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Pinnacles National Monument

Birds do it. Bees do it. It's time to fall in love with an old volcano.

an illustrated map of Pinnacles with a bat, image
Photo caption
Nearly 400 bee species and the Townsend's big-eared bat make Pinnacles their home.

Just east of the Salinas Valley, two hours south of San Francisco, the fertile soil turns stingy, the flat farmland buckles, and the earth erupts into the crenulated peaks that give Pinnacles National Monument its name. At first glance, the red hue of the rocks and their craggy profile call to mind the sandstone landscapes of southern Utah. But this park has a story and a pedigree all its own. Both geology and ecology set Pinnacles apart. The national monument, in the Gabilan Range, encompasses the remnants of an ancient volcano whose walls have splintered into spires. Its dramatically etched terrain draws hikers, rock climbers, and wildlife watchers; many come in hopes of seeing the California condor, a great bird rebounding from the brink of extinction and now, once again, making the region its home.

Throughout the spring, the area blooms with an abundance of wildflowers and its fields buzz with one of the greatest diversities of bee species on earth—nearly 400. Townsend's big-eared bats raise their young here, roosting in Bear Gulch Cave. Though close to the Bay Area, the park often escapes the eyes of travelers: It draws fewer than 200,000 visitors a year. Pinnacles ranger Carl Brenner notes, "People often say, ‘I've driven by your park but I've never been in it.' "

A trip to Pinnacles should start with the understanding that the national monument is, in effect, two parks in one. There are two entrances, east and west, linked by trails but not by roads. Volcanic peaks form a barrier through it from north to south. As a result, though the territory is fairly small (at a little over 26,425 acres, it’s slightly smaller than San Francisco), many travelers opt to visit one side or the other. Both offer great day hikes, but it’s best to set aside two days if you want to see the entire area.

At either entrance, visitors step into similar surroundings, an otherworldly landscape that began taking shape some 30 million years ago. Around that time two giant tectonic plates collided, giving rise to an age of volcanism. Molten eruptions added contours to what today is California and laid the foundation for the national monument. The Pinnacles volcano was a smaller version of Mount St. Helens, standing 8,000 feet high near present-day Lancaster, north of Los Angeles. As eons passed, the magma that fueled it ran out. Gradually the volcano eroded and the San Andreas Fault tore it apart. Squeezed by shifting plates, the broken-down remnants marched north at roughly the rate that a fingernail grows. They took millions of years to relocate 195 miles.

The remains of the once fiery mountain are a boon to anyone who enjoys the thrill of a terrain virtually untouched by human presence. From either entrance (the east side is 32 miles south of Hollister, the west near Soledad), visitors can set off on more than 30 miles of trails varying in length and difficulty. Some of the gentlest, such as Bench Trail on the east side and Balconies Trail on the west, wind through flat expanses of chaparral, the fragrant, tough brush that inspired vaqueros to wear the protective leggings known as chaps. More demanding routes rise into the High Peaks (Condor Gulch Trail and High Peaks Trail from the east; Juniper Canyon Trail from the west). Here, fingers of reddish, sharp-fragmented volcanic rock loom all around, pointing upward like the digits of a giant hand. In the distance stands North Chalone Peak, the highest point in the park at 3,304 feet. Although it is off-limits for rock climbing, other popular destinations such as the Balconies and High Peaks pose a hardy challenge to the climbers who come to Pinnacles in droves.

Hawks circle overhead and songbirds dot the sky. But the monument’s biggest avian attraction is the California condor, an endangered species whose population had dwindled to 27 as recently as 1987. Large, bald-headed birds with a 91/2-foot wingspan, condors have made a comeback thanks to ambitious recovery efforts that have brought their numbers in the wild to 128. Pinnacles is one of five locations in California, Arizona, and Baja California where the birds have been reintroduced. Thirteen California condors live in the area, soaring around the cliffs and scavenging on scraps of carrion. Not every visit leads to a condor sighting, but visitors can learn about the bird at the Bear Gulch Visitor Center (accessed from the east entrance) or by picking up free fliers on either side of the park.

Other winged denizens—bats—lure visitors to the caves at Pinnacles in spring and late summer. Without a flashlight, however, you can’t see much inside these talus caves—tunnel-like caverns that were created when massive boulders toppled into narrow ravines, forming a ceiling. You can visit Balconies Cave, near the west entrance, year-round, but Bear Gulch Cave, on the east, closes from mid-May to mid-July to protect female Townsend’s bats, which raise their pups at that time of year.

In spring, when the landscape lies ablaze with clarkia, California buckwheat, and other wildflowers, biologists arrive to study the unusually varied and thriving bee population. In May, if you keep your eyes on the plants, you may be able to distinguish some of the several hundred species. According to a study completed in 1999, the climate and blooms encourage the diversity of bees, some as small as a mosquito, others "the size of one’s thumb," in colors from "coppery greens, to steely blues, or glossy black."

Legend has it that Tiburcio Vásquez, a famed bandit, once hid stolen treasure in the area that is now the park. No secret stashes have ever been found, and Brenner, the ranger, says the story is probably untrue. But those seeking treasure will find riches of another sort here—an unspoiled wilderness of flora and fauna set in an ancient red rock landscape that tells an intriguing tale all its own.

Illustration by Neil Gower

This article was first published in May 2006. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.