Our travels have taken us to some beautiful places, both at home and abroad. While I’ve always found those outdoor experiences to be highlights of our trips, it wasn’t until we moved to the Pacific Northwest and really picked up hiking as a hobby that I’ve intentionally planned vacations around spending time in nature. Meaning, whereas once it was an ideal side benefit to whatever we were doing, now it is often the main purpose of our trip.
This has forced us to think differently about what we pack—we’re very efficient and minimalistic packers so we now have to consider how to incorporate our hiking clothes into outfits acceptable for other settings.
We’ve also had to get creative with our luggage, using our hiking backpacks as our personal items and figuring out how far we can push TSA on what can go in our carry-ons so we don’t have to check bags. (Case in point: On this trip we learned that the TSA restriction on hiking poles doesn’t apply to collapsible ones that fit neatly inside a carry-on bag—thank goodness!)
One of my 2020 goals was to visit some new national parks this year, and one that rose to the top of the list based on its proximity to San Francisco (where we can fly for free on miles from a small airport 15 minutes from our house!) was Pinnacles National Park. I have to admit, I had never heard of it and had no idea what it was known for/what all we could look forward to doing there. However, when I realized how easily we could reach it, we made it the focal point of our Presidents’ Day weekend away.
Based on the weather, Sunday was the ideal day for us to visit. After a full Saturday exploring Big Sur, we headed inland to Hollister for the night and woke up early to grab breakfast at the hotel before driving south to the East Visitor Center entrance of Pinnacles National Park.
We debated over whether to enter the park from the east or west—both have visitor centers and both have access to the main trail system. However, it’s a good hour+ drive from one side to the other as you have to go out and around the park—there is no vehicle access through the park. Based on the hike we wanted to do, the east side made sense for our trip.
I read online that this time of year is high season for this park because it gets extremely hot and desert-like during the summer. It was strongly recommended you arrive early, apply sunscreen or other protective coverings, and bring extra water. It also said something about rattlesnakes and tarantulas—I skipped over that part, and we tried not to think too much about it.
We arrived around 8 a.m. to find that the mini store at the entrance was open but the visitor center was not. This was a little bizarre given those two things are in the same one-room building and the people working those two things were both standing next to each other behind the same desk.
A few other visitors who were interested in purchasing park entry got caught in what appeared to be some sort of quirky comedy sketch. They would ask the ranger if they could purchase entry, and she would refuse because she wasn’t technically open yet and direct them to the store worker since the store was open. So they would step to the side to direct their question to the store worker standing next to the ranger, only to have that woman respond that she couldn’t help them because she only worked the store and the store didn’t sell park entry—they would need to speak with the ranger.
I felt bad for the people who were now forced to wait until the ranger was ready to speak with them, but I asked if we had to wait since we already had a pass. The ranger glared at me and muttered something about just hanging it up in our car, so we headed out, hung it up, and were on our way! I’m sure the two of them go through this bit each morning and have to field these same questions every single day and find it extremely annoying, but this has to be one of the most confusing setups we’ve experienced.
Happily, as soon as we rounded the bend, we came across a terrific view of the rocky spires (or pinnacles) that serve as the remains of the ancient volcanic field that evolved here over millions of years. Our odd entry experience was forgotten!
We pulled over near the entry sign and took turns taking pictures with another couple before heading toward the Condor Gulch trailhead. We had to drive slowly—there were a number of squirrels darting across the road and the biggest pinecones I’ve ever seen rolling about—but eventually made it to the parking area, which was already beginning to fill.
We decided to hike the Condor Gulch-High Peaks Loop, beginning with the Condor Gulch trail, because it appeared the sun would primarily be to our back and side. If you’re interested in this hike and starting out in the morning, I recommend going this direction for several reasons:
- Sunlight direction is ideal for pictures
- Easier direction to complete the steep-narrow section of the High Peaks trail
- Quicker ascent and more leisurely descent at the end of the loop
The hike in was lovely—there were only a handful of people, we had amazing views of the rocky peaks, the sky was clear, and the temperature was still comfortable.
There were a few more people when we reached the High Peaks juncture—many headed east to loop around in that direction, while we headed west.
This section of the trail was primarily flat and shaded this time of day, and we had incredible views north over the surrounding area.
Things started to get interesting when we reached the steep-narrow section of the trail (literally called out as such on the directional signage). The trail suddenly met up with a wall of rock featuring grooves cut into its face and a single handrail to haul ourselves up!
The trail squeezed through rocky crevices that required us to get on our hands and knees at moments, and I was really glad we didn’t have to pass anyone along the limited railing areas!
We quickly realized we were going in the more desirable direction, although our final climb down some footholds cut into a large rock was a little dicey. Can’t say we’ve done anything quite like that before!
We reached another juncture that split off to the Juniper Canyon trail, which wound down toward the west entrance of the park. A number of people were resting on the rocks, grabbing something to eat and drink, and admiring the views from here. We also paused to have some water before continuing down the High Peaks trail back toward the parking area.
Along the way we saw a couple of birds circling overhead, one of which really looked like the California Condor given its pinkish head. Another couple also stopped to look, and we all agreed that while we’re not bird experts, we’re all pretty sure that’s what we were seeing!
Our hike out was uneventful until we reached another split with the option of taking the Rim Trail, which we decided to add to our hike. I recommend it—it’s very flat and easy and comes out at the Bear Gulch Reservoir, which is another lovely spot for a break.
We tried to take the Bear Gulch Cave trail back toward the parking lot but had some trouble navigating the cave and instead found ourselves circling out via the Moses Spring trail. It turned out part of the caves were closed due to bat activity and preservation so we probably (albeit inadvertently) did the right thing.
Overall our hike clocked in at 5.9 miles with 1,514 feet of gain. It was after noon when we concluded so we decided to wrap up our visit, grab some lunch, and then head to our hotel so we could get cleaned up for the evening. The experience leaving the park was nothing like our arrival from a traffic perspective—while we’d buzzed right in that morning, the afternoon line up of cars trying to get in stretched for miles and miles. I couldn’t believe it—or that those people were going to simply wait. They had all turned off their vehicles and were walking around, and one driver was playing his guitar behind the wheel!
Brian had overheard another visitor mention that she and her husband hadn’t made it into the park the previous day and had come back earlier this day to try again. I can’t even imagine waiting all day only to be turned away! I’m really glad we heeded the warning to go early, and I recommend you do the same!
Pinnacles National Park may be lesser known, but it’s still busy and beautiful, and it offered a very different terrain that we usually encounter while traveling and hiking. Consider adding it to your list!