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Exploring the Wonders of Pinnacles National Park: Wildflowers, Talus Caves, and Condors

Wildflowers are popping at the Pinnacles. Located halfway between San Fransisco and Los Angeles, the Pinnacles National Park is one of California’s smallest and least visited national parks. The closest town is Soledad, which used to have the slogan, “It’s happening in Soledad,” but they don’t say this anymore for obvious reasons.

Hikers leaving a cave.
Into the light. Hikers leave the darkness of Bear Gulch cave.

Aside from the colorful blooms of orange monkey flowers, red Indian paintbrushes, and yellow bush poppies, there are two spectacular features at the Pinnacles. One is the unique talus caves formed when giant boulders fall, leaving space between them. The Park features two of these peculiar geologic formations called the Balconies and Bear Gulch. The other incredible sight is the endangered California condors. At one point, there were only 22 condors left in the wild. Today, after successful reintroduction, there are 42 living at the Pinnacles, with several breeding pairs in the Park. The ten-foot wingspan of this giant North American bird makes them hard to miss when soaring overhead.

A trail to High Peaks.
Condors in the Park. There are 42 California condors living in the Pinnacles.

The best trail in the Park is a loop through the Bear Gulch caves and up to High Peaks. Arrive early to the East side entrance to score a choice parking spot in the Bear Gulch lot. Be prepared for the caves, which are so dark in one section that a flashlight is required. A cell phone flashlight might be adequate but probably not bright enough to help you balance across small rocks to keep your feet dry. And a headlamp is best to keep your hands free for climbing the rock-carved stairways along the underground waterfalls.

A reservoir.
Bear Gulch Reservoir. This is a good place to take a break.

As you emerge from the cave’s narrow staircase, the breathtaking view of the Bear Gulch Reservoir is a great place to take a break, ready or not. From here, follow the trail to High Peaks. You will know you are near the top when you arrive at a lookout bench and a bathroom where you least expect it. But the adventure keeps improving because of narrow guard-railed staircases carved in the rock with steep drop-offs a little further along the trail.

A hiker is climbing down steep stairs.
Steep staircase. A narrow guard-railed staircase is carved into the rock.

After going up and down these staircases, it might be a good idea to return the way you came. The last section of this loop is a steep, dry, exposed trail with few iconic craggy views. But if you continue, it will be a little over seven miles with a nearly 2,000-foot elevation gain when you return to the parking lot. If this adventure sounds good, check the weather report before heading out. If you visit other than in the spring or fall, be prepared for intense heat during the summer months.

Two climbers on a peak.
The final ascent. Climbers are another attraction in the Park.

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Hi. We are Paul and Cindy, two biologists, fit and over 50, who enjoy exploring, photographing, and blogging about our outdoor travel. Our journey is to find outdoor activities that are away from crowds, kind to nature, and authentic. We carry backpacks, stay in clean accommodations, and feel that good food is as important as good friends.

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