California once was- and still is in some parts- a hotbed of volcanic activity. Combine that with faulting and years of weathering and erosion, and you get the amazing Pinnacles National Park.
Pinnacles is relatively new to the national park family. It was designated America’s 59th national park in 2013, however it was first protected as a national monument in 1908 by then-president Theodore Roosevelt. Pinnacles National Park protects some unique geology as well as populations of the endangered California condor. The park is an easy distance from the Los Angeles area at just over 270 miles from the San Gabriel Valley to the either entrance. Having never before visited, I was excited to check out the park for the tail end of my spring break, which also happened to be during National Parks Week. Car loaded for a weekend of ‘camping,’ Sami and I took off at noon on Earth Day. She was out early that Friday on account of her school’s prom, so after a quick stop at Taco Bell for lunch, we hit the road to make the four-and-a-half hour drive to the park.
Pinnacles spans across both Monterey and San Benito Counties in Central California. It is thought by geologists that a long time ago, in an area that is not too far away, the Pinnacles-Neenach volcanoes formed the rocks that make up modern day Pinnacles. Over time, the action of the infamous San Andreas Fault split the volcanic field and carried the Pinnacles north from their origin in Southern California to its present location over 200 miles away. The faulting also is likely responsible for the talus caves that are a main attraction to Pinnacles. Unlike the caves in Carlsbad Caverns that were formed by chemical weathering when acidic water dissolved limestone in the area of the Guadalupe Mountains with typical cave features like stalactites and stalagmites, talus caves are formed when boulders of just the right size pile up on each other in narrow canyons, leaving openings that are large enough to be explored. And explore them we did.
Our weekend adventure began at the eastern entrance, located in Paicines, off California 25. The eastern side of the park is where Pinnacles Campground is located, as well as the Pinnacles Visitor Center, which we learned is no longer a visitor center but a bookstore. The east side is connected to the West Pinnacles by two hiking trails, however there is no road that connects the two sides of the park. Highway 146 follows the San Andreas for much of its length and while it grants entry to both the east and west sides of the park, it does not connect inside the park. As much as I would have loved to hike across, that will be a 14-mile roundtrip trek for a different time. Instead, we made sure to arrive at the Bear Gulch Parking Lot before 8 am to hopefully score a much-coveted parking spot. At that time in the day, even on a Saturday in the popular spring season, there were plenty of spots in the small lot, relatively speaking. The lot was beginning to fill, but it was easy for us to park close to the trailhead. Making sure we had our essentials, we were able to hit the trail by about 8:15.
We followed the signs to the Moses Spring Trail to Bear Gulch Caves. Our plan was to hike the caves and the reservoir and then loop back to the parking area. The morning was cool, and while we dressed in layers, I opted to wear a dress based on what the highs would be later in the day. I did feel cold at the start of the hike, but that changed with the excursion and as the morning warmed up. The hike to the caves was rather easy. It was a half mile along the Moses Spring Trail to the Bear Gulch Cave Trail. We arrived at the caves entrance, and after donning our headlamps and taking a few photos, we entered the caves.
Bear Gulch Caves was really neat. With our lights, the caves were relatively easy to hike. There were points where sunlight streamed into the caves, but for the most part they were dark, as would be expected. At a few points, the trail was very narrow between the boulders, but those were short lengths. Within the caves, there were some sets of stairs which made it an easier climb. There were many hikers on the trail, but not so many as to make the space crowded. I felt that folks were respectful of the space and of each other. We also saw many Scout groups on the hike. And no wonder. The bright blue skies and mild temperatures made perfect weather for a hike. Though, it could have been too that Saturday, April 23 was National Junior Ranger Day. Either way, it was a great day to be outdoors.
We exited the caves and headed to the reservoir. This was a short hike, under a quarter-mile or so that took us to the mirrored pool that is the Bear Gulch Reservoir. The reservoir was created in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps to control flooding. Today it is an important habitat for the California red-legged frog, a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. The still water reflected the blue morning skies perfectly and looked so pretty in contrast to the bouldery peaks surrounding it. With plenty of space, it was a great spot to stop for a snack and take more photos.
After talking to a few friendly hikers and a snack break, we took the Rim Trail up to loop back to the car. This was an easy-moderate 1.2-mile hike with about a 275 foot elevation gain. While the temperatures stayed mild, the sun was shining and the trail is exposed. I made sure to have Sami reapply sunscreen to prevent an unwelcome sunburn. Even with a couple stops, we arrived back at the van relatively quickly. There we finished our junior ranger books with the intent of commemorating Junior Ranger Day by getting our badges at the Bear Gulch Nature Center. Unfortunately for us, the nature center was closed on account of no electricity thanks to PG&E’s scheduled maintenance. We headed back to the visitor center to get our badges, but we found that they were out of power as well and as they were now a bookstore, they did not handle the junior ranger program. However, we could get our badges at the entrance kiosk, and that is what we did on our way out of the park- the east side anyway. Because the day was still young, we were headed to the West Pinnacles, an hour’s drive away.
Some things to consider:
We visited the park in the spring, which is a great time to visit. Between the mild temperatures and wildflowers in bloom, the park experience is wonderful in the spring months. On the other hand, this makes it a popular time for park visitation. The east side of the park especially gets crowded. Like the NPS site and other blogs mention, plan to arrive early. We arrived at Bear Gulch parking area well before 9 am and were able to score a parking spot without any issues. If you plan on arriving later, there is a shuttle that runs from the visitor center to Bear Gulch and Old Pinnacles.
Be prepared for changes in weather. The morning started off cold, but the temps did warm up in typical California style. Dress in layers and be sure to have sun protection.
We brought plenty of water for our hike and we kept extra water in the car just in case. We also brought plenty of trail snacks. We had both flashlights and headlamps for exploring the caves. Though I found the hard way that one should change the batteries before the hike. But more on that in the next post…
Speaking of snacks, be sure to keep an eye on your stuff and don’t feed the wildlife. While at the reservoir, I met my nemesis in a persistent California ground squirrel who was stalking me for my snack bag. I finally had to go Homo sapiens on his bushy tail and thumped to scare him off as he approached Sami and her parmesan crisps. We made sure that our area was clean, including crumbs before hiking out.
Pinnacles National Park offers up an adventure for everyone, regardless of age and interest. From easy hikes to the more strenuous High Peaks, climbing, bird-watching, and frolicking among the wildflowers (on trail of course), there really is something for everyone to enjoy. Pinnacles is a place that has imprinted itself in my heart, as national parks are wont to do. But the adventure wasn’t over yet. There were more happy trails to find as we headed to West Pinnacles.
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