PINNACLES NATIONAL PARK — A puzzle to California’s vast and awe-inspiring geology smorgasbord is just a couple of hours away.
And to enjoy the powerful forces that helped shape the Golden State you don’t have to battle the traffic jam and herds of people in Yosemite Valley.
Pinnacles National Park – arguably one of the least visited wonders in California – is just an easy day trip from the 209.
The 26,000 acres on the spine of the San Andreas Fault is located south of Hollister. It is home to a wide array of critters. It is here riding the thermals of the early morning and evening you have the best chance of spotting the majestic and endangered California condors soaring above the high peaks above 2,500 feet. With wingspans of nearly 10 feet and weighing up to 20 pounds, the birds that can reach speeds of 55 mph and take thermal updrafts to heights as high as 15,000 feet are slowly coming back from the edge of extinction.
This is where the endangered California red-legged frog – the largest native frog in the western United States – is also making a comeback. The 26,000 acres are alive with countless other species as well ranging from rattlesnakes and bats to 400 different species of bees. You will not find another place in North America with such a wide variety of bees.
My last visit was over the Labor Day Weekend when one expects maddening crowds. There were people, but not as many as you might expect as the campgrounds weren’t even a fifth filled.
There are more than 30 miles of trails. To avoid what crowds there were, we skipped the easy hike of less than 1.4-mile round trip to the Bear Gulch Cave. (Currently due to a rockslide the cave is closed.) The cave plus another on the western side of the park are popular in that you can walk all the way through it providing there aren’t partial closures due to the bat mating season.
The rare talus caves are amazing in themselves having been created when massive boulders were shifted by earthquakes and other forces to wedge among the rock walls of deep narrow gorges.
We chose the Condor Gulch-High Peaks Loop. It consists of 5.3 miles with an elevation gain of 1,300 feet. It is described as being strenuous taking between three to five hours to cover. Our party – consisting of myself and two healthy 30-year-olds who aren’t acclimated to intense daily exercise – covered the distance in four hours with a liberal sprinkling of stops to rest, take pictures, or explore points just off the trail.
Make sure you take plenty of water
Do take ample water with you. There is none on the trail and you are exposed to the rays of the sun most of the time. This is rattlesnake country with poison oak tossed in. If you’re not careful there are places along the trail where you can brush up against poison oak.
We opted to start on the Condor Gulch Trail first. It provides the best sight-lines of the High Peaks of the crags, rock spires, and ramparts that is why the area was preserved in 1908 by executive order of President Theodore Roosevelt.
Aside from the view of the High Peaks plus plenty of chaparral oak, dense vegetation and an occasional vulture or hawk soaring above, the first two miles weren’t overwhelming on the senses.
But that changed as we neared the High Peaks and were able to seek unique rock formations up close. There were also sweeping views that you could not see a single building between where we were at to the farthest ridge some 20 miles away. Actually, you knew you were approaching heaven on Highway 25 just before the turnoff to the national monument when you spy a sign that proclaims “No services for the next 65 miles.”
It’s a near perfect place to soak in the solitude and vastness of nature for a quick recharge of the senses.
After two miles, each step became a visual joy of taking in wonders far and near you won’t find in one spot anywhere else. Part of that has to do with the fact the geologic formation before you are prehistoric but the fact they are the remnants of multiple volcano explosions that happened some 23 million years ago 195 miles to the southeast. They were pushed northward by the grinding force of the San Andreas Fault in a trip that started before the advent of mankind.
Where California condors hang out
Once among the High Peaks, it is easy to see why California condors nest there.
The California condors are an endangered species that are the largest flying bird in North America. A member of the vulture family, its wingspan can reach nearly 10 feet from tip to tip. They have been known to glide on air currents to soar as high as 15,000 feet.
At one point ahead of us in a steep area that looked like it went into a dead end in a towering crag, we spotted an elderly gentlemen hunched down trying to avoid striking his head. We mused that he must have gone off the trail exploring. All three of us dismissed it as being part of the trail.
We were wrong.
There is a segment through the High Peaks where steep steps big enough for the front of your feet had been chiseled into the rock. To make sure you don’t fall over backwards or slip over the edge, a steel guard rail has been drilled into the rock.
How steep is it? You will find yourself gripping on to the rail with one hand and using your free hand to reach down to balance yourself against the steps a few feet above you.
At one point my backpack wedged for a second against an overhanging rock forcing me into a close crawl for about six feet.
Making that short stretch even more amazing were the spectacular views we were able to see once we were on the southern flank of the High Peaks.
There are two entrances to the monument — the west and the east. There is no connecting road. The east has the campgrounds and a small general store. Besides being closer to the 209, it also accesses more trailheads.
If you try to Google direction be warned. You will be directed to the western entrance that adds a good 45 minutes to your travel time.
The quickest way is to take Interstate 5 and then travel over the Pacheco Pass. Once you get past the Casa de Fruta stay in the left lanes and take the flyover toward Hollister. When you come to the first traffic signal you have reached Fairview Road where you will turn left. You will travel a ways (to the second traffic light) where you T-intersect into Highway 25. A left turn eventually takes you to the entrance road to Pinnacles National Park.