National Park Number: 47 of 59
Pinnacles National Park was such a surprise stunner. Often with these lesser-known, smaller parks, we go in without a lot of expectations, and every time we end up getting blown away—Congaree had one of our favorite paddles of all time, Biscayne was manatee heaven, Hot Springs’ history was incredibly fascinating, etc. Pinnacles was no exception to this pattern.
One of the early established national monuments, Pinnacles only became a national park in 2013, making it the 59th park in the system. Only about 40 square miles with a handful of hiking trails, this is a park you can “do” pretty quickly, but you might be like us and end up enjoying it much more than you anticipate!
Pinnacles has some incredible geology packed into its acreage. The rocks here came from a lava field that was originally closer to L.A., but slid up to its current location as the underlying fault line shifted. Over time the field eroded into the formations that the park is named for today. Beyond its spires and soaring rock walls, Pinnacles also has several talus caves, formed when boulders wedged between narrow canyon walls, creating enclosed spaces below.
We spent two days at Pinnacles, one on each side of the park (there is no thru-road, so you have to drive about 1.5 hours around to get from one side to the other) and did a hike on each side. And I can tell you with all sincerity that these hikes quickly joined the ranks of our favorite hikes ever. Hiking here is engaging—with rocks to scramble over, ladders to climb, caves to crouch through—so we all stayed entertained and Graham, especially, was getting all his adventure buttons activated.
On the east side of Pinnacles, we spent the morning visiting with rangers, exploring the woods around the campground and doing Jr. Ranger books, and set off later in the afternoon for the High Peaks. There are several ways to get up into Pinnacles’ namesake formations; we took a meandering route, past Bear Gulch Cave (closed for pupping bats) to the reservoir, then along the Rim Trail to an overlook of the park and the surrounding hills.
The high peaks would be worth the climb even if the only payoff were the views, but this is also the best spot in the park to see California Condors, the largest and one of the rarest birds in North America. These guys have a wingspan of up to 9.5 ft. and watching them soar along on the air currents above us was completely captivating. Pinnacles is a release site for condors that are bred in captivity and right now the park manages 27 birds, which often join up with the 30 or so Big Sur condors to form the largest flock of California Condors in the wild.
The cliffs and spires of Pinnacles are perfect nesting grounds for the birds, who hang with a pack of (much smaller) turkey vultures. Vultures are much more common and it was a bit hard to tell at first whether we were seeing a condor or a turkey vulture; once we got closer, we could differentiate by the pattern of color on the underside of their wings—turkey vultures’ wings are half white, from mid-wing to the tips of their feathers, while condors have white triangles on the front part of their wings. You might not be able to see the pattern in the pictures, but it was a fun little tidbit for us to tell the difference!
From the top of Rim Trail, we followed the High Peaks Trail through the pinnacles formations til we got to the Condor Gulch Trail and headed back downhill. An old CCC trail, High Peaks is more or less chiseled into the mountain and it is a blast to climb—plus the views are spectacular and the condors pure magic.
If you visit Pinnacles, don’t miss a hike to High Peaks! Even better if you can time your visit for sunset—we didn’t expect that such a small park would produce one of our best-ever hikes, but the combination of timing (that sunset!!), condors and engaging climb was just epic.
The next day we headed to the west side of the park to get a better look at the talus caves. While Bear Gulch Cave on the east side was closed for bat pupping, the west side’s Balconies Caves were open for exploration. We hiked the Balconies Cliffs Trail first, then looped through the caves. The talus caves are so fun to climb through—flashlights definitely required! We were especially glad to get in the caves because while our first day in Pinnacles was breezy and pleasant, Day 2 got pretty hot!
Our time here was short, but seriously delightful—this is a perfect park for kids or anyone who likes a beautiful, engaging, not-too-tough hike (that’s everyone, right?). We love going to spots like this that wouldn’t have been on our list if we weren’t trying to make it to every park—sometimes I worry about the nature of checklist travel, but it pays off in spades when it gets you exploring things that would normally be off your radar!