Pinnacles National Park, east of Salinas and a few hours’ drive from Santa Barbara, is a wondrous place to walk amidst pieces of the past. The Pinnacles are huge fortresses of volcanic rock that belonged to the Neenach Volcano near present-day Lancaster before the San Andreas Fault carried the magmatic forms from their desert origin. Millennia of elemental influence eroded the land to reveal the steep spires and ravines standing today. The National Park preserves this slow, many-million-year crawl of rock, situated as it is currently amidst familiar chaparral terrain.
At 26,606 acres, Pinnacles is a small enough park that an avid trekker could view almost its entirety in a day with time to spare. The best way to do it is to connect a few shorter trails to create a large loop, the High Peaks Trail-Balconies Cave Loop, an almost 10-mile excursion that takes you through many of the park’s highlights.
Beginning at the Old Pinnacles Trailhead, you stroll an easy mile down the Bench Trail, making friends with the many serpentine rocks studding green the blonde grasses. At 1.4 miles, you begin your gradual ascent to the High Peaks, though there is yet barely a pinnacle in sight. As you switchback between the gray pine and buckeye, gradually climbing almost a thousand feet, you are afforded sweeping and classically Californian views of miles of rolling hills of grass and oak.
At two miles, the trail meets the Condor Gulch trail, and it is here that you first encounter the massive rocks that give the park its name. Among the pinnacles, your sense of scale becomes happily distorted. My hiking partner described it well: Though the park is small, the pinnacles are of such mass and grandeur as to lend a feeling of vastness far greater than its contained size. Cut of a different geologic fabric than the surrounding hills that carpet the land, the rocks jut and jump upward as if to proclaim sovereignty over their little corner of the Salinas Valley. Walking in their sights, you feel but a peasant in the rule and wisdom of their crags and cracks.
The trail peaks out in the Steep and Narrows section. A great segment for kids and children at heart, this adventurous stretch is cut directly into the rock and features a steep cliff-side traverse through low-hanging ceilings that may slightly thwart the tallest travelers. The views here are grandiose, 1,575 feet above your trailhead, and scrambling through the rocks is a joy. After reaching the peak, descend to a bench and outhouse before the trail continues downward through Juniper Canyon.
At mile 4.1, you descend through Juniper Canyon, switchbacking down 1,025 feet, surrounded by looming rock monoliths on all sides over the course of 1.8 miles. At bottom, you meet the west side parking lot, a good place to restock on energy before completing the hike’s final few miles. The climbing is behind you; ahead awaits a cave.
The Balconies Cave is an almost pitch-black chamber cut into a beautiful rock bulge, and headlamps or flashlights are required. To get there, you walk past the impressive Machete Ridge, one of the tallest and most elegant single formations in the park, a triangular fin of rock. The cave, like the Steep and Narrows over a thousand of feet above, is true outdoor fun. Like all great national parks, Pinnacles gifts its visitors with the wide-eyed wonderment earned through exploration.
The trail’s final three miles are an easy retread as you leave behind the pinnacles for the plainer terrain that began the trail. This last repose allows one to gently re-enter the world, having briefly left it for a stranger, rockier place.