Let’s Go Exploring! High Peaks Loop – Pinnacles National Monument

The High Peaks Trail takes you through the heart of the Pinnacles rock formations.

The hike can be strenuous and is not recommended for children. Start at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area and walk up the Condor Gulch Trail. This part of the hike offers some great views of the Pinnacles. Stop at the Overlook for some water but also drink in the views.

The trail continues to climb but loops back allowing hikers to see the Bear Gulch area below. In the distance are rolling hills and beautiful views. The trail moves through chaparral and to a sparse, yet beautiful area before joining the High Peaks Trail.

Walking along the High Peaks trail a large monolith rises to the north of the canyon. This is Machete Ridge, below it is the Balconies Cave – but that is another hike. This trail winds through strange finger-shaped Pinnacles rock formations. A sign tells you the trail will become steep and narrow. After a few minutes hikers are rewarded with a vista of the High Peaks.

Continuing down the trail the path becomes steep, then appears to stop. Here the trail becomes footholds carved into the rock; well-worn handrails beckons hikers higher.

At the top of the Pinnacles, stop. Enjoy the view.

As the trail descends keep an eye out for Condors gliding overhead.

The High Peaks trail drops sharply then levels out revealing even more bizarre rock formations that hint at the monument’s volcanic past.

Enjoying Condors at Pinnacles National Monument

California Condor

I saw a young California condor. It was 40 days old – it was also the first condor to be hatched in Pinnacles National Monument in over 100 years!

During a recent hike at Pinnacles National Monument my family and I were blessed to see, just forty feet above us, a California condor with roughly a nine-foot wingspan glide over our heads. Whoa! It was over in several seconds but we were able to snap a picture (shown).

A few minutes later down the trail we approached a trail junction. At the junction were spotting scopes pointed at an impressive rock wall about half a mile in the distance. Manning the scopes were biologists and interpretive volunteers helping visitors to see a young condor.

Looking through the scope I could see a light grey, fuzzy looking young bird resting in the crevice of a ledge. According to the interpreters this youngster was about the size of a duck.

What is impressive about seeing these condors is that it highlights the work that has taken decades to accomplish.

After years of over hunting, Lead and Strychnine poisoning and habitat loss the condor population plummeted. In the mid 1980’s only 22 condors remained. The last condors were captured and placed in a captive breeding program to increase their numbers. In the mid 1990’s releases began in California ad have now expanded into Arizona and in Mexico. As of today the total condor population is about 500 individuals; roughly 350 are in the wild while another 150 remain in the breeding program. Slowly the condors are returning to their historic territories, including Pinnacles.

We inquired about the condor that flew over our heads a few minutes earlier. According to the scientist this was the hatchling’s Dad.

To learn more about the Pinnacles Condor Program visit:
http://www.nps.gov/pinn/naturescience/condors.htm

Let’s Go Exploring! Balconies Cave and Cliffs – Pinnacles National Monument

Note: This was produced several years before Pinnacles National Monument was renamed Pinnacles National Park. The references within the article and videos still use the term Monument.

The Balconies Cave and Cliffs loop is a great family hike at Pinnacles National Monument.

Start at the Chaparral Ranger Station at the West Entrance of Pinnacles National Monument to walk this easy to moderate 2.4-mile loop trail. The trail passes house-sized boulders and follows a small creek, gradually the trail funnels into a small canyon and the entrance of the Balconies Cave.

Balconies Cave is generally dry, but in the winter and spring wading might be required as you duck under boulders and scramble through tight squeezes. A flashlight is required. It is easy to imagine that this hidden trail takes you to a lost-world on the other side.

Just past the cave is the Balconies Cliffs Trail junction. Walk up the trail while keeping an eye open for a possible Condor or Turkey Vulture. At the top of the trail take a break and enjoy the breathtaking views of the surrounding area; in the background are the towering Machete Ridge and the immense Balconies Cliffs.

Walking down the path the scenery becomes greener. Enjoy the occasional wildflowers and great views. The Balconies Cliff Trail trail soon reconnects with the Balconies Trail and will return hikers to the parking area. Keep a watchful eye for the small waterfall on the left side of the trail during your return trip.

March is a Great Time for Camping at the Pinnacles Campground

I love camping at the Pinnacles National Monument (located in California) in late March. On the weekends the campground is partially full, but during the rest of the week the campground has just a handful of campers. During our most recent visit we were able to select the camping site with a view of the hill to our east. This was a perfect spot for watching condors.

Earlier in the day my family had learned about a nesting pair of California Condors that lived on the ridge to our east. The condors, as a species, were fighting their way back from the edge of extinction. A nesting pair was a rare and welcome event. A visiting interpreter from a condor research facility had informed us that of the 500 condors that were alive today roughly 250 were in the wild. On the hill to our south two dark dots glided over tree tops and landed in the tree reported to have the nest, it was good to see these great creatures.

In the sky two-dozen turkey vultures glided on thermals. As the sun lowered on the horizon the thermals lessened and the vultures decreased in altitude. For several hours they gradually glided down. On several passes their massive wings carried them overhead. The airspace was becoming crowded as thirty vultures weaved less than 100 feet over us – their wings sounded like to the fast ripping sound made when a kite weaves rapidly in a quick turn. The moon appeared high in the sky and provided a mysterious looking background as the dark forms moved overhead. After a few minutes the birds moved away and roosted in a tree at the north end of the campground.

As the sun set the sky darkened and stars began to appear. The heat from our small fire kept us warm as the temperatures dipped into the high 30‘s. Our enjoyment of the bright nighttime star (Venus) easily made up for the evening chill.

The next morning we woke, enjoyed a short walk and started some water for camp coffee. After breakfast we started our walk down the the Bench Trail to briefly explore the South Wilderness Trail then walk up the creek to the Peaks View area.

Note: You can camp anytime of year at Pinnacles. But, our favorite time (weather permitting) is late March.

Let’s Go Exploring! Bear Gulch Cave – Pinnacles National Monument

This is a great family hike at Pinnacles National Monument.

Visitors can start at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area and hike up a moderately inclined trail to the entrance of Bear Gulch Cave. The hike to the reservoir is a short hike of 1.3 miles (one way), but it is action-packed.

The trail pleasantly meanders past a creek, between the rocks and through the trees. In about twenty minutes we arrive at the entrance of Bear Gulch Cave.

Inside the cave, we hear water trickling and light can be seen streaming down onto the trail in several sections. As we move into some dark passages the sound of rushing water becomes louder. Then the cave opens up into a large room. A waterfall rushes next to us as we climb steps that take us further into the cave.

Depending on the season the upper section of the cave might be closed to help protect a sensitive species of bat and their young. In our video this section of the cave is open to explorers – here a flashlight is required. We sometimes have to squat down and duck walk through several narrow sections while wading in ankle-deep water. For an eight-year-old (and adults too) this is a lot of fun.

Soon we emerge from the darkness and walk below house-sized boulders that are jammed into the canyon above us. Then we see a staircase chiseled from the rock itself. We walk up and are greeted by a small reservoir. Walking around the reservoir we look back at the dam and several amazing rock features that rise into the sky.

Family Time at Bear Gulch Cave – Pinnacles National Monument

Family Time at Bear Gulch Cave’ was published in the June 2008 issue of ‘Bay Area Parent Silicon Valley’.

Pinnacles National MonumentMy seven-year-old daughter Anna was first out of the car upon arriving at Pinnacles National Monument, “Come on slowpokes, let’s go!” We walked up a meandering canyon trail to the entrance of the Bear Gulch Cave.

Pinnacles National Monument is a two hours drive south of San Jose. This natural playground includes bizarre rock formations, house-sized boulders, and my daughter’s favorite, Bear Gulch Cave.

We felt a cool breeze from the cave’s mouth. Anna instructed us, “Mama, Papa, don’t forget your flashlights.” My wife, Christiane and I smiled and followed our young adventurer.

At first, the cave was dark then our eyes adjusted to the low light. We appeared silhouetted against shafts of light that pierced the ceiling. Small rocks crunched nosily under our feet as we walked. A bat darted overhead. Being mindful of the bat’s home we walked more quietly and lowered the beams from our flashlights. In the distance, we heard a low rushing noise from a waterfall. Several minutes later we stood next to a gushing spray of water. Our lights illuminated the waterfall that disappeared twenty feet below.

Pinnacles National MonumentFurther in the cave the trail dove underneath enormous boulders that were interlocked between the walls of the canyon. “These are as big as the house!” exclaimed Anna. The trail snaked between boulders to reveal a narrow staircase carved into the canyon wall. We climbed the stairs and out of the cave. We were greeted by a small reservoir surrounded by amazing and awkward shaped rocks. My daughter spotted our favorite picnic area across the water.

