Pinnacles National Park
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Regardless of the area forming close to 23 million years ago through ancient volcano eruptions, the Pinnacles National Park is still relatively new, being inaugurated by President Obama in 2013. Distinguished by large boulders, and spires, the park offers the most diverse landscape, with mountainous terrain, canyons, gorges, prairies, woodlands and talus caves with incredible rock formations. The park serves as a home to hundreds of species of wild animals and flora, and as a result is protected as wilderness.
The North Wilderness trail loop starts at the Old Pinnacles Trailhead, on the sandy terrain along side Chalone Creek. The first 4.6 miles of the trail are shaded by trees and cross the stream multiple times. Despite some of the points along the trail being quite narrow, the first few miles are relatively easy, apart from shrubs and fallen logs providing a slight obstacle. As the trail moves away from the creek, it becomes more challenging with a mile ascend up the valley, from where the views of the surrounding countryside and high peaks are remarkable. As the trail proceeds along the ridges, trees become scarce and shrubs are a more common sight, being so exposed temperatures can get high, especially in Summer. The 2 mile descend from the ridges to the Chaparral parking lot can get tricky at times with some of slopes being quite steep and the sand making finding a strong foot hold a challenge. Here nature becomes abundant again, with ever green trees and wild flowers which are in full bloom towards the end of winter and throughout spring. It wouldn’t be called North Wilderness Trail without wildlife and in fact lizards, rodents, turkeys, hawks and deer can sometimes be spotted in the vicinity. From her the loop meets the Balconies Trail, before heading back to the trailhead making a full loop.
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Balconies Cave trail is a well maintained one leading visitors through a series of winding passages through volcanic rock formations. Being talus caves, the Balconies are not the usual hole in a hill or a mountain caves, but were formed when massive boulders fell into the narrow gorge creating a roof for a cave structure. This was possibly as a result of fractures in the volcanic rock which gave way as a result of earthquakes and landslides. The Pinnacles National Park has a second talus cave structure – the Bear Gulch cave, home to a colony of bats. With no roads passing through the park, hiking is involved to reach the caves, and multiple trails lead to this popular attraction. Starting at Chaparral Trailhead, close to the West Entrance is the shortest route, alternatively by taking a longer more challenging trail from Old Pinnacles Trailhead.
The Balconies trail from the Chaparral Trailhead starts at the car-park and the nearby small picnic area equipped with tables. A downhill walk characterized by large odd shaped boulder on either side leads to the canyon. The descend presents a fantastic view of Machete Ridge, a cliff with numerous climbing routes. The trail proceeds by zigzagging through the canyon with the passage between the walls gradually getting narrower. A footbridge leads to a junction, which allows visitors to choose between heading up to the cliffs or taking a right and proceeding into the caves through the gate. To avoid disappointment, it is best to check whether the caves are open before visiting, as they are sometimes closed due to high water levels which makes navigation difficult.
Carrying a flashlight is a must, with the caves’ ceilings being dangerously low at some points. A small open air break between the two caves, allows visitors to adjust their eyesight to daylight before entering the second and larger cave. Beams of light and rain water occasionally successfully make it through the cracks adding some much needed light to the otherwise dark cave. The trail exits the cave through another gate. Once outside of the cave, visitors are faced with another junction, one leading to the Balconies Cliff trail and another heading to Old Pinnacles Trail. Reaching the Charparral trailhead is possible by back tracking through the caves or by following the Balconies Cliff Trail to the surface.
This National Park has a $30 fee for a seven day pass and is open between 7:30 and 8pm. Overnight stay is possible at the camping grounds on the east side, which can be reserved at different rates starting from $35 for a non-electric tent.
Pinnacles National Park varied landscape is a haven for hikers, climbers and bird watching enthusiasts. With trails leading through talus caves, passing over mountain peaks and canyons, the park provides an infinite number of picture perfect moments, making Pinnacles National Park unforgettable.