The nation’s newest national park—christened last year—is an inspiring testimony to the awesome power of plate tectonics combined with erosion: sheer rock spires rising out of the scrubby Gabilan Mountains. Its beauty was apparent to Schuyler Hain (1861-1930), a homesteader from Michigan, who led valley and cave tours, and acted as caretaker, until Pinnacles was deemed a national monument more than a century ago.
To see the park’s highlights, you’ll need to explore on foot. Even a short walk leads to close encounters with the magnificent rock formations of this ripped-apart, 23-million-year-old extinct volcano on the San Andreas Fault. Bring a flashlight and scramble through Bear Gulch and Balconies talus caves.
With its Mediterranean climate, Pinnacles is desertlike in the summer and glorious when springtime wildflowers bloom amid the chaparral, blue oaks, and gray pines. No road connects the park’s busier east side—home to its only campground and its single store—to the west, which has the most spectacular views of the monoliths.
There are two entrances to Pinnacles, both accessible from U.S. 101. To get to the east entrance, turn off at King City to Route 25 and go 30 miles to Route 146, which leads into the park. To get to the west entrance, continue north on U.S. 101 to Soledad and follow the Pinnacles exit to Route 146. The road from Soledad to west Pinnacles is steep and is occasionally single-lane.
President Theodore Roosevelt created Pinnacles National Monument in 1908. More recently, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns wrote letters in support of Rep. Sam Farr’s bill to elevate Pinnacles to a national park because Burns, who grew up in the Bay Area, had spent time there as a boy. The bill received unanimous approval.
224,000 in 2012; April is the busiest month; January is least-crowded
42 square miles, about twice the size of Yorba Linda
$5 per vehicle, good for seven days
Arrive early. Bear Gulch and Balconies trails have limited parking that fills up quickly, especially on weekends. There is a weekend shuttle service to Bear Gulch from the Pinnacles Visitor Center about three miles away; overflow parking is within walking distance to Balconies trailhead.
Best to bring your own, but the Pinnacles Campground store has snacks, granola bars, jerky, canned soup, fruit, sodas, and ice cream.
California Gourmet Pizza (formerly Cheezer’s) in King City is well-loved for its pizzas with a creamy garlic, pesto, barbecue, and tomato basil sauces ($7 to $24), plus its sandwiches ($6 to $7), and pastas ($7 to $8). And in Soledad, make time for fresh, homemade Mexican fare at La Fuente. The tostada with carne asada ($5.25), machaca con huevo ($10), and combo plate ($9) are well worth the long wait
The Inn at the Pinnacles ($225 to $250), lovingly run by Jon and Jan Brosseau, is a cozy six-room, modern-country bed-and-breakfast, surrounded by the couple’s 160-acre vineyard. They serve an ample hot breakfast, and late-afternoon wine and appetizers. Each room has a kitchenette, whirlpool or claw-foot tub, plus private patios with barbecues. King City, which leads to the east entrance, and Soledad, gateway to the west side, offer independent and chain motels.
The Pinnacles Campground just inside the east entrance is the only designated place for overnight camping. It has 99 tent, 36 RV, and 14 group sites, plus showers and a store with very limited offerings. The swimming pool generally is open from April through September.
The moderate 2.2-mile Moses Spring-Rim Trail Loop, which has a 500-foot gain, but is still considered good for children, leads through Bear Gulch Cave and to the bucolic reservoir.
Most of the rocks are volcanic breccia and tuff—which is weaker than granite and basalt—so the sport is recommended only for veteran climbers using ropes and other technical equipment.
More than 400 species of bees, the largest diversity in one place in North America; a colony of Townsend big-ear bats lives in Bear Gulch Cave; the park is an official release site for California condors and has 27 of the free-flying birds.
Mountain lions, rattlesnakes.
From 790 feet at Chalone Creek, to 3,304-foot North Chalone Peak.
From 33 to 63 degrees in December and January, to 51 to 114 degrees in July and August.
From a trace in May through September, to 3 inches in January through March.
California Gourmet Pizza, 232 Broadway St., King City, 831-385-4914, californiagourmetpizza.com
La Fuente, 101 Oak St., Soledad, 831-678-3130
Pinnacles National Park, nps.gov/pinn
The Inn at the Pinnacles, 32025 Stonewall Canyon Road, Soledad, 831-678-2400, innatthepinnacles.com
Photographs by David H. Collier
This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue.