Pinnacles National Park, CA, a story of volcanoes, faults and eons of erosion!

Scenic Bear Gulch Reservoir is the reward of a several mile hike in Pinnacles National Park

Author’s spouse, Susan, stands near a cave entrance on one of Pinnacles hiking trails
Talus caves, like Bear Gulch Cave, are formed when giant boulders fall into narrow canyons
Nicely appointed campground, set amidst valley oaks, await campers and tenters in Pinnacles
Mission San Antonio’s arches frame a breezeway at the mission, south of Pinnacles National Park
The Big Sur coast is just west of Pinnacles, though a long, scenic drive is required to reach it
Rugged Machete Ridge is the backbone of Pinnacles National Park

Jutting up from the Gabilan Mountains south of Hollister, CA, are the spectacular remains of an ancient volcano – a volcano located 160 miles south, near Los Angeles! Pinnacles National Park lies on the San Andreas Fault, and is moving a few inches north each year, distancing itself from its mother volcano!

It’s a stunning landscape of rugged spines, deep canyons, eerie talus caves, verdant foliage, rushing streams and robust wildlife, from deer, wild turkeys, bob cats and feral hogs, to the majestic California Condor with wingspans up to seven feet.   If you want your kids to appreciate the power of nature, the park offers dramatic evidence of the effects of heat, water and wind constantly wearing away at this alien landscape. 

On a recent visit, we found light crowds and a dry and temperate park scene; but a lively and marvelously scenic place overall! We entered from CA Hwy 25, through the East Entrance, just 35 miles south of a very pleasant Hollister, CA (with a number of comfy motels, restaurants and food stores, closest to the park). The park also has a West Entrance, from Hwy 146 out of Soledad, but no major visitor conveniences on this side (no road crosses this out-of-the-way national park).

We made our home for three days in the Pinnacles Campground, the parks only, but very nice, campground. Complete with store, visitor center, swimming pool (in season) and showers, if offers a wealth of trailer and tent sites, many with full electric hookups. And, a shuttle bus runs regularly, to take you to the two park main trailheads, about three miles away.

You cannot really get the flavor of Pinnacles without some hiking, so bring comfortable walking shoes and a water bottle. From the Bear Gulch Trailhead, a moderately strenuous one-mile hike takes you to the spooky Bear Gulch Cave (bring headlamps or flashlights) and Bear Gulch Reservoir; one can return on the Rim Trail for a change of scenery. 

From this trailhead or from the Old Pinnacles Trailhead, one can venture further into the High Peaks area, for ventures to Balconies Cave and views of Machete Ridge and the Balconies Cliffs. This oddly sculpted landscape will leave you struggling for words to describe it! This was our first trip; it made us hungry to return in the late spring and explore more of this stunning California wilderness.

What’s nearby: Venturing south on Hwy 25, we came to the historic town of Jolon, Ft. Hunter Liggett (an active military base) and the historic Mission San Antonio.  We felt like exploring and continued past the mission, into the coastal mountains and came down into the iconic Big Sur area on the wild California coast.  That side trip was several hours of scenic driving (and occasionally very tight roads, not advised for pulling a trailer), but offered world-class vistas and photo ops in this part of wild California!

How to get there: We went south on Interstate 5 to Los Banos, south on Hwy 33, then west on Hwy 152, south on Hwy 156 to Hollister, then Hwy 25 to the park’s East Entrance (the park does have a West Entrance, but it is hard to reach and relatively undeveloped – and the park has no through road).  From Stockton to Pinnacles, it’s about 135 miles and 2.5 hours.

What to take: Camera and binoculars, of course, good walking shoes or boots and water bottles or a canteen if you plan to hike the park’s spectacular trails. 

Where to stay: The park has a fine campground for both tenters and RVers, and back-country camping is another option.  Motels are found in Hollister, to the north, and King City, south of the park.

For more information: Go to: www.nps.gov/pinn.  The park headquarters is at 5000 Hwy 146, Paicines, CA 95043; phone: 831.389.4486.  The Pinnacles Visitor Center phone is 831.389.4485.  Camping can be booked through www.recreation.gov, or by calling 877.444.6777.  For other inspirational destinations in CA, see my Record blog: blogs.esanjoaquin.com/valleytravel!

Coming up: In the next weeks, we will offer you a tour of most of California’s nine marvelous national parks!  Can you name them all (and, national monuments and sea shores don’t count)?

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