Story and Photo by Ward DeWitt Pettibone
As national parks go, Pinnacles is not terribly big. This central California park spans just under 25,000 acres in the Gabilan Mountains. Despite its small stature, there is plenty to do. Visitors enjoy hiking, rock climbing, spelunking, and viewing local flora and fauna such as condors and wildflowers. The park’s namesake, “pinnacles,” is derived from the local spires of volcanic rock eroded over millions of years by wind and water. Whether you’re looking for an afternoon of birdwatching or a week of camping, you’ll be able to keep yourself royally entertained at Pinnacles.
Upgraded by Congress from a national monument to a national park in January 2013, Pinnacles is the newest addition to the United States National Park system. I went in January and hiked the Condor Gulch to High Peaks Loop. Then, because I still had a few hours of daylight to spare, I doubled back to Balconies Cave. On the way I passed several rock climbers, birdwatchers, and a trio of self-described “eccentric British cave enthusiasts,” but the park never seemed crowded. On the contrary, it felt as though I had discovered a secret garden of sorts – albeit a secret garden patrolled by gigantic birds of prey.
The National Park Service describes the trails I took as “strenuous,” but I think “adventurous” is a more accurate description. There are steep steps carved into rock faces, sheer drops guarded by flimsy-looking railings, and slick boulders overlooking a gusty canyon. I even encountered one memorable passage that ran unprotected right along the edge of a cliff. The sights were breathtakingly beautiful and I can only imagine what it would be like in the spring when the wildflowers are in bloom.
I caught the last shuttle to the welcome center just as the sun was setting. I was travelling in a group, and there weren’t enough seats for all ten of us, so the driver had me sit on an ice chest instead. The parking lot and welcome center are clearly not designed to accommodate more than a few dozen groups at a time. Pinnacles still seems to be getting used to being a national park, which adds to its charm. Unlike some of the bigger, more “Disney-fied” parks, visitors feel as if they are among the first to explore this particular corner of California. If you are looking for an adventure, Pinnacles National Park is a great place to start.
This story appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Baedeker.