Our national park adventure continued after a beautiful morning spent at Bear Gulch on the east side of Pinnacles National Park. As California 146 does not connect the two sides of the park, we drove out of the park and headed about an hour southwest toward Soledad. After a quick stop for fuel and a McDonald’s lunch, we headed back into the national park, this time to West Pinnacles.
West Pinnacles felt like it had a very different vibe compared to the east side. For starters, California 146 dropped to one lane- a fairly wide one lane to be fair, but a one lane road nonetheless- which made our drive a bit more cautious. This was from an abundance of caution on my part; there were not all that many cars leaving the park, nor were there any behind me as we drove. The west side was definitely quieter than the east. It is a day use area only; while there is a nice visitor center and bookstore, there is no camping in the West Pinnacles.
Sami and I first stopped at the West Pinnacles Visitor Contact Station. There we dropped a few more dollars to help the Western National Parks Association and get some cool national parks stickers. On the advice of the ranger at the payment kiosk, we took a short walk to enjoy the views of the peaks. We then headed back to the car with iPhones and purchases in hand in hopes of getting a parking spot at the Chaparral parking area to take another hike to more caves. Sami had many more boulders to hop.
I drove to the end of the western terminus of the road to the Chaparral parking area. The parking area was not very big, but as it was later in the afternoon, there were hikers returning to their vehicles so a spot opened up very quickly. We parked close to the trail to the picnic area, and after checking the trail with the ranger on duty, we headed for the trail to Balconies Cave.
This was a beautiful hike. We saw a ton of wildflowers at the West Pinnacles. While there were only a few bright purple lupines still in bloom along the trail, there were a number of lovely, golden-orange California poppies starting from the trailhead. Carpets of little yellow flowers covered the meadows, and with the bright blue skies above with the green of the trees and tans of the pinnacles, it was a perfectly picturesque hike. We did, of course, stop to take a few photos before heading to the caves.
After about three-quarters of a mile, we came to a sign noting the trails. We opted to enter the caves from the west entrance as it was only 0.1 mile from where we were standing. That turned out to be a mistake and made for a bit of almost misadventure on my part if not for the kindness of fellow hikers.
We made it through the first portion of the caves without incident. While there were some tight squeezes and points when we had to duck under boulders reminiscent of Indiana Jones, it was manageable. Soon enough we reached the ‘staircase’ which were more like boulders that had a rail.
But then we reached the next set of dark caves as we were heading to the eastern cave entrance. This section proved to be much more challenging. The rocks were steeply placed, and I realized my mistake as I started the trek down. It would have been much easier to climb up this set of boulders than to go down. In addition, I needed both hands to control my descent. I clipped my flashlight to the pocket of my dress, and at that point, my headlamp decided to take the inopportune moment to die. And of course, while I had extra batteries just in case, I left the screwdriver I needed to open up the battery case. In the car.
Fortunately, though, there was a group of hikers at the top of the cave who just completed that portion of their hike, having gone in the opposite direction we went. They shone their headlamps to help light our way down, and we finished the more difficult part of the descent with their light. When we got to the ‘bottom’ there were a few more boulders, but we were able to complete the hike through the cave once again using our flashlights. Very thankful for the kindness of the hiking community and to be back on more solid ground, we headed out of the caves with only a couple small bruises and a story to tell. Note to self: always expect the unexpected and make sure to have a small screwdriver or at least a pocketknife. Which I also left in the car.
At the end of the east caves, we checked in with the ranger. She was super kind and really knowledgeable, and after laughing with us over our mishaps, she sent us onto the Balconies Cave Trail to complete the loop back onto the Balconies Cliffs Trail where we came in, making a sort of lollipop.
After my difficulty with the eastern portion of the Balconies Caves, the trail was no problem. The trail was mostly flat, with just a bit of an incline. According to my Strava, the total mileage for the hike was 2.60 miles with a 380 feet of elevation gain. The views though were impressive. The pinnacles were so pretty in the midafternoon sun, and we even saw a very large bird that we think was likely the rare California condor. But closer to us was a group of turkey vultures that look a lot like the condor, but are significantly smaller. Both looked to be looking for something that was probably in the canyon below.
Too soon it was time to head back to the parking area. It was approaching late afternoon, and we would have to hit the road again. We took a moment to have a snack in back of the minivan and take a short rest from the day’s hikes. After about ten minutes or so, we packed back up and headed out. Google Maps at that point had us heading north on U.S. 101 through Salinas and ‘America’s Salad Bowl’ before heading back east to Paicines. As we drove, Sami and I talked about the writings of John Steinbeck and those things she’s learned in school about the Salinas Valley. It was wonderful to be able to share the time with her. And as we drove, I appreciated life and the adventure meant to be shared.
Some things to consider:
Though the West Pinnacles are typically less busy than the east side, the parking areas can fill very quickly especially during weekends and holidays. That said, when the Chaparral lot fills, there is another lot at the Jawbone Trail. It’s about a quarter-mile from Jawbone to the Chaparral parking area, so this is an option if the closer parking area is full. Also, arriving early or in the later afternoon can help in the search for parking.
There is no camping on the west side. All areas in West Pinnacles are day use only.
I learned the hard way to be prepared and then some. I had the very misfortune of having my headlamp go out, which would not have been a problem since we had multiple other lights, except that we were in a situation where having to hold the light would make getting down the trail much more difficult. It would have helped to be able to change the battery, or better yet, I should have changed the battery before heading out on the trail. Adequate light is essential for safely getting through the caves.
The Balconies Cliffs Trail is exposed. The temperatures were mild on our springtime hike, however there was a lot of sun. Sun protection is a must on this hike, and we made sure to reapply our sunscreen.
There are no pets allowed on the trails in Pinnacles. Dogs are allowed on roads and in the campground on the east side, but there are not as many opportunities for pups in Pinnacles as in other parks such as Yosemite or Joshua Tree.
Cell service is spotty to nonexistent in Pinnacles National Park. I was able to catch a weak Verizon signal while in the Chaparral parking area, but other than that, I was disconnected from phone and email. As I was enjoying my spring break, this was ideal. However, if there was an emergency, we would be without service. Fortunately there were several rangers between the lot and the trail, and while the park was not particularly crowded, there were plenty of people outside, including a few Scout groups. We also let folks know where we would be and that we would be out of range for a time.
Our trip to Pinnacles was definitely one to remember. This trek was a wonderful way to celebrate National Parks Week 2022 and get outdoors to enjoy a break from the craziness of our schedules. I cherish the time I get to have with my kiddos; they are growing up too quickly. Sami is already in high school and it won’t be too long before all of my birdies fly from the nest. I hope to be able to return to Pinnacles to explore more and maybe transverse the two sides of the park. And before we left the following morning, Sami did ‘adopt’ a condor from the Pinnacles Visitor Center.