Established: January 10, 2013
Size: About 26,000 acres
Pinnacles—the newest U.S. national park—is a geologic wonderland of jutting volcanic spires, cliffs, and peaks located in the dense chaparral country of the Gabilan Range in west-central California. A mecca for rock climbing and day hiking, Pinnacles offers 32 miles of trails that climb among jumbled rock formations, through winding talus caves, and along shaded creeks. An anomaly of the park is that no road transects it; there is an east entrance and a west entrance, but to drive from one side to the other requires a two-hour road trip.
Spellbinding Geology: According to geologists, the unique rock formations of Pinnacles National Park originated some 23 million years ago in a volcanic region 195 miles to the southeast, near present-day Lancaster, California. Over millions of years, powerful tectonic forces moved part of that volcanic field northwest along the San Andreas Fault to its current location. Wind and water erosion then sculpted the range. The story, though, is far from over: Geologists estimate that Pinnacles is moving northwest at an average of two inches a year.
Don’t Miss: Two trails—the Balconies Cave Trail on the west and the Bear Gulch Cave Trail on the east—plunge into pitch-black talus caves, narrow canyons that have filled with rockfall ranging from huge boulders to rocky debris; over time, flowing water has eroded passages that hikers can scramble through. A warning, though: Bring large flashlights, and headlamps are helpful.
Moderate Hikes: On the west, the Balconies Cliffs-Balconies Cave Loop (2.4 miles) takes hikers past massive Machete Ridge, along the face of the Balconies formation, and through the Balconies Cave. On the east, the Moses Spring-Rim Trail Loop (2.2 miles) offers views of rock formations and a trip through Bear Gulch talus cave. This is a good excursion for families with children.
Strenuous Hikes: On the west, the Juniper Canyon Loop (4.3 miles) winds along burbling, flower-strewn Juniper Creek, then switchbacks steeply into the heart of the High Peaks, the rocky centerpiece of Pinnacles. On the east, the High Peaks-Bear Gulch Loop (6.7 miles) climbs steadily into the High Peaks, skirts along ridgelines, and then drops down into grassy meadows shaded by sycamores.
Stunning View: Along the crest of the High Peaks Trail, look north for a breathtaking view of the Balconies range with a backdrop of the Gabilan Range.
Rock Climbing: The many huge boulders, rock faces, and cliffs in Pinnacles offer superb rock climbing, but park officials warn that this activity should be undertaken only by those experienced in the sport; the rocks are primarily volcanic rhyolite and tuff, which are often soft and crumbly.
Something Unique: The California condor—a species of vultures with a nine-and-a-half-foot wingspan—was reintroduced to Pinnacles in 2003. Park biologists monitor 26 of the 60 reintroduced condors in central California, tracking daily activities, including nesting, by radio transmitters. Visitors can often see these impressive birds drifting high above the volcanic peaks.
Stay; Eat: There are no lodging facilities, restaurants, or gas stations in the park, although limited supplies, including water, can be purchased at the Pinnacles Visitor Center at the east entrance near the campground. Many people visiting both sides of the park stay in Salinas, which has a variety of motels and restaurants.
Park Website: www.nps.gov/pinn
Seasonal Notes: February through early June is an ideal time to visit Pinnacles; temperatures are mild and the showy wildflowers are blooming. Especially in the summer, when temperatures soar above 100 degrees, park officials suggest that visitors bring ample water—a liter an hour if you are hiking.