Reaching the Pinnacles
Hiking the Pinnacles National Monument at the end of October was a
peak experience. Where else can you hike in a volcano, crawl through
cave-like rockfalls, view a beautiful mountain lake, and look up to
megalithic slabs of rock, colored in red and green? It was fun
walking among the peaks, pinnacles, cones, and spires of colored
rhyolite hundreds of feet high.
The big, strange shapes reminded me of Zion. They also suggested the
red colors and hoodoos of Bryce. The narrow canyons are topped by
megaboulders, many weighing more than one hundred tons, forming
caves like those in Antelope Canyon. The lovely Bear Gulch Reservoir
is a picture postcard of hidden Sierra valleys. And as I climbed the
High Peaks Trail, I remembered the breathtaking ridge trails of
Grand Canyon. Yes, it’s on a somewhat smaller scale, but that makes
it possible to enjoy these sights in a single day of hiking along
well-marked, well-maintained trails.
But this is not a park of miniatures. Once, this volcano was more
than a mile higher, but the peaks still rise up to an impressive
three thousand feet tall. And this volcano/park offers 30 miles of
trails overlooking more than 21 square miles.
The Pinnacles is more than rock and scree. Walk riparian corridors
along seasonal streams, through foothill woodlands, and over areas
of dry chaparral, chamise, buckbrush, manzanita, toyon, and
holly-leaved cherry. In the spring, the foothills and riversides are
carpeted with colorful flowers and plants. Even the chaparral and
rocky areas are decorated with flowers.
You may see the normal California critters, and, if you are lucky,
you’ll also discover endangered raptors, bats, and California
condors. At your feet, you may find insects endemic to the Pinnacles
area, such as the Pinnacles shield-back katydid and the Pinnacles
riffle beetle. Although I couldn’t identify these insects, I did
find a giant wooly tarantula on the trail. He was friendly but shy.
The most popular reason for visiting Pinnacles is to hike through
the Bear Gulch Caves, home of Townsend’s big-eared bat. Although the
caves are closed seasonally to protect the bats when they are
hibernating or “pupping,” the entire length of the caves is open for
one week or more during March and October. They are partially open
from mid-July to mid-March. Similar caves on the west side of the
park, the Balconies cave area, are home to Western mastiff bats,
another bat considered to be a “California Species of Special
Concern.” In all, some 14 species of bats have been identified with
the Pinnacles area. (By the way, the official National Park Service
website says that bats bite only in self-defense. Further, most bats
do not carry rabies; less than 1 percent contract rabies and die.)
Pinnacles National Monument is located south of Hollister (Highway
25 south to 146 west) and east of Soledad (146 east). You can enter
the park from the east or the west, but there is no road through the
park. Although the official website appears to promote the west
entrance, I chose the one on the east. It offers a larger visitor
center, easier drive in, and closer access to the Bear Gulch Caves
and Reservoir. The drive took less than two hours, with a stop for
At the Bear Gulch Visitor Center, Ranger Michelle gave me a brief
but informative orientation with supporting maps, books, and an
overview using a 3-D topographic model. Although she was much cuter
than a bat, I reluctantly went out on the trail to Bear Gulch Caves.
This trail was so good that it could have been designed by Disney.
The trail twisted and turned under the shade of giant rocks, through
a short tunnel, and up relatively easy grades.
The opening of the cave was just big enough to walk through, and for
a short distance, a little sunlight peeked through the ceiling of
jumbled rocks. As I went deeper into the caves, the light
disappeared, and the caves became less Disney and more real. The
flashlight’s beam was narrow, and the ceiling got closer and closer.
Soon I had to remove my pack and squirm through openings between
rocks. It was perfectly safe, but not a place for a claustrophobic.
I didn’t hear any bats, but I did hear a Japanese lady giggle when
she got caught between two rocks. Her family took many pictures, and
the flashes helped me see in the darkness.
Then the light got brighter, and I walked up a long flight of narrow
stairs that took me up and out to a beautiful mountain lake. Usually
I like solitude, but on this Sunday afternoon many romantic couples
were enjoying the view, and I wished that I was sharing this special
place, too. (I’ll settle for sharing it with you.)
It was also a good place to have some lunch (turkey sticks, an
apple, and some coated almonds) before climbing up the Rim Trail and
the Moses Spring Trail up over the top of the caves and back down to
the visitor center. The entire two-mile trip took about two hours.
I changed from boots to lighter shoes, added a telephoto lens to my
pack, and crossed the parking lot to the trail head for the Condor
Gulch Trail. It took me up 1.7 miles to an overlook. I could see
2,720-foot high Hawkins Peak to the north, and a deep canyon to the
south. It wasn’t high enough, so I continued on up to the High Peaks
Trail. Although it was a long climb, the grade was relatively easy.
Fortunately, too, the weather was sunny but cool. Ranger Michelle
told me that on summer days, the temperature can reach 110 degrees
It was a two-mile, mostly uphill trek to the Old Pinnacles Trail,
but the views were well worth it, even though I was dive-bombed by a
giant raven at the very top. The walk down was easy but long, and in
the shade of the mountain I began to wonder if I would make it
before dark. When I reached the bottom, I walked along the Bear
Gulch Trail by the dry creek bed of Chalone Creek back to the
visitor center. Even in the dryness of October, I saw evidence of
water just a little below the surface. I saw ferns, grasses, and
other water-loving plants. The trail passed over many little
bridges, through little forests, and by other little surprises
(albino trees, buckeye displays, unusual rocks) that kept me
interested all the way back to my car.
Although not for bikers, dog walkers, or equestrians, Pinnacles
National Monument is a great place for casual day hikers,
photographers, and technical climbers.
Keeping it fun.
Ranger Michelle gave me a few tips. Be sure to have a full tank of
gas, plenty of food, and containers of water when you leave
Hollister or Soledad. No gas or food services are available in or
near the Pinnacles.
If you want to explore the caves, bring a flashlight. (If you
forget, flashlights are for sale at the visitor center.)
The caves are wet and may be flooded. Wear waterproof boots, and
bring an extra pair of socks.
Bring lots of water. On a cool day, I drank two liters of water. You
may need more.
The entry cost is $5.00. Although you can enter the park from the
east or the west, the west entrance is not recommended for RVs or
You’ll get a map when you enter the park, but a visit to the
Pinnacles website www.nps.gov/pinn will help you get more from your
trip. Believe me, it’s a trip worth taking.