Pinnacles NP

by Garrett McAuliffe

It’s not just the coastline and redwood forests that have a monopoly on our region’s natural majesty. Drive 90 minutes from the Monterey Bay coastline, 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. Read more.

A GREAT PLACE FOR rock climbing, stone hopping, gravel sliding, pebble popping, bouldering, spelunking, hiking, adventuring and science! Borrow an adventure pack from the Bear Gulch Nature Center, which contains a compass, binoculars, bug box, ID sheets for plants and animals, and other goodies.

CREATURE COMFORTS: National parks haven’t been devastated by the budget crunch as much as our poor state parks. Bathrooms are well-tended throughout the park and the nature and visitors center are staffed with helpful rangers and volunteers.

DON’T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT your boots, a flashlight for the caves, at least a half-gallon of water, and sunblock. (Summers are really hot here.) If you have them, a camera and binoculars are also worth the extra weight. And bring food—beyond the camp store, nothing much exists within a half hour’s drive of either side.

IF YOU’RE LUCKY YOU’LL spy one of more than 30 California condors that have been released here. Even from 50 feet away, you can feel and hear the whoosh of their mighty wings as they sail by.

PINNACLES CAMPGROUND is located just inside the east entrance of the park and offers tent, group and RV sites with electrical hookups. Fires are allowed in pits except on rare days when conditions are deemed too dry. Oak trees shade many of the sites. Beer, ice, food and firewood are available at the campground store. Tent camping costs $23 per night, and is $36 for RVs. For reservations, go to or call (877) 444-6777.

There are some cool evening ranger presentations on the California condor recovery program and guided geology hikes. And a small swimming pool is open in the summer. (Be warned, caves + swimming pool = lots of screaming pre-teens.) Pets are allowed on leash at the campground but not on any of the trails, so it’s best to leave your pup at home.


West Side
Balconies Loop
2.4 miles; 1.5 hours; easy to moderate
If you’d rather ramble than climb, a tour through the lowlands of Pinnacles carries its own wild charm. This one winds through a deep canyon and into the dark shambles of Balconies Cave. It’s a fairly easy, well-shaded hike. Bring a flashlight.

Juniper Canyon Loop
4.3 miles; 2 to 3 hours; strenuous, with an elevation gain of 1200 feet
Who needs a magic beanstalk? This steep climb takes you to Pinnacle’s own giants in the sky, circling the heart of the park’s volcanic formations.

To reach the west entrance, take U.S. 101 south through the Salinas Valley to Soledad. Then it’s about a half hour east on Highway 146.

For the east side entrance, find your way to U.S. 101. Turn east onto Route 156 just south of Watsonville. In Hollister, connect to Highway 25; it’s a straight 40-minute shot to Pinnacles.

California 146, Paicines, CA, 95043. 831.389.4485. Learn more at the official Pinnacle National Park website.