Distance: 11.8 miles Time: 6 hours Type: Round trip
The Pinnacles - a collection of sharp spires rearing unexpectantly from the rolling Northern Californian countryside - are the remains of a volcanic field which formed, it is believed, 23 million years ago. The twist is that one third of the volcanic field actually lies around 195 miles to the south-east: after its formation, the San Andreas fault split through the range and as two thirds moved north with the Pacific Plate, the remaining third was left behind (now the Neenach Formation, near Los Angeles). Erosion has shaped the rocks which we see today.
Only 2.5 hours' drive from San Francisco, the Pinnacles are now a mecca for climbers and offer some great hiking too, with caves and condors and plenty of views of the surrounding landscape. There are two entrances to the Park: on the east side (where the main visitor centre is located) and on the west side (not far from Soledad, a small town with one motel). There is no road that crosses the Park so you need to pick which side you want to access the Park and stick with it. If you are here to walk, however, it does not make much difference which side you use because you can easily walk across the Park and back within a day. So the choice comes down more to accommodation and convenience.
The below hike is an improvised route which I completed in less than 6 hours and which really covers most of the Park. Some of the hikes (including routes shorter than the one I have outlined here) are described as 'strenuous' by the Park service but I would say the hiking would be fairly unchallenging for anyone who hikes regularly. If you have a full day and want to really see the park, this walk covers the High Peaks, both caves systems and the two main rock areas.
Starting from Chaparral Trailhead Parking on the west side of the Park, follow the Juniper Canyon trail and then take the Tunnel trail to the top of the High Peaks. Rather than traverse the peaks on the narrow pass, though, continue east on the High Peaks trail down the other side of the ridge and take the Condor Gulch trail to the Overlook. At this point, you will have crossed the High Peaks with views to the west, to the east and north of the Park and completed the main ascent of the day. Continue the descent to Bear Gulch, a popular parking area, and then join the trail to the Bear Gulch caves, a mile or so to the south. Through the caves you twist and turn up to the reservoir and then can return to the parking lot by the Rim Trail.
It would be possible to take the High Peaks Trail from here back to the high ridge line and return to Chaparral, but if you want a longer walk you can embark on a loop of the north side of the Park. To do this, follow Bear Gulch trail along the stream and road and, turning north after a mile, continue on to the Old Pinnacles Trailhead Parking. The hike here is flat and gentle, with limited views except of the trees and glimpses of the hills around you. Again, at the Old Pinnacles Trailhead you could elect to return to the High Peaks directly, going up and over to get back to the west side of the Park. Alternatively, and to see the second rocky ridge in the Park, continue north. The path winds further north along the stream and circles around to eventually reach the Balconies.
At this point I chose to take the Balconies Cliffs Trail (after all, one set of caves are pretty much the same as another set of caves) which requires a very short climb before you then traverse the large and impressive Balconies with fantastic views into the canyon below. The imposing orange rock face and water-eroded dimples actually reminded me of Uluru. After the cliffs trail joins up with the cave trail, you are then only a short walk from the Chaparral trailhead, where you started. You have now completed a full loop of the Park, having crossed the High Peaks and passed through and over two sets of caves. Next time, you could try one of the wilderness trails away from the popular centre or try another loop in a different order.
For more information, and a map of the park: