Pinnacles is a beautiful national park that few really know about … not yet. Hikes through rare volcanic rock spires, canyons, crags and boulder-covered caves make for a most interesting day trip. It’s approximately a 1.5 hour drive from San Jose and 2.5 hours from San Francisco. See map below and other interesting things in San Benito County to see along the way.
The main things to do are 30 miles of novel scenic trails, a bit of rock climbing, and enjoying the exceptionally varied wildlife (over 100 varieties of wildflowers, 149 species of birds, 13 species of bats, 49 mammals, 69 butterflies, 400 species of bees and 500+ species of moths). If you are lucky you might even see one of 50 endangered condors around that can soar up to 15,000 feet high at speeds up to 55 miles/hour. Condors weigh about 20 pounds and have a wingspan of about 9.5 feet making them one of the largest birds in North America.
Pinnacles has some of the most unique geology in the world that bears no resemblance to the nearby Gabilan foothills. It was born approximately 23 million years ago as a volcano near Los Angeles about 200 miles southeast of the present location. The Pinnacles two thirds of this volcano was split off by the San Andreas Fault Zone which continues to move the park northward at the rate of 2/3ds of an inch/year.
The volcanic rock fractures and millions of years of wear give a dramatic and unique appearance easily seen when hiking. For example, the trails include two talus caves. Talus caves are formed by the openings under a jumble of giant boulders which have fallen into steep narrow canyons (resulting from sheer fractures in the volcanic rock).
A trail on the east side Pinnacles that we recommend for a start is the Moses Spring-Rim Trail Loop starting at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area, at end of the road on the east side. It is a 2.2 mile loop with a 500 foot elevation gain that is doable in about 1.5 hours. This is a good quick way to see rock formations, a talus cave (Bear Gulch cave open seasonally, a proper flashlight is required), and the reservoir.
Location: East side via Hwy 146 which is accessible from Hwy 25 about 35 miles south of Hollister. The west side is accessible via Hwy 101.
Hours: Open year round 9 am-4 pm daily. The automatic gate at the west entrance opens each morning at 7:30 am and closes at night; you can get out after it closes but can’t get in. We recommend getting there early in the morning if you can to help reduce heat and crowds.
Entrances: There are two separate unconnected entrances, one on the east side with a campground and one on the west side. We’ve only been to the east side.
Best Season: Most popular from mid February to early June when the weather is most comfortable and wildflowers show off best. However, weekends are very crowded then. (e.g., 2000+/day vs 300-/day).
Worst Season: Summers are very hot, often over 100 degrees. September-January is the slower rainy season. During any season you are warned to carry plenty of water on your hikes as an important safety precaution.
Pets: Leashed pets are allowed in picnic areas but not on trails. Given the heat and rules it is probably best not to bring them unless someone is staying behind at the campsite in an air conditioned RV. By the way, bicycles are not permitted on the trails either.
Links: website, yelp