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Visit Pinnacles National Park



In a hilly, sparsely populated region of west central California, Pinnacles National Monument (elevated to a national park in January 2013) was established in 1908 to protect the remains of an ancient volcano, created 23 million years ago by an eruption associated with the San Andreas Fault, which today runs along a straight valley a few miles east. The park is centered on a range of rugged, chaparral-covered mountains topped by unusual eroded formations including spires, cliffs, smooth boulders, jagged ridges, and several talus caves, formed from narrow ravines partially filled by fallen rock. Interestingly, the original location of the volcano was 195 miles southeast, near modern day Los Angeles, but the rocks have been transported to their present setting by gradual movement along the fault.

Although close to Highway 101, the area is far removed from other more famous natural attractions in California and is surrounded by large tracts of nondescript farmland, so receives comparatively few visitors. Most come for camping, rock climbing (since the abrasive cliffs and boulders allow for many good, short routes), or to visit the two main caves; the various longer trails are quite lightly used, especially during the heat of summer when temperatures can exceed 100°F. Off trail explorations are quite possible, and the park has a sizeable backcountry area, most of which is officially designated wilderness. Of other Southwest parks, Pinnacles is most similar to Chiricahua National Monument in Arizona, just with slightly fewer formations; the caves are interesting and unusual, and the place generally quiet and peaceful, though overall the scenery is not so special.

Approach Routes

The towns nearest to Pinnacles National Park are all small places on the west side, along US 101: Gonzales, Soledad, Greenfield, King City, and none offers many facilities. Away from the highway, the roads pass through quiet farmland, occupying valleys between low, rounded hills, all covered by short, brownish grass and with only scattered trees, houses and livestock to interrupt the empty, rolling landscape. The national park has two entrances; road 146 approaches from both west and east but does not cross the mountains, so there is no through route. The distance by car from one side to the other is 56 miles and the drive takes around 2 hours, since the roads are narrow and winding in places. A hike between the two entrances also takes around 2 hours and passes through the best scenery, found in the mountains occupying the middle of the park - known as the High Peaks, or the Pinnacle Rocks. The east side approach road, along Bear Gulch, is the most used as this passes the majority of the facilities; the west entrance (Chaparral) has just a ranger station plus parking, and is reached by a narrow, 12 mile road from Soledad. In some places this reduces to a single carriageway, and the route is not recommended for RVs or other large vehicles. From roads end, 3 trails depart to the north, west and east; the most popular routes are the Juniper Canyon Trail to the High Peaks, and the Balconies Trail which leads to volcanic rocks and a talus cave.