Hiking California: Exploring and Almost Not Camping at Pinnacles National Park

Out on the trail at Pinnacles!
There's nothing better than seizing an opportunity to see a beautiful, unique place you've never seen before.

As a self-proclaimed obsessive planner, I've usually got every detail of every trip mapped out, no matter how short the trip might be. On a visit to Pinnacles National Park this past weekend, I thought I had everything covered. But I but came to find that wasn't quite the case, and it made for a wonderful little adventure!

The Who, What and Where of Pinnacles

Pinnacles National Park is a 26,000 acre tract of wilderness just 50 miles from the California coast and east of Salinas Valley. It's a stunning landscape of unique geologic formations, chaparral habitat, beautiful wildflowers, and incredible wildlife. It's a popular birdwatching destination, particularly when the California Condors, nearly extinct in the late 1980's and still numbering under 400 alive, are on the move.

Talus caves, some narrow and dark, dot the Balconies and Bear Gulch areas of the park. In addition to the 30 miles of hiking trails, technical rock climbing on the volcanic breccia and tuff formations is a popular activity. But be warned; the rock at Pinnacles is weaker than granite and basalt found in nearby popular climb areas. It's weak enough that the Park Service notes, "Pinnacles rock can be so unstable that even new bolts may fail." That was reason enough for me to spend the visit on the trails, which was still a rewarding experience.

Beautiful rock formations and lichens.

Exploring Pinnacles via the Condor Gulch-High Peaks Loop

Good friend Katie and I met at the Pinnacles Visitor Center near the east entrance of the park mid morning. Rather than doing a significant amount of investigating into the trail system before we arrived, we opted to consult the experts at the Visitors Center.

The Park Ranger on staff let us know that the best way to see the most exciting parts of Pinnacles in an afternoon was to take the shuttle up to Bear Gulch, then climb to the High Peaks area via the Condor Gulch-High Peaks loop. It's just under seven miles with nearly 1,500' of elevation gain, including a past through a steep and narrow portion of the High Peaks trail and a stop at the Bear Gulch Reservoir.

The first two miles wound up and around sandy, rocky trails very exposed to the sun. (If you're planning a visit, sunscreen is a must along with plenty of liquids!) While walking along the High Peaks Trail ridge, we caught our first glimpse of rock climbers on a single pitch sport route. I have to admit, part of me was really regretting leaving the climbing gear at home!

We moved on through the steep and narrow section, which included steps chopped into the rock and a thick pipe railing. Our first look at the incredible Condors came near Scout Peak thanks to two new friends we'd later call upon for a favor. I felt so lucky to see such a rare, magnificent bird floating hundreds of feet above me. Some of the less rare, but still amazing birds we saw included the California Quail, Western Scrub Jay, and Stellar's Jay, which we nicknamed the Stellar Mohawk Bird for its plumage.

A climber on the Monolith...sadly, not me!
Winding down the High Peaks Trail, we passed a number of parties going the opposite direction. Had we known shade was more plentiful there than on the Condor Gulch Trail, we might've done the loop in the opposite direction!

A short 0.7 mile jaunt off the loop had us at the Bear Gulch Reservoir, a little addition well worth the extra half hour hike. While taking in the Reservoir views, we caught a glimpse of rock climbers on The Sisters, a slab formation with several classic, easy climbs. After passing through the Bear Gulch Cave area, I snapped a shot of a climber on what I'm pretty sure is the Direct Route (5.7) on the Monolith.

No Campsite? No Problem.

Pinnacles is a popular early and late season destination, mostly because of how hot it gets there in the summer. Katie and I figured by arriving mid-morning, we'd be there in plenty of time to snag one of the 99 tent sites in the campground. We were wrong. Rather than admitting defeat and making alternate plans, Katie suggested we turn it into a little side adventure and an opportunity to make new friends.

After spending time with two friendly birdwatchers on the hike, they offered to let us use a corner of their campsite for Katie's little two-man tent. We ended up learning more than I expected about different bird songs, including the fact that the California Quail's song "Chicago! Chicago!" and how to cook a stuffed Cornish game hen in a campground campfire. It made my Easy Mac look like, well, Easy Mac!

Atop a giant boulder in the High Peaks looking for condors!
All in all, it was a fantastic shot jaunt to a part of the country I've never seen before. Even the drive from California's Central Coast inland to Pinnacles was breathtaking. The Salinas Valley is dubbed "America's Salad Bowl" with good reason; field after field of different shades of green dominated the landscape. I'm hoping for another trip back to the area when the farm stands are open, and next time, I'm taking my climbing shoes to the most stable Pinnacles rock I can find!

Have you been to Pinnacles? Had a similar experience in a full campground? Tell us in the comments!


JB said…
I was just there three weeks ago, though I didn't have any problems camping.  Our compnay is teaching intro to rock climbing classes there this fall. Pinnicles is indeed a spectacular place and so close to the Bay I've always been surprised there aren't more people.
The climbing there is conglomerate so it can be great rock quality or choss.  If you find yourslef on choss just keep moving on because there is always something better.  For a bonus to your trip stop in the town of Paicines on drive into the east entrance.  They have the best taqueria in the state of California.  $5 for a great meal.
P.S.  I can't rememeber the name of the climb in the picture but it is a really fun 5.7.
Katie L. said…
sweet!! I had no idea you were down there such a short time ago. most of the climbing we saw people on looked solid and really fun. that 5.7, I think it's the Direct Route (http://www.pliableproducts.com/morecalifornia.htm). I almost stopped at the taqueria on my way out, but it was 9am, and that's a little early for tequila :)
JB said…
Ummm....9am is noon on the East Coast.  And in our line of work not only is it socially acceptable sometimes it's expected!