Distance: 4 miles Time: 2 hours Type: There are back
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 Butte Lake parking area is located off of the Butte Lake road in the northeast corner of the park. The Butte Lake area is accessed from highway 44, approximately 24 miles east of Manzanita Lake. The Cinder Cone trailhead is located on the southwest side of the boat ramp for Butte Lake. 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.
From the top of the cone, the views are panaromic - and spectaular. You can see various peaks, including Prospect Peak and Lassen Peak, as well as Snag Lake, the Fantastic Lava Beds and the Painted Dunes.
There is also a separate trail that continues down into the crater of Cinder Cone, although there is not much to see by the looks of things.
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: