Saturday, September 8, 2012

Hiking Pinnacles National Monument, California

A small but unique National Monument just outside of the Bay Area with a full range of hikes and a chance to see California Condors. It is also at least somewhat likely that Pinnacles National Monument could be upgraded to America's Next National Park.
A ruggedly beautiful destination on California's rural coast
While perusing some of my favorite outdoor adventure websites I came across an article detailing the serious proposition that Pinnacles National Monument could become a National Park! That would be exciting news for everyone! First of all, Pinnacles National Monument is one of the oldest National Monuments in the US. Its also one of the best preserved wildernesses on the California coastal region. At just 2-2.5 hours outside of the Bay Area, its a glorious opportunity to get away from the congestion of the city. Why not add this unique place to California's collection of National Parks? (I'm sure its a much more complicated issue than that). Still... Pinnacles was a classic destination for day hikers and I found the place to be serene and surprisingly accessible.

Where is Pinnacles National Monument?


Pinnacles National Monument is located about 2.5 hours and 120 miles Southeast of San Francisco. After leaving the greater Bay Area, the scenery becomes much more rustic and rural. Paved country roads take you through the rugged Central Coast Mountains which completely contrast what most people think of California. The East Entrance is from highway 25 and the West Entrance is from the Salinas Valley. The two are not connected except by hiking trails.




Hiking Trails

The loop trail above is probably one of the best ways to see the park in a relatively short distance. Its a 5.5 mile long but it is very steep and very rugged. There are some things that you can't miss though!

If you start in a clockwise direction from the parking lot, the Bear Gulch Caves are within a short distance of the trailhead. These are not really caves in the traditional sense but house-sized boulders have covered the narrow canyon creating a cave-like feature with a natural entrance and exit. You will need a flashlight through this area. Its quite a sight but if caves aren't your thing, there's a trail which bypasses this section
The Bear Gulch Caves were created in a narrow canyon
Bear Gulch Reservoir
Just past the caves is Bear Gulch Reservoir. Obviously its not a natural pond but it is pretty none the less. Its also very reflective and gives the hiker an opportunity to see the lush, shrubby flora which are so characteristic of the Central Coast. For a reservoir, its pretty cool... 

For the adventurous types, its possible to turn south and hike North Chalone Peak. This trail is a round-trip 6.6 miles from the reservoir and summits the highest point in Pinnacles National Monument. The view itself makes the trip worthwhile and its also a rarely traveled portion of the park. However the summit is full of radio towers which may be discouraging to some. I'd recommend it simply for the views of Salinas Valley and the actual Pinnacles which the park was named after!
View from North Chalone Peak
 Most will elect not to do the North Chalone Peak trail and will head up to the "High Peaks" trail (which is, ironically enough, not the real high part of the park). Semantics aside, the high peaks trail is much more rugged than the North Chalone trail. In fact, it was downright scary in some sections! As you skirt around the precipitous ledges and hang on to the metal railings, keep an eye out for California Condors which have been reintroduced to the park. This is one of the most likely places to see them in the wild. You don't even have to have binoculars- they have a wingspan of almost 10 feet!

The High Peaks trail is stunning and scary. Its no wonder that so many rock climbers love to come to this monument. 
You might get that classic knot in your stomach hiking the high peaks trail!
Wonder why its named Pinnacles??
Without a doubt, the High Peaks are a spectacular sight on the Central Coast and its one of my favorite trails in California. After getting through the dicier sections, the trail circles back around and comes to a fork. Heading back towareds the Bear Gulch Trailhead, the trail gives you some panoramas of the Pinnacles. This is another opportunity to see some of the California Condors riding invisible thermals. Up close, Condors are somewhat ugly looking birds but they can be graceful giants on the wing. 

Well... that's alot to see in less than 6 miles of hiking! No doubt the rugged and steep trail will leave your calves and thighs sore, but its worth it! This is one of many trails and variations that can be hiked in the Monument and I'd recommend multiple trips. There are also hundreds of Rock Climbing opportunities. Its a small monument but there are endless adventures. Wouldn't this make a great addition to California's collection of National Parks?

Now that I live out East, its a bit more difficult to get to Pinnacles, but it would be at the top of my list if I had a week to see California's Central Coast! If you live in the Bay Area or Sacramento, I hope you get the opportunity to make it to this special place!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

2 comments:

  1. Joe. Great job highlighting a neats park. I love the fact that pinnacles is on a fault line and that the other half of the park is really in San Diego. Chalone Peak is worth doing for the view.

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