Pinnacles National Park (cont'd)

It’s not just the coastline and redwood forests that have a monopoly on our region’s natural majesty. Drive 90 minutes southeast from Santa Cruz, into the rugged inland mountains, and you’ll reach our closest national park. Pinnacles looms with a sublime, imposing beauty of its own—a vast, motley playground of mountain and stone, strewn with towering spires, meandering caves and deep canyons.

It began with an eruption. Millions of years ago, the earth’s crust opened along the San Andreas fault just north of LA, heaving lava and ash that slowly layered to form a volcano. Over time, the volcano ripped apart, half of it hitching a ride nearly 200 miles north on the Pacific Plate to where it lies now, a monument of igneous rubble just east of the Salinas Valley. (Send an echo of gratitude to the gods of continental drift while you’re here.)

A paradise for hikers and climbers, Pinnacles National Park covers 27,000 acres (nearly the size of San Francisco), with more than 30 miles of foot trails, some blasted into the rock to form staircases and tunnels that traverse the park’s high peaks.

The last stretch of highway alone is worth the trek out here. There is an east and a west entrance, but no connecting road through the park. Either way you go, it’s a stunning stretch of countryside, past rolling hills of grapevines and elegant valley oaks. The park’s main visitor center, campground and the majority of its trails lie on the east side. On weekends, the roadside jumps like a jamboree with packs of kids and picnickers. But if you enter on the west side, the hikes are more rugged and the crowds a bit thinner.

Seasons profoundly affect the landscape throughout the year. In summer the sun sears the land, sapping the creeks and turning everything brown and gold. Temperatures flirt with triple digits beginning in June. With little shade on many of the trails, it gets too hot to hike except early in the day. March, April and early May are the best times to visit. Fall and winter rains can make the trails slippery, but the park is cooler and less crowded then. By spring, the streams are running again and the chaparral is flush with bush lupine, larkspur and a host of bright wildflowers. Read up on Pinnacles wildflowers.

Any time you visit, keep an eye out for climbers clinging to the rock face and California condors wheeling high above. The largest flying bird in North America, and one of the rarest on the planet, condors completely disappeared from the wild in the late 1980s. But captive breeding has slowly restored their population, and more than 30 now live closely monitored in the park. They can be easily mistaken for the more common turkey vultures, but condors have a much steadier glide and rarely flap their wings while airborne. Vultures tend to wobble in the air and keep their wings in more of a V shape, rather than flat. You can check out the NPS Pinnacle webpage for other tips on distinguishing between the two birds before you go.

Even if you don’t see a condor, the sights are spectacular all around. The sheer immensity of the boulders and cliff walls leave you feeling dwarfed and elated. Even the pinecones are giant. Black-tailed deer, wild turkeys and smaller critters are common around the campground. Desert cottontail and jack rabbits tear through the greasewood. Lizards dart off trail and California quail rustle in the brush.

Two talus caves, one on each side of the park, are another big draw. A flashlight is a must, as footing is uneven and you’re likely to bump your head on projecting rocks in the dark. Portions of the larger Bear Gulch Cave close in summer to let the Townsend’s big-eared bats mate and raise their young in peace.

If you’re camping, night hikes are a thrilling way to beat the heat, especially when the moon is bright. Parking can be tight on weekends, especially at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area on the east side. Get there early or ride the free shuttle from the parking lot at the Pinnacles Visitor Center. Park entrance is a great deal at $5 per car, good for 7 days.

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