When it comes to National Parks, there’s some obvious front-runners that come to mind: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion, Rainier. While these iconic parks are absolutely worth a visit (we should know, we loved Zion and Yosemite), it might be time to consider a park that falls under-the-radar. After all, there are more than 50 other national parks on the list.
For Central California, that’s Pinnacles National Park.
The Pinnacles is a small, but stunning, national park tucked away in the Central Valley of California. If you are travelling through San Jose or Monterey, or doing a tour of Big Sur, you should plan to visit this park.
While a newer, lesser-known park, the Pinnacles is located just east of Salinas Valley, about a two hour drive from San Francisco. This park has it all. Beautiful vistas, well maintained caves, and ample wildlife make this park suitable for all ages and abilities. Children can roam through guided caves with parents without worry, and for the hikers, a great loop trail that encompasses the park.
The unique landscape offers what can only be described as “prehistoric beauty.” Foot trails up towering rock formations, bear caves and oak woodlands. The mountainous park is covered in desert shrubs and grasslands, from beige greasewood to bright, white California buckeye. The landscape was formed 23 million years ago by volcano eruptions. Wildlife include prairie and peregrine falcons, golden eagles, and – if you’re lucky – the California condor.
While living in Monterey, we ventured out to the Pinnacles on numerous occasions. If you ever visit, here’s what we recommend:
Enter the park from the east. When traveling to the Pinnacles, you can enter on the east or west side. Since the main park’s visitor center is on the east side and in general more amenities, we recommend entering through the east entrance. From Monterey, it is only about 1.5 hours of easy back-country driving.
Go early (and off-season) if you can. During the summer, temperatures can reach well into the 100’s and the park is primed for campers, RV’s and families. If you come early enough or during the shoulder season, you can drive right through the park and leave your car at the trail-head. Make sure you pack enough water and wear sunscreen. Much of the park is under direct sunlight, without many (or any) trees and shade. We found the park much more enjoyable in the fall and winter when the weather is cooler with less people.
Explore the balconies cave. This is one of the most unique parts of the Pinnacles, so if you can handle it – do it! The caves were formed when boulders tumbled into the gorge and created a cave ceiling. Bring a headlamp or flashlight (it’s required) and follow the trail into a dark chamber, where you’ll weave in and around boulders. It’s only a .4 mi hike through the cave, with a round-trip of two miles. This is our favorite way to warm up for a longer hike, but if you’re not up for a major day the caves make a fun experience!
Hike High Peaks to Bear Gulch Loop. In our opinion, the best trail for a day hike is the High Peaks Loop. The 6 mile trail takes you into the High Peaks, along the highest ridge through meadows of grasses, wildflowers and boulders. You follow the rideline with spectacular views of rock spires. Outside of Badlands National Park, this is the most unique landscape we have seen and this hike provides the most “bang-for-your-buck.” At the top of the ridgeline, look to the east and keep a lookout for all the birds mentioned above. For us, the trail had a nice combination of switchbacks, “jungle gym stairs,” and flat portions to make it feel doable. For more hiking notes, check out All Trails.
Go wine tasting at Leal Vineyards. OK, this might be a stretch. But will hike, will drink? We may be a little biased here because this was our wedding venue. But Leal Vineyards‘ wine is incredible, and its property is nearby in the farm town of Hollister, CA. The winery specializes in bold, Bordeaux style blends and produces award-winning Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Their tasting room is open seven days a week, 10am-4pm. Do it.
For more information about the Pinnacles National Park, visit www.nps.gov/pinn.