Pinnacles National Monument


Gary Gellin and I enjoyed a spectacular 13.5 mile loop in Pinnacles National Monument. This challenging loop entailed nearly 4,000 feet of elevation gain and covered most of the highlights in the park, including Bear Gulch Cave, High Peaks, Balconies Cave, and Condor Gulch. The Pinnacles are located in the Gabilan Range to the east of the Salinas Valley. The rock formations and arid habitat make it seem like a slice of the desert southwest, but yet the Pinnacles have unique and intriguing features that can only be found there. Chapparal dominates the landscape along with blue oak in the riparian areas and stately gray pines growing amidst the rock pinnacles.

Complete gallery with dozens of photos here.

View of Machete Ridge from the Balconies Cliffs Trail

Machete Ridge

The spires, crags, and caves of the Pinnacles have a fascinating geological history. These features are the remnants of an estimated 8,000 foot volcano from 23 million years ago along the San Andreas fault zone. However, this volcano was located 195 miles to the southeast! The Pacific plate’s northward movement split the volcano and carried two thirds of it to its present location. The remaining one third is located at the original location and is called the Neenach Formation. Years of erosion, faulting, and tectonic plate movement have resulted in the crags and caves that exist today.

We explored both caves in the park, Bear Gulch Cave and Balconies Cave, which are talus caves formed by colossal boulders that fell atop a narrow canyon. Walking through these caves entails some scrambling and ducking under low ceilings, but the route is clearly marked with white arrows and steps/rails are provided where necessary. Portions of both caves are pitch black so a flashlight is required and they may be closed in the winter due to flooding and to protect a sensitive bat species. My personal favorite was the section of the High Peaks Trail between the Juniper Canyon Trail junction and the Tunnel Trail junction. Much of this section is steep and narrow with impressive relief, up-close views of towering red rock spires, and small foot steps cut out of the rock.

Balconies Trail

I have been wanting to visit this park for quite some time, but knew better than to go in the summer and early fall months. Due to the fact that there are two mountain ranges between the Pacific Ocean and the Gabilan Range, this area is dry and very hot. However, with a cold front moving through I suspected it would be a good opportunity to see the Pinnacles the following day. My prediction proved correct and we enjoyed clear skies and relatively cool conditions. However, as a testament to the furnace this place can become, it still felt warm in spots with the sun exposure combined with temps in the 70s.

Panorama from the High Peaks Trail

High Peaks Trail

The loop itself is 13 miles, but we did a side excursion to the Balconies Cliffs after walking through the Balconies Cave which added about 0.5 miles. I definitely plan on returning to the Pinnacles in the winter and spring to see the formations when the hills are green and the wildflowers are in bloom. In addition, the ranger was kind enough to inform us about an interesting 15 mile loop in the southern portion of the park that is possible due to a significant portion of unmapped trails.

Bear Gulch Cave

Bear Gulch Cave

Complete gallery with dozens of photos here.

Route Itinerary:

  • Start at Bear Gulch day use area
  • Bear Gulch Trail
  • Moses Spring Trail
  • Bear Gulch Cave
  • Rim Trail
  • High Peaks Trail
  • Tunnel Trail
  • Juniper Canyon Trail
  • Balconies Trail
  • Balconies Cave & Cliff
  • Old Pinnacles Trail
  • High Peaks Trail
  • Condor Gulch Trail
  • Bear Gulch Trail

3 Responses to “Pinnacles National Monument”

  1. Bryon Powell Says:

    When did you run this? I almost ended up there this past Friday and Saturday. Ended up in Monterey instead. This report will have me in Pinnacles the next time I’m in the area! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Sarah Says:

    I’ve only been there once – when we checked it out years ago as a potential event site. I’ll have to make it back there soon, I realize. Thanks, Leor.

  3. Interval training Says:

    Bear Gulch Cave looks scary:)

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