Pinnacles National Monument
Pinnacles National Monument  is a United States National Monument that protects a wilderness area containing the remains of half of a long-extinct volcano. It offers rugged hiking trails over high rock formations and through talus caves. Located approximately two hours (by car) south of San Jose in California's Central Coast region, the park is remote enough to avoid massive throngs of visitors, but close enough to the Bay Area to be a good day-trip option.
The initial 2,060 acres of Pinnacles National Monument was set aside in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt to preserve the unusual rock formations and the talus caves found in the park. The Civilian Conservation Corps began developing some of the trails and facilities in the park between 1933 and 1942, including the distinctive tunnel that is found on the tunnel trail. Today the park has been expanded to contain 24,265 acres and attracts over 150,000 visitors annually.
The pinnacles for which the park is named are the remains of a 23 million year old volcano. Located along the San Andreas fault, half of the volcano was pulled 195 miles to the northeast as the tectonic plate on which it sits shifted. The current rocky outcroppings have been eroded to approximately one-third of the volcano's original height, but still offer a challenging vista for hikers and rock climbers.
Flora and fauna
The park is home to 149 species of birds, 49 mammals, 22 reptiles, 6 amphibians, 68 butterflies, 36 dragonflies and damselflies, nearly 400 bees, and many thousands of other invertebrates.
The endangered California condor, the largest flying land bird in North America, has recently been re-introduced into the park and can occasionally be seen gliding on updrafts near the rocky cliffs. Turkey vultures are commonly seen, and the park is also home to golden eagles, prairie falcons, Cooper’s hawks, and sharp-shinned hawks. Mammals in the park include black-tailed deer, bobcat, gray fox, raccoon, jackrabbit, brush rabbit, ground squirrel, chipmunk, and several kinds of bats.
The climate of Pinnacles is typical of the Mediterranean climate of California, with cool wet winters and hot dry summers. Summer temperatures of over 100°F are common, but coastal fog will often come into the valleys at night. Nighttime summer temperatures of 50°F are common, making for enormous daily temperature swings.
Winter climate is akin to the California deserts, with mild days and nights often dropping into the low 20s °F. The average precipitation is approximately 16 inches (400 mm) per year. Nearly all of the precipitation is in the form of rainfall, with the majority occurring from December to March. Snowfall is rare, but does occur in significant amounts about every 10 years.
An automobile is the only practical means to reach Pinnacles National Monument. Park entrances on the east and west sides are not connected to each other by a through-road. The west entrance can be reached via U.S. Route 101 near the town of Soledad, then east along California Route 146 to the Chaparral area. The east entrance is reached via California Route 25, south from the city of Hollister or north from the town of King City, then west on California Route 146.
If unsure which side of the Monument to visit, be aware that a foot trail system connects both sides of the park. For those wanting to visit a talus cave, the west side trail heads are closest to the Balconies Cave Loop. For views of the High Peaks without leaving your car, the rock formations are also visible from the west parking area. However, the road to the west side of the monument is winding and narrow, and may not be the best option for those traveling in a motor home or similar recreation vehicle.
All private vehicles entering the park must pay a $5 entrance fee that is valid for seven days. For individuals traveling by foot, bike or motorcycle the fee is $3, also valid for seven days. Those with an America the Beautiful Pass ($80, allows entrance to all national park areas for one year) do not need to pay the entrance fee. The Pinnacles Annual Pass, which costs $15, also waives all entrance fees.
The park has two entrances, Pinnacles East and Pinnacles West, which are not connected by roads. Parking areas just inside the park entrance often fill during the Spring, and it is therefore advisable to try to arrive early. On some weekends during the spring a park shuttle may be available on the east side of the monument to take visitors from overflow parking areas to trailheads and the visitor center.
The park offers 30 miles of hiking trails, easily accessible from the parking areas inside of both entrances and ranging in difficulty from easy two-mile loops to trails leading across high cliffs and over rocky outcroppings.
Bicycles are allowed only on paved roads within the park. Bicycles and motorcycles are not allowed on trails.
There have been over 140 species of birds documented in the park, but for the average visitor the most interesting will be the California condor, the largest flying bird in North America. Nearly extinct, condors were reintroduced to the park in 2003. These giant birds can live as many as sixty years and are often confused with turkey vultures, but can be distinguished by their bald, pink heads and small patch of white feathers on the leading edge underside of their wings. Other notable birds likely to be seen by casual birders include the prairie falcons that nest on the high cliffs, as well as golden eagles and red-tailed hawks.
The rock in Pinnacles is volcanic in origin, and may pose difficulty for climbers used to granite. Park regulations are as follows:
The visitor centers sell postcards and books of local interest, but otherwise there are no items for sale within the park. Nearby towns have grocery stores and can provide any needed supplies.
There is no food sold in the park. Water is available at visitor centers. Nearby towns have restaurants, bars, and grocery stores.
There is no lodging within the park. The closest lodging is the Inn at Pinnacles (www.innatthepinnacles.com), located four miles from West Pinnacles. Rates start at $200 per night, and it is only open on weekends (typically Friday through Sunday).
Camping is allowed at Pinnacles Campground, which, as of April 2006, is part of Pinnacles National Monument. The campground is located just outside of East Pinnacles on California Route 146, and is operated by a concessioner for the National Park Service. This campground offers camping for $10 per person per night, with a maximum charge of $35 per site per night. RV sites are available for $15 per person per night, with a maximum charge of $40 per site per night. A charge of $5 per extra vehicle may also be assessed.
Overnight camping is not allowed in the backcountry of Pinnacles National Monument, although the east side of the park is now open 24 hours a day for hiking.
The park is a relatively safe place, but there are a few issues to be aware of. For one, when hiking through Balconies Cave or Bear Gulch Cave, bring a flashlight; a headlamp is recommended to leave one's hands free. The caves are dark, footing is uneven, the rock may be slippery, and ceilings can be low. Avoid unnecessary noise in the cave which can be disturbing to wildlife and visitors.
During the summer and early fall temperatures may exceed 100°F, making sun protection and adequate water absolute necessities. Drinking water is only available in the developed areas -- there is no water available on any of the trails. In addition, hikers should wear proper footwear to avoid slipping or twisting an ankle.
Rock climbers should remain alert for rocks that may become dislodged or equipment that may be dropped onto unwary hikers below. Existing protection hardware is not maintained by the park and should be tested before using. Clean-climbing practices means removing slings, etc. after use. Be aware of advisories concerning cliff-nesting birds.
Dangers from the local flora and fauna are limited. Poison oak can cause a nasty rash; wetter areas may have thick stands of this shrub, while hotter, drier areas tend to be devoid of this noxious native species. Stay on trails to avoid encounters with this plant, and learn to recognize it ("Leaves of three, let it be"). Stinging nettle is another annoyance. Touching the plant will cause a burning sensation with all leaf hairs sticking to the skin. Watch for this tall plant in moist areas such as cave entrances and along stream edges. The only poisonous snake in the park is the Pacific rattlesnake; keep to trails, avoid heavy brush, and watch where hands and feet are placed in rocky terrain to avoid this snake. Rattlesnake bites require prompt first aid, so keep an eye and ear out for these animals. The last rattlesnake bite was in 1995, and the animal is protected in the park.