As I mentioned in my post on Death Valley, I am obsessed with national parks. It is one of my travel goals to visit at least one park a year. This year, entirely by accident, I stumbled upon a less visited Northern California gem, Pinnacles National Park and it was the perfect day hike spot.
We went whole-hog, all in on a 9-mile hike (I’m calling it 10 if you see me in the streets), following the High Peaks trail to Bear Gulch trail to the Old Pinnacles trail where we then popped into Balconies Cave trail before wrapping this up. That said, there are lots of options in the park, and certainly, hikes that are less strenuous based on your skill level so don’t let the fear of a long hike stop you from visiting.
Pro Tip: You will not have cell service once you start hiking, so it is imperative that you stop by the ranger station. If something happens these are the people who will lead the search to save you. PLEASE go make friends with them.
First things first, there isn’t much around Pinnacles, so plan on bringing a picnic, or hiking in and out with your food and water. The route we took had a strong uphill for about a mile, but well worth sucking wind for. The view is something beyond a show stopper. Gorgeous just doesn’t cut it.
Once you clear High Peaks trail, the hike does get easier, however, the way down features some loose gravel and switchbacks. It’s worth a little bit of unsure footing to take the longer route and see some more of the park if you are comfortable with moving a bit slowly. Eventually, the rougher terrain will give way to stunning rolling fields and you can pretend you are Anne of Green Gables or someone else who meanders through wide open spaces in picturesque landscapes. (While still maintaining your superiority over them, because those first few miles were difficult, and what does Anne know about that?).
Pro Tip: The flora and fauna in the park are unusual, If you are a lucky birder you may even catch a glimpse of the California Condors that dwell in the park. They are North America’s largest bird and a critically endangered species.
Eventually, you will come to my favorite part of the park, the Balconies Cave Trail, aka the best place to pretend to be: a) Gollem b) a troll and/or c) the cover of Atlas Shrugged. Bring a headlamp. The cave is dark, and you will want your hands free as you wander through it. You will have to do a little tiny bit of climbing, crawling and ducking once inside the cave, but it is all very manageable.
If you are with small children, or just don’t feel like sweating for 8 miles before you arrive, the cave is right near a trailhead and accessible in a number of ways, so don’t feel like you have to do it the hard way. I had a blast goofing around in there and I can imagine it would be even more fun for kids.
Pro Tip: The cave narrow at times, so if you experience claustrophobia, this is probably not the place for you. There is a hike around the caves, so don’t let that stop you from visiting the park if tight spaces just aren’t your thing.
Bonus Pro Tip: Please pack out what you pack in, or use appropriate trash receptacles. Condors will eat anything, and with only 80+ living in the park, you don’t want to be the person who kills off a national wildlife treasure (do you!?!). Seriously, ingesting lead from human debris is poisening them en mass, so please be thoughtful.