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  • Paul McHugh / Special to The Bee

    Bear Gulch Reservoir reflects the towers of volcanic rock that give Pinnacles National Monument its name.

  • Paul McHugh / Special to The Bee

    Fallen boulders create mazes of talus "caves" along some of the trails. Explorers should come prepared with lights.

  • Paul McHugh / Special to The Bee

    Wildflowers are common in the spring at the 26,000-acre preserve, which is in line to become a national park.

  • Paul McHugh / Special to The Bee

    The volcanic breccia that makes up the Pinnacles formations glows in the light of early morning and late evening.

Pinnacles National Monument offers otherworldly sights

Published: Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012 - 11:00 pm | Page 1H
Last Modified: Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012 - 8:31 am

It's an Eden for wildflower buffs in spring, a mecca for campers, hikers, rock climbers and birders almost all year. Pinnacles National Monument, found in the Coast Range 30 miles south of Hollister, is an otherworldly nest of volcanic spires and talus caves, of towering bluffs and winding trails. And it's on the brink of becoming our newest national park.

The bill to finalize the new designation, introduced by Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, handily passed the House by voice vote months ago, though it remains stalled in the Senate. California Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat who sponsors it on the Senate side, seeks to stay optimistic. "I am hopeful that the Senate will pass this bill, which will protect the area's scenic beauty and boost the local tourism economy," Boxer said in a recent statement to The Bee.

Sampling the charms of Pinnacles by arriving in autumn or on clear winter days helps a visitor evaluate the case for passage. The riot of blooms that explode in spring may not be present, but color still dots the hills, and the air holds a healthy sweetness from the mosaic of hundreds of native plants that cover the 26,000-acre preserve. Temperatures are moderate to cool, and can prompt a visitor to undertake grander exertions to search out the marvels of this landscape.

I constantly feel the lure to return to Pinnacles. On my fifth trip there, in mid- October, I selected the 3,304-foot summit of North Chalone Peak as a destination, and began my hike just as a rising sun kissed the jagged central spine of the park with light. The pink-brown volcanic breccia that forms most of the surface rock here can seem rather drab at midday – unless one leans in close to admire the streaks and splashes of artwork painted on it by lichen. However, at dawn, these broad cliff bands glow as golden as any conquistador's fantasy of El Dorado.

The nine-mile (round-trip) trail to North Chalone begins at the Bear Gulch Day Use area, at the park's approximate center, and ascends past either Moses Spring, in the open air, or via the tunnels of the caves trail. Many narrow gulches here are roofed by a jumble of talus blocks, creating mazelike caverns that offer homes to various species of bats. Some parts are closed to protect these creatures during mating season, but other segments remain open, to the delight of those who like to scramble and explore.

Rangers recommend toting flashlights along. Other advisable items are pants with stout knees, insect repellent (especially in spring), and more drinking water than you think you'll need. For longer hikes, also equip yourself with a small first-aid kit to treat blisters, stings or slivers.

The North Chalone trail plateaus for a moment at the tiny lake of Bear Gulch Reservoir. The picturesque reflection pond once supplied drinking water for the park. The route then angles off to the south and climbs relentlessly to its destination.

As it winds up onto the ridges, it reveals the impressive spires of the main pinnacle formations at different vantage points. At the start of this piece, I used the word "otherworldly" to describe them. But, of course, these wonderful formations are as natural as can be. It's just that they're completely out of place, looking like nothing else in the Coast Range. Why?

Because they're not from around here.

The Pinnacles began as half of a volcano that erupted about 22 million years ago in present-day Los Angeles County. How on earth did it get almost all the way to Hollister? Lay the blame on the San Andreas Fault. As the tectonic plates ground under and past each other, the Pinnacles went underwater, were coated with sediment, then uplifted again. Mud washed away, and voilà!

In its midst the Coast Range wound up with a volcanic formation seven miles long and nearly three wide, one that is quite unusual and picturesque. President Teddy Roosevelt felt moved to protect it as a national monument in 1908, at the same time he also preserved the Grand Canyon and the redwood grove at Muir Woods. Pinnacles now draws almost 400,000 visitors a year.

North Chalone, this park's highest point, beckons the hiker with the pagodalike structure of a Forest Service fire lookout. Perched on top, it looks like it should be the home of a mountain-dwelling wise man. However, that tower is shuttered, and the only sage up here is Salvia apiana, fragrant white sage, beloved by many of the 400 species of bees calling the Pinnacles home – one of greatest and most diverse apiarian collections on Earth.

Why do they and so many other insect, plant, reptile and bird species thrive here? Part of the answer comes from a 24-mile-long pig-proof fence, erected nine years ago to keep feral hogs from wreaking the environmental havoc they've caused in many other parks. Hikers must clamber over two stiles (fence crossings) to reach the summit.

Among the preserve's many allures, one in particular stands out: condors. These "thunderbirds" of American Indian mythology once soared along the whole Pacific Coast but were reduced to only 22 individuals by the 1980s. A robust restoration effort was launched, and today there are more than 200 living in the wild and nearly that number confined as a breeding population. Most of the wild ones fly above Big Sur and Pinnacles.

As I approached Chalone Peak, I spotted large, dark birds soaring on planklike wings and whipped out my field glasses. I trained the lenses on spectacular birds. They were about as big as coastal ravens can ever get, but they weren't condors.

To see condors, I had to wait until I descended back to Bear Gulch Reservoir. There I met Scouts and adult counselors of Troop 349 who had all driven to Pinnacles from the Sacramento area. One proudly showed me images of condors roosting in a tree near the monument's campground, photos he'd taken through a telescope just that morning.

The group's excitement over the park was palpable. "This is going a bit far afield for us," said troop counselor David McDevitt. "We came in March, but got rained out. Still, everyone wanted to return to look for condors. And I know we'll come again, because the kids love this place to hike, to go caving, and just climb all over these great boulders."


Getting there: Choose your entrance. The east entrance is off Highway 25 from Hollister; the west entrance is off Highway 146 from Soledad, but no road connects the two entrances.

Cost: Day-use fee $5 per vehicle; camping $23 per night for a tent site; $36 for an RV; $75 for a group site (1-10 people) or $110 (11-20 people).


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