Pinnacles National MonumentA Slice of Classic Central California
Sep 30, 2001 (Updated Sep 30, 2001)
Review by Eric Goldman
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pinnacles National Monument is a well-preserved 24,000 acre slice of Central California ready for exploring. It illustrates the transition between dry Southern California and wetter Northern California, with lots of oak and grass chaparral as well as moist pine-studded riparian areas.
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East or West?
Your first key decision is whether to access the park from the east or west side. Although the park entrances are a few miles apart as the crow flies, no road connects the two, and driving from one to the other would take an hour or so. Both entrances are easy to drive to and offer paved access the entire way. From the Bay Area, the drive time is approximately the same (2 hours from my house in San Carlos).
Personally, I think there’s no clear advantage to picking one entrance over the other. Each entrance will offer you a complete Pinnacles experience. Ambitious hikers can hike from one entrance to the other with only moderate difficulty. The distance is short, but the trails are steep!
Pinnacles offers about 15 miles of regularly maintained trails and another 15 miles or so of unmaintained trails. The maintained trails are all in excellent condition—well-graded, easy to follow and clearly signed.
From the west entrance, you have 2 primary hiking options. First, you can hike to the Balconies rock formations, where you will see massive rock faces, rock spires, and a rock cave. You need a flashlight to go through the short Balconies cave—it is pitch black and the route is counterintuitive. This is an easy hike with little elevation change.
The cave warrants a few words to set your expectations. It’s not a cave in the classic sense; it formed from the collapse of the talus around it. The hike into the caves is pretty, with sun streaming through the boulders, but the cave itself is unremarkable and very short.
After the cave, you can continue on Old Pinnacles trail to the Chalone Creek picnic area if you want. This is an easy, level, shaded trail but not really that interesting.
Second, you can hike the Juniper Canyon trail to the High Peaks area. This is a thigh-buster! The trail is pretty with great views of rock formations. Once you reach the saddle, you can go along the pretty ridgeline, go down into Bear Gulch, or turn around.
A final option from the west entrance is the unmaintained North Wilderness trail. I have not hiked this trail, but I suspect it’s very hot and poison oak-y.
From the east entrance, you have a few more hiking choices. Most visitors hike the short Moses Spring trail through a damp and shaded talus garden to the Bear Gulch reservoir. Unfortunately, the Bear Gulch Caves trail has been shut down since 1998 due to El Nino’s deleterious effect on the bats who inhabit the caves. The hike offers great up-close views of rock formations and ends at the Bear Gulch reservoir, a silty and surprisingly stinky reservoir. Given the smell, I wouldn’t recommend using the reservoir as your lunch stop.
From the reservoir, you can take the Rim Trail to the hot, steep High Peaks trail. At the top of High Peaks trail, you can continue along the ridgeline or down to Chaparral ranger station (note that getting back up the Juniper Ridge trail will definitely test your thighs!). You can also pick up the High Peaks trail from the parking lot and bypass the reservoir if you want.
From the reservoir, you can also take the unmaintained Chalone Peak trail. I haven’t hiked this trail either, but I suspect it offers a very uncrowded but long option to get fine views. Be prepared to sweat.
Another hiking option from the east entrance is the Condor Gulch trail, which is less interesting but less steep than the High Peaks trail. A good aerobic loop would be to take the High Peaks trail up and the Condor Gulch trail back down.
From the east entrance, you can also start hiking at the Chalone Creek picnic area. I don’t recommend this because the trails leading from the trailhead are relatively unremarkable for a couple of miles until you get to the good stuff. The Old Pinnacles trail, as mentioned above, is a shady level hike along the stream. The High Peaks trail is extremely steep doesn’t really have any good views for some time. From the east, I recommend you start your hikes at Bear Gulch.
Finally, from the east entrance, you can hike the unmaintained South Wilderness trail. There’s no real destination at the end of this trail, so I suspect it appeals mostly to those who crave a destination-less wilderness experience.
My favorite trails were the Balconies trail through the cave, the Juniper Canyon trail up to the saddle, and the trail through the core High Peaks area. Note that the Balconies trail and the Moses Springs trail are self-guiding nature trails. Pick up the interpretative guides at the ranger station.
Other Things to Do
Rock Climbing. Pinnacles offers some of the finest rock climbing in the greater Bay Area. Rock climbing is possible both from the west and east entrances (at the Balconies and Bear Gulch rock formations, respectively) and offers a range of routes from easy to difficult. Do not attempt rock climbing without proper training, equipment and supervision.
Bouldering. I’m not into rock climbing, but I do enjoy bouldering occasionally. The bouldering in Pinnacles is excellent. Spires and talus are everywhere, and the rock is very easy to climb. The rock offers tons of foot- and handholds and is not as sharp as rock in, say, Joshua Tree. Properly supervised, kids will really enjoy rock scrambling. Please be safe!
Birding. I was surprised at how many riparian areas the Pinnacles had, offering great opportunities for birding. The grasslands and craggy rocks offered other good birding opportunities.
Flowers. Springtime brings wonderful flowers.
· Be prepared for hot weather. Although there are a surprising number of shaded areas, the climate resembles the Central Valley—hot and sunny most of the year.
· Drink lots of water! It’s hot and dry on most trails. Stay hydrated.
· Wear sunblock. Most trails have exposed portions.
· Watch out for poison oak. It was easy to avoid on the trails, but if you step off the trails in any riparian area, expect to find poison oak—lots of it.
· If you go to the Balconies cave, bring a flashlight. If you don’t have a flashlight and want to hike through, use the bypass trail. I almost got lost in the cave with my flashlight, and there’s no way I could have managed without the flashlight.
· Dogs and bicycles are not allowed on the trails.
The Pinnacles does not have its own campground. A private campground is located just outside the east entrance. Personally, I believe a single day at the Pinnacles is sufficient unless you’re a rock climber. You should be able to see everything you want to see and hike all the trails you want in one day.
The Pinnacles rock formations struck me as a smaller and less-scenic version of Joshua Tree and, to a lesser extent, the Tent Rocks in New Mexico. If you want high-quality rocks and vistas, go to one of those or to the Sierras. But as a local attraction, the rocks were an interesting diversion.
While the panoramas and showy formations get all of the attention, I like the Pinnacles for its more mundane aspects—rust-colored moss on pink granite; the doe and her kid in a pine forest; fields of golden grass swaying in the breeze; the light and shadows in the talus garden; the birds of prey riding the thermals; the Spanish moss dripping from the oaks; the sound of birds rustling and toads croaking in the streambeds. Sometimes it’s the little things in life that make us happy, and the Pinnacles offer little things galore.
For more information on Pinnacles, visit http://www.nps.gov/pinn/.
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Best time to go: March-May
Recommended for: Anybody
Review Topic: Overview
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