rock climbers taking advantage of the excellent climbing conditions here as we approached the cave. Just before entering the cave, we could feel a strong cool breeze blowing out from the entrance. The breeze was refreshing, but quite decidedly chilly.
The caves themselves are Talus caves, formed from rock falls in valleys and canyons, where the falling boulders would become wedged in the narrow spaces and form the roof and interior layout of the caves.
Bear Gulch cave was a little bit larger than Balconies Cave (which we had previously visited) and was a little more challenging to get through as well. We enjoyed the challenge though. The primary obstacle was the water, as a small stream flowed through the cave and many times the stream crossed the path or even was the path.
Numerous waterfalls were inside the cave as we proceeded through the roughly half mile cave, and we steadily climbed up the rocks. The passages were quite narrow and ceilings low, so scrambling on rocks and wedging into tight spaces was a must. The most difficult part (for me at least) was getting through a small passage that could only have been maybe 3 feet high at the max and shimmying up a stepped waterfall.
After about thirty minutes we emerged from the cave, miraculously completely dry, although I suffered a few bumps on the head from the low ceilings. The caves are home to Townsend’s big-eared bats, and are closed throughout the year to allow them to raise pups in peace. Due to the narrow nature of the caves, they can also close due to rain.
Upon exiting the cave, we came to Bear Gulch reservoir. The reservoir is a nice lake, home to the endangered red-legged frog. While we could have stayed here for a while, as others were, we knew that we still had a long hike to go and only so much daylight, so we proceeded on up the path towards High Peaks.
The rocky trail winds its up way steadily up for several miles, passing through meadow, sparse woods, and ridge line. The floor falls away pretty quickly as you climb and you can begin to see the surrounding landscape.
Pinnacles National Park was originally established in 1908 by President Roosevelt as a National Monument and later converted into a national park in 2013 by President Obama. Pinnacles sits squarely atop the San Andreas fault, and as such the park and surrounding areas have been dramatically shaped by the seismic activities. The dramatic formations of the park are part of what remains of the Neenach Volcano, which erupted 23 million years ago, down near Lancaster. The fault has since moved the roughly half the rock 195 miles north to it’s present day location in the Salinas Valley.
After an hour or so, we began to near the High Peaks area. The spires of stone stand with a dramatic hue of orange and red against the green hills. Within another thirty minutes or so, we finally made it to the “top”.
This isn’t really the top of the mountain, rather it’s a convergence of several trails at a scenic overlook. Here, you can often see falcons and other birds going about their business. We had stopped here our previous time for lunch, but had to run down the canyon due to an abrupt lightning and hail storm. This time however, the skies were completely clear.
From this point, where you’ll also find a restroom if you should need it, you can proceed multiple ways. Our direction was through the High Peaks trail, which follows the ridge line of the mountain.
The hike through here is a lot of quick up and down, climbing very steep and narrow stairs. There are also several tight walkways to maneuver. Luckily, the park has installed railings to assist you through here.
You can also find tons of multi-colored lichen and slime molds on the rocks throughout the park.
As we were finishing our way through the High Peaks area, we came a stunning view of the resident Californian Condor. Brought back from the brink of extinction, all the birds present are descended from the original 27 birds that were left on earth. The breeding program has been a huge success and brought their numbers up now to 435. Pinnacles serves as a release site for the Condors and if you look closely, you can even see the tag numbers and find out who they are.
Most of the Condors were a little too far away from us to get a real good look at, but there was one in a tree near the trail that decided to pose well for us. The tag reads 00. This Condor was laid in the wild, and hatched (under care of researchers) in April 2015. You can find more information about the specific Condors here.
After spending probably twenty minutes watching the Condors (if not more), we steadily made our way towards the Condor Gulch trail. By this time, the sun was starting to get low, being that it was already nearly 6, so we knew we needed to pick up the pace to get down the mountain and make it back to the car before sun down.
Along this route, we encountered the numerous wildflowers present along the trail. There are also numerous bees in the area, due to the flowers. In fact, Pinnacles hosts the highest density of bee species in the world with 400 different species. Most of them are solitary bees though, not hive-dwelling, so you don’t need to worry about being stung.
Condor gulch made for a nice walk down as the sun set and the temperature began to drop. The flowers, fresh air, and gurgling streams made for a nice end to a pretty strenuous walk. We were pretty happy for the route we chose as well, because I don’t think we would have been quite as up for traversing the caves at this late a point in the day.
Finally we got to the car, as the Condor Gulch trail put us out right at the parking lot that we had left roughly 6 hours previously. Tired, but happy, we started our long drive back to San Jose.
If you plan on visiting Pinnacles, you should keep in mind that there are two entrances to the park. SR 146 approaches from both the east and west, but it is not a through road, and takes about two hours to get drive from one entrance to the other, so make sure you enter where you want to. We entered from the eastern side, which is just a little south of Hollister; whereas the western entrance is just east of Salinas.
Both entrances are good locations with full access to the park, though the western entrance will put you closer to Balconies cave, while the east entrance puts you nearer Bear Gulch cave. As well, you make sure you bring enough water, especially in the summer. If on a relatively cool day in spring such as our visit, we went through six bottles of water and could (should) have drunk more.
Regardless, Pinnacles National Park is an excellent spot to visit for hiking, camping, or even night hikes.
If you want to camp at Pinnacles National Park, you absolutely can. There is a campground, but only on the eastern side of the park, so you must approach from Hollister, not Salinas. The campground has 134 sites, so you shouldn’t have too much difficulty getting a place, but it may fill up during the spring season which is the ideal time to go. You can camp all year, but you may want to be wary about the summer and early fall as it can be extremely hot. In any case, you’ll most likely want to get a shaded camping spot if possible. There is a camp store that is well stocked for what it is, but you should still pack carefully as the closest supermarket is in Hollister, 32 miles away. There are also showers and flush toilets on site for you to use.