WRITTEN BY Rachael Medina
Rachael Medina is the staff writer and content manager for California.com. She was born and raised just outside the Mojave Desert in Southern California and moved to the redwood forests of Humboldt C…See full bio
Brilliant chartreuse moss covers the shaded rocks as towering volcanic-rock pinnacles, eroded from years of wind and rain, stand majestically in the distance. Spires and crags meet the rolling hillsides, talus caves, and large faults that rise above the horizon—creating an unusual panorama that appears to belong in Arizona, Wyoming, or Utah rather than in the Central Coast region of California, merely 50 miles away from the Pacific Ocean.
These otherworldly formations are distinctly Californian and have been crafted over millions of years. Several volcanoes erupted, spewing lava all across the land before being shaped and altered by seismic activity, wind, and water erosion. From between these volcanic structures rise unexpected oak woodlands, bat-filled talus caves, and sprawling reservoirs. Due to its highly interesting landscape, Pinnacles National Park provides an experience unlike any other destination.
Nestled an hour inland from the Carmel Valley, between Big Sur and Mercey Hot Springs, Pinnacles National Park’s unique seismic and volcanic activity have carved out a landscape that includes a little bit of everything—from clear reservoirs, to monoliths, to wooded trails filled with fall foliage—making it a spectacular sight to see. While it would be easy to spend a full week completing the best hikes in Pinnacles National Park, camping under the stars, and breathing in the undisturbed air, even a weekend of exploring this national park is enough to make a huge impact. With few plans to make before embarking on the journey, all there is to do is pack and hit the road.
Vehicle entrance fee: $30.00
Motorcycle entrance fee: $25.00
Walk-in or bicycle entrance fee: $15.00
Annual and Lifetime Passes
Pinnacles National Park annual pass: $55.00
*Free entrance days can be found here
Driving along the Pacific Coast Highway from Santa Cruz, the crisp, salty air of Monterey Bay wafts in through the car windows, instantly creating a nostalgic and laid-back state of mind as the road signs pass by. A youthful essence coats the day’s events, and though autumn has arrived, the world seems to be dusted with summertime.
Cruising past Capitola and the gently rolling hills of the 101 South and the 156 East, nothing else seems to matter, as if every memory of daily life ceases to exist. The freedom of nature gets closer with every passing mile, and the office drama, work tribulations, and lingering stress—that no amount of yoga classes seems to release—all feel like bad dreams rather than reality. But it’s along the two-lane road of the 25 that these dreams get replaced with the inspiring images of the upcoming destination, causing your excitement to swell to unfathomable levels.
Every curve in the road and each crack in the pavement are a part of the journey, and for the first time in what feels like forever, it’s easy to have a positive outlook. With so much beauty surrounding you every inch of the way, it seems impossible to feel anything but happy. Just as the fluttering anticipation becomes all-encompassing, a fork in the road appears and divides the grassy fields from the brown, desert-like landscape, leading to the natural wonderland of Pinnacles National Park.
The fall foliage of the valley oaks, gray pines, and cottonwoods becomes denser as the campground grows nearer. The Pinnacles National Park Visitor Center pops up out of nowhere and proves without a shadow of a doubt that you have, in fact, arrived at the correct location. Past the center, the shaded roadways continue to meander amongst the trees as they mix with the smoothed dirt, picnic tables, and fire rings of the campsites that welcome visitors from far and wide to truly experience California.
Since the drive from Santa Cruz only takes about an hour and a half, there is plenty of time to explore before it’s time to check in to the Pinnacles campgrounds. While it’s difficult to let go and stop worrying about snagging one of the sites—which are available on a first-come, first-served basis—there is enough to see over the next couple of hours to distract you from these concerns.
As the journey continues past the east entrance station, nearly every thought seems to disappear—aside from the disbelief of having finally made it. For some reason, even passing by the park’s only campground doesn’t allow the reality to sink in; perhaps it’s because the campsite is not run by the National Park Service or because the grand rock formations are not visible from behind the entrance. Whatever the reason, rolling onto the pavement after paying the $30 weekly entrance fee feels like a momentous occasion, and after a quick car dance and a squeal or two of joy, vacation has officially begun.
Brilliant hues encapsulate every visible thing between the dashboard and the edges of the windshield. Emerald-colored pine needles adorn the brown branches that reach out toward the towering pinnacles, as the nearby rocks make friends with the creeping mosses sprawling across them. Even the pavement seems to come to life as the weathered yellow lines shake hands with the mountains on the horizon and make way for native soils along the shoulders.
Though the anticipation of securing a campsite is flitting in and out of thought, the beauty of the land beckons for attention with each passing second. The intriguing topography on the drive from the campground to the Pinnacles National Park trails makes the four-mile drive fly by. After parking near the Bear Gulch Day Use Area, it’s hard to get out of the car fast enough; the wilderness opens up to miles of unpaved pathways just ahead, and the entire world appears to be available for exploring.
Just over half a mile of trekking through the park brings you from the Moses Spring Trail, onto the Bear Gulch Cave Trail, and up the stairs of the Rim Trail, where Bear Gulch Reservoir stretches up out of the rocks. Because of the stacked rock walls, it’s impossible to see any indication of the water’s presence before ascending the final steps, but an entire landscape pops out in an awe-inspiring moment as the rocks give way to the vistas.