We enjoyed lunch in a shaded area. Overhead a vulture, or a condor, glided on thermals. In the distance rock climbers carefully made their ascent up a stone monolith. A hummingbird zipped in close, startling us, then quickly sped off. The rest of the afternoon we continued to explore the many trails of this natural playground.

Finally, the sun became low on the horizon and signaled the end of our day. We returned to the cave and back to the parking area.

As the family car turned onto the highway I asked, “So Anna, what was best about today?” No reply. Our young adventurer was asleep.

To continue your own explorations of Pinnacles National Monument visit: http://www.nps.gov/pinn

Springtime Exploration of Pinnacles National Monument

Pinnacles National Monument is a dry terrain capped with disfigured spires that reach into the sky. In the springtime, Pinnacles National Monument brings temperate weather, colorful blooms, flowing streams and abundant wildlife.

Day hikes are roughly 8.5 miles in length and about 7-9 hours in duration. Trails include rough stairs hewn from the rock face, several tight fits and low overhangs. Sections of the trail are very steep and a moderate level of physical activity is required. Folks who are afraid of heights or claustrophobic may feel uncomfortable.

Meet at the Sanborn Park Hostel by 6:15 pm Friday, April 23, to determine carpool arrangements.

GEAR

  • Participants are responsible for their own camping equipment, gear, and food. A small, communal cooking stove for hot water etc. will be provided. Wear layered clothes and come prepared for any kind of weather.
  • Recommended gear for campground: tent, sleeping bag, comfortable shoes, cook stove, cooking utensils, mosquito repellent, flashlight.
  • Recommended gear for day hikes: day pack, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, hiking boots, comfortable pair of extra shoes, camera, lunch, two liters of water per person per day. A flashlight is required for the cave.

ITINERARY
Friday, April 23, 1999
We will depart Sanborn Park Hostel as a group at 6:30 pm, arriving at Pinnacles Campground around 8:30 pm to unpack. We’ll enjoy a dessert of marshmallows and hot chocolate around the fire.

Saturday, April 24, 1999
We begin the morning with a decent breakfast and hit the trail by 8 am. We’ll hike to the Chalone Creek area and ascend the High Peaks Trail. After an initial steep incline, the trail opens and offers substantial views of Bear Gulch Reservoir, Balconies Cliffs, Mount Defiance and parts of the lush Moses Spring area. The trail winds among the spires then suddenly climb up the rock face, over support bridges, and to the picturesque top. We break for lunch overlooking the monument at our feet. Descending the trail we are likely to encounter a multitude of rock climbers near a small reservoir. We enter the Bear Gulch Caves, though we quickly yield onto the lush Moses Spring Trail. The cave is a roosting colony for endangered bats in the spring and should not be disturbed. Arriving at the Visitors Center we break for water and a short rest before continuing along a tree lined stream and returning to the camp. In the evening we “put our feet up”, enjoy the night and relax around the fire.

Sunday, April 25, 1999
Sunday we pack our tents and clean our camp site before hiking the Old Pinnacles Trail. This is a rocky, yet relatively easy hike to the base of some spectacular spires – a short distance beyond lie the quarter of a mile long, Balconies Cave. The cave is dark and will require flashlights. After the cave, the trail ascends to the Balconies Cliff Trail (.8 mile) with imposing views of Machete Ridge and Balconies which are sometimes called, “Little Yosemite.” Look for prairie falcons and golden eagles. The path returns to the Old Pinnacles Trail and a gentle descent to the parking area. We’ll depart in the afternoon about 2 pm with plenty of light for a safe drive back to the South Bay.

CAMPGROUND & FACILITIES
The Pinnacles Campground is just outside the park boundary and provides a good base for exploring the monument. We will be tent camping. The camping areas include two adjoined sites along a creek. Parking for two vehicles is provided. Additional vehicles can park for $3 per day in the campgrounds lot. The campground includes toilets, coin-operated showers, and a campground store. Fires are permitted in fire pits. Wood for a central fire will be included.

DIRECTIONS
Pinnacles National Monument is roughly a two-hour drive south from San Jose. From Sanborn Park Hostel drive to 85 Freeway and head south. Junction of Hwy 101 continues south. Drive past Gilroy to Hwy 25, drive toward Hollister. Continue through Hollister on Hwy 25, drive 31 miles south is the monument. Turn right on Hwy 146 follow signs. Pinnacles Campground is located on the left.

Dates: April 23-25, 1999
Participants: 12
Trip Leader: Mark Hougardy
Price: $32.00 per person (reservations required)
Carpool Fee: $15
Accommodations: Tent Camping
Trip Rating: Moderate