Pinnacles National Park: Our Number 63

We did it… we have now visited all 63 of the National Parks in the United States, including all of the parks in the lower 48 states plus Alaska, Hawaii and the territories of the US Virgin Islands and American Samoa. The “pinnacle” of our journey was Pinnacles National Park in California, one of the newer ones to be designated as a national park in 2013, but also one of the oldest protected areas, established as a national monument in 1908.

Pinnacles was amazing, a perfect culmination of an incredible journey that started over 30 years ago at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. Little did we know that this visit would start us on a quest that would take us to all corners of the United States! It is certainly an emotional experience, an achievement only a few are fortunate enough to attain.

It was a big investment, but well worth it. Our goal has always been to really experience each park and take the time to really see it, often revisiting parks to see what we may have missed the first time. America’s National Parks have so much to offer, it is hard to do them justice unless you really spend some time in each one. We feel we have done that… hiking, backpacking, camping, rafting, snowshoeing, horseback riding, kayaking, biking, flying in small bush planes and staying at historic lodges.

About Pinnacles National Park

We really didn’t plan which park was to be #63, but we are really happy that it was Pinnacles National Park. We had no idea what to expect. In fact, most people we talked to prior to coming to Pinnacles hadn’t ever heard of it even though it has been part of the national park system for over 100 years. Certainly locals know about it… we were happy to see that there were lots of folks out enjoying the park when we were there.

It was really fun to share our achievement with the rangers and volunteers. They were so welcoming and excited, taking photos and asking us about our travels. Two people who arrived at the same time as we did were members of the original Chalon Indian tribe who had lived here for thousands of years. What a wonderful homeland it must have been.

We came into the park from the west side, from the 101. It was a twisty, narrow road – one lane in places with lots of blind curves. Certainly not for the faint of heart and not appropriate for RVs or towed vehicles. You don’t even see the jagged rocks of The Pinnacles until you get close. They just suddenly appear, jutting up into the sky from behind the gently rolling hills. As you get closer you can see why the immense rock walls make this a rock-climbing destination. 

The two hikes the ranger recommended were the Juniper Loop / High Trail and the Balconies Cliffs / Cave Trail loops. What a great introduction to what the park is all about. They were two entirely different experiences!

Juniper Loop / High Trail

This trail takes you through a riparian area along a small flowing creek, then up long switchbacks through the canyon.

It seems that at every turn there is more spectacular view of the rock formations. 

At the top, you can take in the view and return back down the same trail, or you can continue along the High Trail and loop around to return on the Tunnel Trail. We were warned about the “steep and narrow” portion of the High Trail and it sure was. 

It was interesting to hear from a ranger that this wasn’t the original route. He told us that it was far too steep for horses, so they had initially developed and used the Tunnel trail. But early hikers started their own trails around the rocky peaks, so in the 1930’s the CCC carved out a formal trail… hammering stair steps into the rocks and putting up pipe railings to protect you from falling down the sheer cliff. It is a truly unique trail and just a little bit scary! We would certainly not want to do this one in the rain.

The views from the top were gorgeous, especially looking east out over the wilderness area that makes up the park. There is no road through the park. You can only enter from the west or from the east (the main visitor center). The rest is wilderness, with only a few long trails cutting across. We were warned to be careful at the top of High Peaks not to take the wrong trail. Folks have ended up on the wrong side only to find that their car was not there, it was on the other side.

Fortunately, we ended up at the right car park! Just in time to see California Condors soaring above.

Balconies Cliffs / Cave Trail

Another trail led from the same parking lot, so we decided to check it out and are very glad we did. It was totally different, starting out as an easy walk through a valley on a well maintained sandy trail.

After about half a mile the trail splits. The ranger had recommended that we go clockwise – good call. That way we began by winding up to the balconies, via long switchbacks with great views of the pinnacles and the sheer rock climbing walls.

As we walked along, we saw a half dozen more California Condors. They are huge!

From there, we made our way back down to the valley and walked along a small stream, then came to the cave. Unlike many caves, this one you don’t just go in and come back out; you walk through it and come out the other side. When flooded, they can close the gate. Good call.

The first bit was dark and slippery and wet, with low areas where you had to be careful not to bump your head. They warn you that you must have a flashlight and you really do need one. It is a dark scramble through talus passages. We got a few “cave kisses” in the wettest spots. 

The next part was not as dark, but it was narrower and you have to duck around big boulders. Looking up, you can see how the giant rocks fell into the crevasses and created the cave. 

This was probably one of the most unique hikes we have done in any National Park and we have done all 63!

Need Help Planning Your Visits?

If you would like to explore this or other National Park Units, but need a bit help in the planning, please give us a call at (480) 609-3978. We are happy to offer customized trip planning.