Our story begins somewhere in the early Paleogne period, about 60 million years ago, as the Farllon plate began subducting under the North American plate. By the beginning of the Neogene, 23 million years ago, a volcano, 15 miles long, 5 miles wide and 8000 feet high was spewing ash and molten rock just East of present day Los Angeles. The story is familiar, and it is not surprise that the tectonic forces that brought this fiery mountain to life eventually died out and with them went oozing lava.
The story however does not end here. Quite the contrary, the journey only begins. As the Pacific plate slammed into the North American plate, a new fault line formed, the infamous San Andreas. Over the next 23 million years the awesome tectonic forces carried two-thirds of the now dormant volcano on a 195 mile journey Northwest to its present location East of Monterey Bay. The remaining third, the Neenach Formation, can still be seen at its original location. Though this journey will not be over until the Pacific and North American plates stop sliding past each other, or until erosion finally gets the best of the volcano, this is where ours begins.
It was 9 am and already the rays of sunlight filtering through the forest canopy betrayed the heat of the day. The shade of the forest did not last long. We followed the Bench Trail for less than a mile before changing course due East and beginning our ascent via the High Peaks Trail. Our first clear view of the day’s target came in the aptly named Peaks View area where we parked. Though we had visited Pinnacles National Monument multiple times in the past, I swear there was never as good a view. Maybe the now fallen tree once stood blocking the view. Maybe we always started before the veil of morning fog lifted. Maybe my memory just fails me.
This was, however, the first time we visited the Pinnacles National Park. The upgraded status of the nation’s 59th National Park came in January this year. Even though the park looked the same, including but not limited to all the signage which still read “Pinnacles National Monument”, something felt different. We did notice that there were more visitors than usual, and I’m sure many excited to visit the latest addition to the National Park system, but that wasn’t it. The place seemed grander.
With few exceptions, the trails in the Pinnacles are highly exposed and shade is hard to come by; carry plenty of water.
As we approached the high-point of the trail, we nestled behind a giant rock spire with a great view. The temperature difference was definitely noticeable and the breeze coming up over the ridge helped us cool down. As we chowed down on lunch, we were somewhat startled by a giant shadow sweeping over the ground. Looking up, we spotted a California condor circling overhead and using the rising hot air to climb higher. Though these birds are making a comeback in the area, this is the first time we saw one. (Hmmm…Pinnacles become a National Park and all of a sudden there are condors. This is more evidence to support our theory that the NPS releases wildlife near trails…) What a sight. (By the way, I’m not really serious about the theory).
Condors are not the park’s only treasure. Even in this harsh chaparral environment, the areas along the trails were speckled with countless varieties of wildflowers. We saw over a dozen varieties merely a fraction of the 100+ species found in the park. If the wide array of colors of wildflower petals isn’t enough, the assortment of lichens completes the palette.
Many visitors come to the Pinnacles to walk through the famous caves. You’ll see a number visitors in the Bear Gulch area carrying flashlights (good idea if you do want to visit the caves). Though the caves are very cool, both figuratively and literally, my favorite part of the park is the narrow section of the High Peaks Trail. Here handrails protect falls and stair cases turn to ladders chipped into the rock face.
We descended to Bear Gulch area, skipping the reservoir (it’s worth seeing and you will hike past here to get to Chalone Peak, also recommended) and opting for the shade of the trees down below.
We walked right past our parked car and headed towards the South Wilderness Trail, the only trail in the park we had yet to hike. Soon after the junction with the Bench Trail, the South Wilderness trail which begins as a fire road, turns into a narrow path. At this point, Sharon decided the heat, now approaching 96 degrees, was too much and turned around. Again, she was the wiser of the two of us. I, however, was intent on covering the remaining 2.5 miles to the end.
Though the park map claims no elevation gain, there isn’t exactly true. Though not nearly as much as on the High Peaks Trail, the heat makes even the little bit seem like more. The trail follows the Chalone Creek (still running at this time) and the scenery switches between creek-side vegetation, rocky river wash, and narrow dirt path along the valley sides. The end of the trail is rather anticlimactic with a brown plaque reading “South Wilderness Trail Ends Here” posted on a fence indicating the park boundary. A use path continues following the trail. I followed this for a tenth or maybe 2 tenths of a mile before sitting down in the shade to rest and pulled all sorts of plant matter and dirt out of my shoes.
According to my GPS, the trail was much shorter than the 2.9 miles indicated by the park map. In fact from the point where fire road turned into path, it was only about 2.1 miles.
Even though this trip to the Pinnacles was as hot and as fulfilling as always, it left one bit to be desired. A major objective in re-visiting the park was to obtain a collectible park map with “Pinnacles National Park” written across the cover. You know the one I’m talking about. Yes, the one with the black strip and name of the park written in white letters at top, a picture of some iconic sight in the park below, and filled with bits of information about the site. Well it seems the process of moving from National Monument to National Park status may take some time. On the bright side, this is all the more reason to go back in the future.
For more national park adventure, visit our National Park Service Guide.