Is Pinnacles worth a visit? If you avoid the summer, and you’re a hiker, absolutely! (We were there in early May, and it was bordering on too hot even then.) It was only 100 miles north and inland from our last stop near Morro Bay, and we swung by in hopes of seeing California Condors, an endangered species that dwindled to a mere 22 birds in the early 1980’s. Captive breeding programs have increased the numbers to more than 400; Pinnacles is one of four places where captive-bred condors are released into the wild. We saw plenty of Turkey Vultures and Common Ravens soaring in the updrafts created by the high peaks of the rock spires, but alas, no condors. The hiking opportunities in Pinnacles, however, were far more interesting than we anticipated.
The unique rock formations for which Pinnacles is named were created about 23 million years ago. Basically, a volcano erupted, and as the Pacific Plate along the nearby San Andreas Fault shifted, a huge section of the volcano split off and moved northwest by a couple hundred miles. Over centuries, the rock eroded, leaving tall fanciful spires. At the same time, enormous boulders fell into deep, narrow crevices and wedged there, creating caves below. Mind you, this took place in geologic time, which is slower than a snail’s pace. But had I known that seismic activity continues to frequently occur in Pinnacles (the United States Geological Survey maintains two seismometers within the park) I might have thought twice about going down into the caves. Some of the boulders hanging over our heads were as big as our trailer.
Much more appealing (to my way of thinking) are the trails above ground. In the 1930’s, the young men of the CCC put all that testosterone to good use hewing steps, archways, and paths through the volcanic rock and installing sturdy railings along some of the more precipitous passageways. The High Peaks trail is especially thrilling with a steep, narrow, winding path that traverses a high ridge and provides sweeping views of the pinnacles. If you’re looking for condors, this is one of their hangouts—it would be a great place to see them soaring at eye level.
Would we visit Pinnacles again? You bet, especially earlier in the spring, when the wildflower displays are reputed to be spectacular. Two to three nights is sufficient, and provides enough time to hike most of the trails on the east side of the park—that’s where the campground is, and it’s also the only route into the park if you’re traveling with anything other than a passenger vehicle.
The RV sites have electric hookups, there’s water available in the campground, minimalist shower facilities, a small visitor center and store (bring everything you need) and the rangers are very helpful in planning hikes according to your desires. We asked for a challenging hike with views, and they recommended the High Peaks trail combined with the Bear Gulch loop that took us through the caves. It was about 7-8 miles, and perfect. The second morning, we hiked the Old Pinnacles trail, which is flat, grassy, and provides views looking up at the pinnacles.
Leaving Pinnacles, we drove 60 miles to Mt. Madonna near Watsonville, and stayed at lovely Mt. Madonna County Park. Twenty miles of beautiful trails wind through redwoods and coastal chaparral, and include the ruins of the once magnificent mansion of Henry Miller, a penniless immigrant who became one of the wealthiest cattle and land barons of his time. We enjoyed a peaceful two-night stay, with wonderfully cool hiking on the shady trails.
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