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I wasn’t sure the National Park Service was going to get this one right. While the rolling agricultural landscape of southeastern Monterey County was quite pretty, it didn’t have enough “wow factor” to place it on the high pedestal where our National Parks reside. Even as we approached the official Pinnacles National Park sign, I was left wondering what was so special about this place. That was until we rounded a corner and the landscape dramatically changed. Volcanic spires towered high above us in stark contrast to the rounded edges we had become accustomed to seeing. Birds soared in the air currents high above the peaks. Could they be the critically endangered California condors that call this park home? The Pinnacles were begging us to explore.
Pinnacles is our nation’s newest national park. It is most popular with rock climbers, hikers, and bird watchers looking to catch a glimpse of the prairie falcon or California condor. Upgraded from monument to park status by Barack Obama in 2013, it our country’s 59th national park that still has the feel of a monument since services are still very limited and concessions are non-existent. The good news is that the remote location and limited services also mean that this park is far less crowded than some of the other popular California national parks even though it is significantly closer to Bay Area. Though my family visited during the busy Spring Break period, we encountered few people on the trails which really enhanced our outdoor experience.
Bear Gulch Cave Loop inside Pinnacles National Park
Located on the east side of the park, the Bear Gulch area is one of the highlights of the park and an ideal home base for families taking day trips to Pinnacles National Park with kids. A larger parking lot sits at the bottom of Bear Gulch while a smaller lot is a bit further up the road near the trailhead which leads to the caves; a .3-mile trail connects the two spots. A shaded picnic area close to the parking lot and restrooms makes an ideal lunch spot. The Moses Spring Trail to Bear Gulch Cave Trail is easy but does head uphill at a moderate grade. There is quite a bit of shade, boulders to climb, and plenty of great scenery. The trail heads into large talus caves which are formed by the boulders and incredibly fun to wander, climb, and scramble through. Definitely bring flashlights or headlamps because it can get very dark in some spots. The trail then heads up to Bear Gulch reservoir before heading back down via the Rim Trail, creating a loop. The entire loop is 2.2 miles and gains 500 feet in elevation. It really is a fantastic little hike.
Note: portions of the cave are closed during bat breeding season so that the bats are not disturbed. Check the park website for up to date information before going.
Balconies Cave inside Pinnacles National Park
If you are on the west side of the park, the Balconies Cave loop is a good option for families looking to explore some talus caves. There is 2.4-mile loop trail which takes hikers into these caves. Balconies Cave is darker and longer than Bear Gulch Cave. As with the Bear Gulch Cave, flashlights or headlamps are necessary and partial cave closures take place during bat breeding season.
Reaching the High Peaks at Pinnacles National Park
Beyond the caves, the other obvious standout at this national park are the otherworldly high peaks which were created by a volcanic activity in Southern California (near Lancaster) many millennia ago. These tremendous rocky peaks traveled up to Central California via the seismic shifting of the San Andreas Fault, creating a terrific hiking and bird-watching environment for park visitors today. As one would imagine, the hike to the High Peaks is uphill. My family took the High Peaks trail from the Bear Gulch/Moses Spring area all the way up to the high point at Scout Peak which is sits 2605 feet above sea level, resulting in a 1425 foot elevation gain in about 2 miles (making this a 4-mile out and back hike). The trail is considered strenuous but was very doable for my active eight-year-olds. We saw another family with young children enjoying the views from the top as well. This section of the park is an ideal place to take in sprawling views and catch a glimpse of the massive wingspan of the California Condor as it glides through the sky on an air current. Instead of heading back down via the same route, it is also possible to turn this hike into a loop totaling close to six miles. The loop will take you through the High Peaks famed steep and narrow section; this section does have steep drop-offs and some railings to help with the narrow sections and is best tackled by older kids and adults with plenty of hiking experience. Scout Peak can also be accessed from the west side via the Juniper Canyon Trail, which is of similar length and steepness as the trek from Bear Gulch.
Pinnacles National Park: Know Before You Go
- There are two entrances to the park, East and West, and the roads do not interconnect.
- The West Entrance is near the city of Soledad and is the quickest to access from the Monterey area. Hwy 146, which accesses the park from this side is narrow and windy. It is not recommended for RVs or large vehicles. The only services on this side of the park are a visitor contact station, restrooms, and water. The gate opens daily at 7:30am.
- The East Entrance is accessed either via King City from the south or Hollister from the north. This is the most developed area as it contains the campground, which is the only lodging with the park. The campground does have a pool, showers, and several shaded spots. A visitor center and small camp store are also located at this entrance.
- The campground was full by the time we went to book our last-minute trip so my family stayed in a motel in King City the night before our visit and spent all day inside the park. King City is about an hour outside the park. There are no towns or services between King City and the park so be sure to fill up your tank before heading in.
- There are no concessions within the park which means you will need to bring in all your own food and water.
- The best times to visit this park are the spring and fall. Both bring pleasant temperatures but spring brings the added bonus of wildflowers. Winter is a decent time to visit as long as the weather cooperates. Summer can be extremely hot, with temperatures climbing above 100 degrees.
- There is no cell phone reception in the park unless you are up top at the High Peaks area.
- There is a Junior Ranger program at the park. Booklets can be picked up at the visitor center at the East Entrance.
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