Big Birds, Big Boulders: Pinnacles National Park

Geology, Hiking, Photography

Walking under boulders the size of a house, 1000 yards from the fault line.

Here’s the thing. From the parking lot it doesn’t look like much. Yes, the rocks you see when you get out of your car are a little unusual. The smooth domes and spires are clearly something a little different, but from the parking lot, well… let’s just say that it’s not Bryce or Zion. 

But be patient. Start walking. Either trail. Left or right.Within a few minutes and a few hundred yards you’ll be rewarded with some geology that both humbles and fascinates. As Susie and I walked down the Balconies Cliffs trail (left from the west entrance parking lot) we are presented with boulders the size of cars, then boulders the size of houses, then boulders the size of cars precariously perched on top of boulders the size of houses.

We hike down the gravel path, moving from the sunlight into the shadows of rock walls and boulders that just keep getting bigger. The path lets us walk under one the size of the Death Star.

I also start thinking, wait a minute; we’re walking under boulders the size of small planets and we’re only about 1,000 yards from the San Andreas fault. And they had a 5.4 in LA last week. And… oh, what the hell. It’s far more dangerous driving the 101 three times a week. Car wreck?  Who cares. Happens every day. Crushed by a boulder during a tremor? That’s the kind of glorious ending people talk about for generations: “My uncle Markie got crushed by a boulder during an earthquake… he’s still there. They couldn’t move the thing. He just loved the outdoors…”

So I’m humbled because these things are so massive. Fascinated because these things are randomly wedged in here which means at one time they rolled down the mountain from somewhere up there over my head, or better yet, they were ejected during the volcanic eruption that created the landscape in the first place. Sorry I missed that show.

Rock nuts, rejoice! You’re walking under agglomerate blobs that were spit out 23 million years ago by what might have been a 15 mile long, 8,000 foot volcano. But that’s only half the story.

The other half of this formation is about 195 miles south of where I’m standing. The Neenach Formation was left behind on the North American Plate while Pinnacles got a ride to central California on the Pacific Plate. All of this is neatly divided by the San Andreas Fault.

On my second trip I headed to the right out of the West parking lot and started hiking past more boulders and into the pocket valleys and ravines created by the ancient remnants of the volcanic core. As I climbed I was rewarded with a better perspective of the formations, seeing it all from above. At each switchback of the trail, I was able to take in another, still better view.

Hike uphill. Take in the view. Suck in some air. Repeat.

At one point I ran into a ranger with a huge backpack on his way down from cleaning the trash bins at the top of the High Peaks. The guy is an animal. Strap on a backpack, cruise up a thousand feet and tote down God-knows-what from the comfort station. I didn’t ask how many times a week he does this. The seedy underbelly of rangerdom.

I was trying to make the loop, but decided to stop near the top of the High Peaks to see if I could get any better pictures of the other major feature of Pinnacles National Park, the California Condors.

The Condors started soaring around 5:30 and perched on the peaks about 200 yards away. I set the camera on high speed continuous and let it rip as they rode the thermals and the fresh wind forced upward by the rock walls.

The Condors started soaring around 5:30 and perched on the peaks about 200 yards away. I set the camera on high speed continuous and let it rip as they rode the thermals and the fresh wind forced upward by the rock walls.

Condors notwithstanding, the views up here are worth the climb as well. On the west side I could see all the way to the Salinas Range on the far side of the Salinas Valley, and to the tops of the Diablo Range to the East. I would imagine in the summer the breezes up here could nicely round out the experience.

So in my three trips to Pinnacles, I’ve walked away with great wildflower shots, got up close and personal with some exciting geology and knocked off a few decent pictures of the endangered California Condor.

There are still caves to explore and more paths to hike. There’s a lot more to see.

The Pinnacles was designated a national park in 2013, a designation it deserves. It’s the closest national park to Monterey and, in it’s own quiet way, a worthy diversion for any trip to California’s Central Coast.

Kid Factor: (+) Cool rock tunnels and ‘Talus’ caves; moderate hikes; decent restrooms; picnic tables; nice exhibits at the West Entrance welcome center. (-) Falling danger; poison oak; ticks; snakes cooling off under rocks; can be very hot in summer.

Fitness Factor:  If you have trouble with three flights of stairs, stay on the easier trails. Trails are designated in the brochure by challenge level and ‘strenuous’ means strenuous. Bring something to drink, then double it. Can be very hot and dry in summer, which can fool you into thinking you’re not sweating so you’re not that thirsty. You also need to be steady on your feet, as there are plenty of opportunities to slip on the gravel trails and do a major face plant. Or worse.

Photo Factor: (+)  Wildflowers, condors and rocks. The wildflowers can be pretty sparse in the late Summer, but you might find a few. In a wet year it’s a great show all spring. Condors are a fun challenge, but you’ll need some glass (got 500mm glass laying about?) to fill the viewfinder even half way. It seems like they like to fly toward the end of the day, but that might have been coincidence. Think fast shutter speed and a monopod. And then the rocks: Try and get some humans in the shots of the boulders, otherwise it’s hard to tell the scale. As always, think early morning or afternoon light, but especially here. Otherwise, the midday light flattens everything out and the dynamic rock profiles just fade into one another.