High Peaks Trail offers a memorable hike in Pinnacles National Park

Nothing prepares you for the sight of them.

Suddenly, popping out of the Central Valley like a stage set, are the towering rock spires of the Pinnacles, a Bryce-Canyon-in-miniature and a place like no other in California.

Thanks to the “Pinnacles National Park Act” passed by Congress, the former national monument was “upgraded” to national park status, and  became America’s 59th and newest national park.

Crowning the obscure Gabilan Range, the Pinnacles are located some 150 miles south of San Francisco, 300 miles north of Los Angeles, and about 25 miles from nowhere.

High Peaks Trail offers a memorable hike in Pinnacles National Park
High Peaks Trail offers a memorable hike in Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles is very much a hiker’s park—and a most memorable one. Besides the high spires, there are slopes bristling with gray pine, dark caves, wildflower-strewn meadows, rolling grassland and a pretty canyon cut by Chalone Creek. Most of the park’s major features can only be visited on foot.

The San Andreas Fault is located four miles to the east of the national park’s eastern boundary. Hikers can see the infamous rift zone from the Pinnacles’ high country trails. The fault’s movement is responsible for devastating earthquakes, notably the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Scientists estimate that the Pacific plate on the west side of the San Andreas is moving northward at a rate of about 1.5 inches a year. As you hike the park’s trails, contemplate that if present theory holds up, in a few million years, Pinnacles will be located in San Francisco. And a few million more years after that, Los Angeles will be located where the Pinnacles now stand.

The Pinnacles volcanic formation, as geologists call the sky-scraping rock, is about 23 million years old. Millions of years after the volcanoes fell silent and cold, wind, water and earthquake faulting sculpted the rock into the fantastic formations we see today.

The iconic California condor nests in the region’s cliffs and ledges. Pinnacles is one of only three release sites in the country for the endangered bird, and the only one in a national park. At last count, 31 condor adults and chicks live within the park.

During the 1890s, local ranchers began efforts to save the region from exploitation by miners. Local guide and tireless lobbyist Schuyler Hain, along with Stanford University President David Starr Jordan, sparked the preservation effort which was successful in 1908 when President Theodore Roosevelt established Pinnacles National Monument.

As a young man, the great conservationist, Sierra Club Director and Friends of the Earth founder David Brower was an accomplished rock climber who made several first ascents of various pinnacles in the 1930s. Brower speaks fondly of his climbing adventures in the Pinnacles in his autobiography, For Earth’s Sake: The Life and Times of David Brower.

The rock climbing boom of the 1980s brought greatly increased attention to the national monument—among climbers, anyway. Dragonfly Dome, Condor Crags, Swallow Crack, Toilet Seat and Spasm Block are some of the colorfully named rock faces reached by the monument’s more than 500 climbing routes.

The park has entrances on both its east and west sides. Fortunately, no road passes through the Pinnacles! A modest campground and Bear Gulch Visitor Center is on the east side of the park.

By national park standards, the Pinnacles is relatively small—27,000 acres. But there’s a lot of park packed in and around the pinnacles that gave the national park its name. And some great trails, fine examples of the trail-builder’s art.

Hike on.