Suddenly the world seems softer, as if the presence of water hushes the minds of those passing by and reminds us all that things are going to be okay. Though the water is relatively stagnant, the breeze blowing through the valley of rocks creates a rippling on the water’s surface that appears to be a man-made texture instead of a natural occurrence—but human hands had no part in creating these volcanic outcroppings, lush hillsides, or gentle water movements.
While the relaxing environment lends itself to hours of reflection, the day has passed by so quickly that it is nearly time to scour for a campsite for the night. Returning from the trail feels bittersweet, and though it’s clear that the park lies in very close proximity to the campgrounds, it doesn’t feel right to leave so soon.
Thankfully, the Pinnacles campground has largely emptied out, so securing a spot is not an issue. Unlike the blistering-hot days of summer, the exquisite weather of fall doesn’t see a plethora of tourists—making for easy pickings when it comes to lodging. After settling the $30 camping fee, we cozy in for a few moments to appreciate the surroundings for the first time without the pressures of an agenda. The chirping birds, swaying leaves, and rustling bushes fill the air in this time of solitude.
With so much excitement fueling the day’s activities, a deep exhaustion takes hold earlier than expected. Though there are many things to do in Pinnacles National Park and a lot left on the agenda, nothing sounds better than taking it easy at the campsite tonight and preparing for tomorrow’s full day.
Sleeping in a new place always presents more challenges than it should. Between the chatter of campers at nearby sites, the sounds of unusual animals, and the rigidity of the ground, falling—and staying—asleep is the most difficult hurdle thus far. If it weren’t for calling it an early night, there may be no way to power through the activities to come.
After a quick bite of oatmeal, a bit of packing, and a warm cup of coffee, it’s time to start the day. We clean up the campsite and shove everything back into the trunk so our day can really begin. The short drive back to the trailheads feels so familiar now, as if it’s the only road we’ve ever traveled down. Yet a sort of excitement and mystery remains scattered through the branches along the side of the pavement.
The last half mile of the drive leaves behind the familiar places of yesterday and replaces them with the promise of new experiences. Parking in the Old Pinnacles Trailhead lot at the end of the roadway proves to be easier than imagined, and in just a few paces, we find ourselves on the trail.
Old Pinnacles Trail weaves through the landscape, passing by several other paths along the way. Keep right at the first fork to remain on Old Pinnacles Trail, but then stay left for the rest of the way; you’ll eventually turn onto the Balconies Cave trail and Chalone Creek Road. The trip is somewhat demanding, particularly in the darkness of the Balconies Cave, but the experience is well worth the views. Take the climber’s access trail to Machete Ridge—whether or not you intend to climb—and you’ll be rewarded with some of the most picturesque panoramas available in the park.
Giant rocky outcroppings make way for deep, green valleys and sheer cliffsides as the horizon rises to greet the mountaintops. The wide expanse of Machete Ridge is simultaneously welcoming and overwhelming; the undulating lands seem to go on forever as hill after hill assists you wherever you wish to go. The possibilities seem endless, particularly for the experienced climbers who take advantage of the unique geological formations.
Inspired by the morning’s hike, the trip back toward camp takes markedly less energy than the way there. Though the vacation is already nearly over, a refreshing exhaustion has settled in, making it feel like a weeklong adventure rather than a whirlwind of a weekend. While it’s hard to miss living off of protein bars and freeze-dried trail meals, the scenery and the memories make up for this downfall.
The two-and-a-half-mile trek back to the car allows for plenty of time for reflection and, because you’re lost in thought, the trailhead sneaks up on you. But it’s too soon to leave the trails behind, so a quick drive down to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area provides the perfect excuse to check out another Pinnacles National Park hike. It only takes about 15 minutes to travel up the Bear Gulch Trail to Discovery Wall, one of the park’s best-known climbing areas.
Unlike Machete Ridge, Discovery Wall gives amateur climbers the opportunity to hone their skills in a more controlled environment. While there are plenty of easy topropes and difficult multi-pitch climbs throughout Machete Ridge, the popularity of Discovery Wall comes from its affinity for easy and intermediate climbing routes. But because Pinnacles National Park was formed out of volcanic rock, climbing here is entirely different than climbing the granite faces of other popular spots in California, such as Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.
After an hour or two—it’s hard to keep track of time out here—every ounce of energy has been spent. Trail mix and a healthy dose of water help to enliven the spirits, but more relaxation is in order after such a strenuous afternoon. Though the car is about a mile away, knowing that the trekking is nearly over is plenty to propel each step toward the finish line. Once the car is in sight, it’s hard to think about anything other than sitting down. While the temperature is much more comfortable than it would be during the summertime, the constant rays of sun make an otherwise pleasant ambience feel excessively hot.
Air conditioning has never felt so luxurious. While there is so much to appreciate about the rugged landscape, it is the deep appreciation for everyday comforts that really makes an impact—and after spending a lot of time in the great outdoors over the last couple of days, it seems impossible not to crave these familiar comforts. So while it would be easy to extend the trip for another several days or even weeks, the time has come to make the leisurely drive back to the beaches of Santa Cruz and unwind for the evening before the week begins again.
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