Rock of Ages: Hiking Pinnacles National Park

I stared at the scene before me. Giant rock formations rose from the earth, forming all sorts of strange shapes in wondrous assortments of colors spanning from red to tan to brown. Magnificent trees and shrubbery, moving slightly in the soft breeze, surrounded these rock formations. The breeze felt nice and was much needed in this 100-degree weather. The sun mercilessly bore down on us, heating up every uncovered surface of our skin and causing us to sweat buckets. Yet everything fit together so well. It was beautifully harmonious, in a ridiculously-hot sort of way.

A beautiful day hiking at Pinnacles National Park

A beautiful day hiking at Pinnacles National Park

It was a sunny Saturday, and Luke, Jay, and I were in the middle of what would become our 9-mile hike at Pinnacles National Park, exploring everything the park had to offer, from challenging trails to talus caves to condor-spotting. Luke had proposed the hike a week earlier, and the more I read about the place, the more I was convinced that I absolutely could not pass this opportunity up.

Pinnacles National Park is one of the newest national parks in the United States, created by the Obama administration on January 10, 2013. Despite the recency of the law this area has a rich history, first as the original lands of the Ohlone people and eventually becoming a national monument protected by the US government in the early twentieth century. The rock formations were remnants of an extinct volcano that moved 150 miles along with the San Andreas Fault. Today, Pinnacles is a popular destination for hikers and rock climbers alike, with huge camping accommodations, cool caves to explore, a ton of hiking trails, and opportunities to spot endangered California condors and 13 species of bats. Essentially, it’s a pretty awesome place.

After a scenic drive on the 101 that ended with several miles of fun twisting roads, we arrived on the east side of the park, stopping first at the visitor center to grab a trail map and plan out our day. Soon we found ourselves parked in the Old Pinnacles Trailhead lot – we’d decided to do one of the cave hikes, and this marked the beginning of our adventure.

Old Pinnacles Trail to Balconies Cave (~5.3 miles)

The giant rock outside Balconies Cave

The giant rock outside Balconies Cave

Our hike started off on a high note. It was late morning when we crossed the wooden bridge at the start of the trail. Immediately we were hit by startling scenery – trees in many shades of green converged with the dusty trail. We made good progress and the route was interspersed with shade to provide some relief from the sun, which was now directly overhead and heating everything up. We found some relief as we neared Balconies Cave, the main attraction of this trail. As we neared the cave I grabbed my flashlight and took off my sunglasses. We were entering another world.

The immediate sensation upon entering the cave was pitch darkness. I turned my flashlight on. As we navigated through the cave, we had to duck at certain points and watch our steps on the rocks. We saw water dripping from some of the rocks and eventually had to climb a bit to exit the cave and continue along the trail. There weren’t any bats in this cave, but we did pause near the exit to snap some photos of a giant circular rock that was wedged between the passageway, hanging perilously over our heads. Jay got a kick out of that one as we took pictures with him holding up the rock and me standing on top of it.

Balconies Cave to Balconies Cliffs to Old Pinnacles Trail (~1.8 miles)

Group shot at Balconies Cliffs

Group shot at Balconies Cliffs

After a quick lunch we decided to take a detour on our return trip and walk a little higher up to the cliffs area of the trail. This loop put us in the unforgiving sunlight and heat, but we got some pretty spectacular views and pictures out of it. It was strange going from a trail filled with trees to an almost desert-like pathway. It was much easier to spot a lot of the rock formations from this vantage point and we took plenty of mini-detours to explore additional areas slightly off-trail. After plenty of sweat and empty water bottles, we made it back to the main trail and found ourselves crossing the bridge returning to the parking lot.

At this point it was around the hottest point of the day, so we drove back to the visitor center to take a much-needed break in the AC-cooled general store, where we bought some ice cream, people watched, and chilled for about an hour. The visitor center area definitely had the most traffic, and we spotted a diverse group of people, including families with kids running to the swimming pool behind the center, motorcyclists drinking beer in the shade next to their bikes, and couples with adorable dogs.

Bear Gulch Cave Trail to Bear Gulch Reservoir (~0.9 miles)

Bear Gulch Reservoir in the summer

Bear Gulch Reservoir in the summer

As we were deciding on our next steps in the visitor center, we overheard the guide telling a visitor that it was over 100 degrees that day. We were definitely pretty winded from our earlier hike, but overall we felt pretty good still and decided to challenge ourselves with some more hiking. After all, the day was still young. We ended up selecting the trail leading to Bear Gulch Cave, which was unfortunately closed for nesting bats, but we would still be able to see Bear Gulch Reservoir.

With new resolve we drove out again to the parking lot next to this trail, and soon we found ourselves back in the scorching sun. Our worries about exhaustion vanished when we saw several groups of happy-looking families with young kids descending from the trail on their return route. We’d definitely be okay.

Our walk to the reservoir was pleasant. Most of the trail was in the shade, giving us a nice break from the sun. By the time we neared the end of the trail, we found ourselves walking up some pretty narrow steps carved into the rock, with a mini-spring trickling water directly to our left. We made it to the top and spotted the reservoir, which was pretty low water level-wise because of the drought. We snapped some pictures and took a break spotting water snakes and tadpoles in the water.

Bear Gulch Reservoir to Rim Trail (~0.7 miles)

Rock climber spotted from Rim Trail

Rock climber spotted from Rim Trail

As we were heading back, we decided to take an alternate route. This trail, called Rim Trail, offered us some of the best views of the park hands down. This was the trail where we definitively spotted California condors. It was a mesmerizing sight watching these giant birds (with 9-feet wingspans) glide so effortlessly in the sky. These condors at one point were extinct in the wild and only after years of careful breeding in captivity had they been slowly released back into the wild. We were getting a real treat.

We also stumbled upon a huge pinnacle that stretched out into one of the most spectacular views of the day, overlooking a perfectly panoramic swath of the park. The drop below was terrifying since we were so high up, but by slowly navigating to the edge we were overwhelmed by the sheer vastness and beauty of nature. We also spotted some climbing gear and ropes attached to an anchor and realized that there was a rock climber actually beneath us climbing up. As we left we spotted him wedged against the giant wall, slowly but surely working his way up to his goal.

It was late afternoon when we found ourselves back at the lot. We drove off into the sunset, back to civilization, in good spirits and hungry appetites. As we enjoyed an amazing In N Out dinner I thought about all the cool things we saw on the trail, and I knew I’d be back some time soon.


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