A short trip to a beautiful place

One of the park's most popular sites is the Bear Gulch Reservoir, which is shown here reflecting the red-tinged spires at Pinnacles National Park. — Todd Guild/Register-Pajaronian

Pinnacles National park well worth the short drive

PINNACLES, CA — I went with my family to Pinnacles National Park for a short camping trip from March 30 through April 1. It was our fourth trip to the park.

Bejeweled by rocky, red-tinged peaks and numerous rocky spires that were forged by volcanoes and then uplifted by the shifting earth, Pinnacles is the country’s newest national park. Several California condors call it home.

The park is the closest national park to Santa Cruz County, about an hour and a half drive. It is an easy day trip for those willing to get an early start.

There is a small camp store with many provisions one might need, although there are no restaurants or any food vendors nearby. Campers should therefore come prepared. Coin-operated showers are available.

One highlight of the park is a short walk through a small cave system, which was created when a series of giant boulders collapsed against each other.

More adventurous travelers can hike up to the High Peaks. A ranger told us that his favorite hike is the South Wilderness Trail, a 6.5-mile hike on an unmaintained trail.

pinnacles view web 4-5

While not as majestic as the views at parks such as Yosemite, the views at Pinnacles are nevertheless striking. Here, Several spires rise out of the chapparal forest. — Todd Guild/Register-Pajaronian 

We reserved a campsite, one of about 130 spread out through chaparral forest, with nice views of the low-lying mountains and peaks.

With waning daylight after setting up camp late in the afternoon, we simply walked about a mile to a nearby riverbank, where our sons, ages 11 and 8, spent time tossing large rocks into the water. It was the perfect afternoon activity for kids, and a great place for us to sit and relax

We headed back to our campsite to discover that a giant wedding party – complete with approximately 200 people, a taco truck and DJ – was occurring directly across the stream from us. Luckily, they shut down by 10 p.m. and were fairly respectful about being quiet after that.

And I’m glad they were. The peacefulness I associate with camping returned, along with sounds of frogs croaking in the water, the babbling brook and quail trilling throughout the campground.

There was also a flock of apparently nocturnal wild turkeys, whose comical gobbling punctuated the night.

For our second day we took the Bear Gulch Cave Trail, an easy if somewhat steep one-mile hike to a cave.

Anyone visiting Pinnacles is advised to check the status of the caves before they visit.

Separated into two parts, the lower section is open approximately 10 months out of the year. The entire cave is open only in March and October.

pinnacles cave 2 web 4-5

Flashlights are a must on the narrow, meandering walk through the caves at Pinnacles National Park. — Todd Guild/Register-Pajaronian

The cave is completely closed from approximately May 15 until July 15 to allow a colony of Townsend’s Big-eared bats that live there to raise their young. The bats are listed as a “species of concern.”

Flashlights are a must for the walk through the cave, which requires balancing on a series of rocks along a shallow river, and then ducking and squeezing through a series of turns and staircases.

A steep staircase ends at the Bear Gulch Reservoir, a small body of water surrounded by rocky spires.

From there, hikers can return by the same trail, or take the Rim Trail for the return trip, which meanders through low-lying forest and through the pinnacles that gave the park its name. We chose the latter, stopping occasionally to climb small boulders and try to catch lizards and snakes.

For our final day, which was a Monday, we wanted to take the mile walk up the Condor Gulch Trail to the overlook, which offers nice views of the High Peaks area in the distance.

But so many visitors were in the park that day that the Bear Gulch parking lot was full. So I dropped my family off at the trailhead and parked in a lower lot, and hiked the mile uphill trail to meet them. Visitors are advised to get an early start, both to snag the limited parking and to avoid the hotter parts of the day.

True to its name, we saw several giant California condors, which are typically seen soaring high in the air. Naturalists have noted 181 species of birds that have been seen in the park.

There were also plenty of places to stop and climb on the boulders along the way.

In all, Pinnacles National Park is well worth the short drive, and the perfect place to bring a family for an easy camping trip.


More In Travel