When our friend, Andrew, came to visit last weekend from Washington, we knew we wanted to take him someplace special. Pinnacles National Park was at the top of our list, and since it was only an hour and a half drive from the South Bay, it seemed like the best choice. Not only that, none of us had been to Pinnacles before, so we figured we'd get to know a new-to-us national park together.
And it ended up being a fantastic trip! We were blown away exploring mystical caves dripping with boulders, grasping tightly to pipe railings along tightrope ridgelines, admiring Pinnacles' signature spires, breathing in beautiful greenery, and spotting California condors. The icing on the cake was spending time with Andrew and discovering it all together.
Here are six highlights from our trip to Pinnacles National Park:
1. Talking with a ranger at Pinnacles Visitor Center. When we arrived at the park, we knew we wanted to do a five or six mile hike and enjoy some scenery, but we didn't have concrete plans. The ranger we spoke with suggested the Bear Gulch Cave / High Peaks / Condor Gulch loop, a 6.1 mile loop with 1800 feet elevation gain, and it turned out to be a great bang-for-the-buck hike. Crucially, her recommendation to do the hike clockwise meant that we experienced the caves first and it put us in a great mood—a hiker's high—for the rest of the afternoon. She also tipped us off to some tricky junctions and showed us pictures of California condors so we could identify them.
2. Bear Gulch Cave. The cave—the cave!! Bear Gulch Cave cannot be passed up. It's dark, damp, cool, and dripping with fun. We bobbed and weaved our way through narrow, slot-like canyon walls, then climbed chiseled staircases punctuated with pipe railings to a scenic viewpoint of the Bear Gulch Reservoir. (The reservoir also makes a great snack spot, with lots of boulders for resting and enjoying the view.) Bear Gulch Cave is just a 2.2 mile round-trip hike from the Bear Gulch parking area, making it a great family-friendly hike in its own right.
3. High Peaks. The dusty orange spires at Pinnacles National Park were fascinating to wander among. Their tall, rounded shapes gave them a cartoon-like quality, like an oversized balloon at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Geologists estimate the Pinnacles were created 22-23 million years ago when plates in the Earth's crust collided, creating the Pinnacles volcano near Los Angeles. The volcano was then split by the San Andreas Fault zone, with two-thirds on the Pacific Plate to the west and one-third on the North American Plate to the east. As the Pacific Plate ground its way northwest, it carried that portion of the Pinnacles' volcanic mass with it, making up the Pinnacles National Park we know today. The rest remains 195 miles to the southeast, on the opposite side of the San Andreas Fault. Over time, wind, rain, and ice eroded the volcanic mass, creating the striking appearance of Pinnacles National Park today.
4. California condors. Pinnacles National Park is the only national park that serves as a release site for endangered California condors and we had fun watching them circling over the High Peaks. Although they're easy to confuse with turkey vultures, there a few distinguishing characteristics. Essentially, condors are larger than turkey vultures, and they usually hold their wings flat and still in the wind, while turkey vultures' wings tend to be in a V-shape and look more "wobbly and unstable" as they're flying, according to the Pinnacles National Park website.
5. Pipe railings and chiseled staircases. The steep, narrow-ledged staircases with pipe railings were so fun to climb! It felt like a cross between Angel's Landing and Mount Pugh and added a dash of danger to our hike, which made us feel like we were on an adventure. Can't get any better than that!
6. Greenery! When we went in early March, Pinnacles had beautiful green moss, lichen, and a woodsy, tree-lined understory. It was so calm and peaceful walking through the green canyon and looking up at the pinnacles. Looking out to the grassy, rolling hills in the distance, it almost felt like I was back in Washington on the Tieton River Nature Trail near Naches, WA, or driving east in spring through Teanaway.
1. Get there early or wait until afternoon. According to Pinnacles' website, the park experiences heavy traffic and high visitation in March and April from 10:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m. We arrived after 1:00 p.m. on an iffy weather day the first weekend in March, and were able to find parking at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area.
2. Stop in at the Pinnacles Visitor Center (open daily 9:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.). We learned great tips and suggestions from the ranger, but finished our hike after the visitor center closed. It would have been nice to have had more time at the visitor center to get to know the park.
3. The cost to enter the park is $25 per carload. Hang on to the receipt, and it's good for seven consecutive days to return and visit the park. Entrance is free and unlimited for one year if you have an Annual America the Beautiful Pass, available for $80 online and at the Pinnacles Visitor Center.
4. Check the status of the caves before you go: Bear Gulch Cave closes seasonally to protect a colony of Townsend's big-eared bats. The Balconies Cave and Bear Gulch Cave can be closed too when there are rain storms and high water levels. The upper Bear Gulch cave was closed when we went, but we still had a fantastic time exploring the lower cave.
5. Bring a headlamp or flashlight for the caves. I only had one headlamp on me for the three of us in our group, which left Andrew and Onur literally and figuratively in the dark ! We all made it through safely, but it would have been easier (and safer) if we had brought a light source for everyone.
6. Cell service ranges from spotty to nonexistent on the drive to the park, so it can't hurt to bring a hard copy or take a screen shot of driving directions as a back-up.
7. If you're looking for wildflowers at Pinnacles National Park, you're in luck. Visit in peak wildflower season (March - May) to spot California poppies, bush lupine, and more.
8. Wait for a nice weather window to spot condors. According to the ranger, they don't like to fly in iffy weather, so we had been concerned we wouldn't see any as we were hiking. We got lucky, however; the weather cleared when we reached High Peaks, and we spotted a few there.