Hiker’s high

Pinnacles National Park offers breathtaking glance of nature at its best

Lying on my back, on a sun-warmed rock, at the top of High Peaks, in the heart of Pinnacles National Park (elevation 1,540), I strive not to move a muscle. My breath is imperceptible, my eyes unblinking. 

I’m trying to feel the earth move. 

Not the whole Earth, but rather this specific 26,000-acre park in the southern portion of the Gabilan Mountains, comprised of a craggy kingdom of volcanic spires and monoliths carved and sanded and honed by wind and rain. This park, you see, is migrating. 

It started its trek about 195 miles to the south (as part of the Neenach Volcano that occurred 23 million years ago near present-day Lancaster) and has gradually made its way along the San Andreas Fault, at a current rate of three to six centimeters per year, to this spot, just a few miles east of Soledad. I guess it heard that this is where it’s all happening. 

Thanks to this preserved playground, there is indeed a lot to see and do in this unsung destination. Though you can’t really feel the earth move at Pinnacles National Park – upgraded this year from its original 1908 status as a monument – you can climb through talus caves (formed by rocks that have fallen and settled in crevices to form a roof), clamber up the side of ancient volcanic rocks (hiking trails and rock climbing routes abound), wander through miles of landscape right out of a Salvador Dalí painting, and witness some incredible wildlife from bats to condors. And if you’re ambitious, as my companions and I were that day, you can do it all before the sun sets. 

Leaving SLO County after sunrise brought us to the west entrance of the park in less than two hours—just in time for the sun to really open up and blaze down on the rock palace. Driving to the trailhead from the visitor’s center (where we paid a mere $5 for a full day of exploration), each bend in the road offers a glimpse of the looming dominion of stone ahead. It smacks of Mordor or some other mythical forbidden highlands in its dark distinctness from the surrounding rolling hills and low-lying chaparral. And with its promise of caves, bats and those giant scavengers, the condors, I admittedly harbor a slight sense of foreboding. 

But as soon as feet hit dirt, any doubt flees to make room for exhilaration. The climb starts quickly into the High Peaks, paying hikers back instantly for their efforts with sights of finger-like rock obelisks, staggering boulders, sheer rock faces and even some man-made tunnels and dug-out foot stairs. Helped along by the now slightly scalding handrails, we can’t drink enough water to keep up with the rate of perspiration. We find a shady spot high in the High Peaks with a cross breeze and view to the north and south to settle in for our picnic, and strain our eyes for a glimpse of the elusive California condor. Pinnacles is one of three release sites for the endangered bird; there are currently only 226 in the wild, with 30 of those managed by Pinnacles. 

After lunch, a speedy descent brings us to Bear Gulch Reservoir, where the threatened red-legged frog species purportedly hops, and we watch a garter snake whisk its way from one end to another. Although there is no swimming or drinking here, a surprising number of tourists have gathered, mesmerized – perhaps as a result of the heat – by the sight of the glassy pool. Beneath us lie the Bear Gulch caves, currently closed to protect the transient colony of Townsend’s big-eared bats hiding in its dark, murky undersides this time of year; one of the 14 species of California’s 23 bats that make their stopovers at Pinnacles.

Descending further, hiking under a high ceiling of rock, we make our way to the east entrance visitor’s center where a kind and insightful ranger tells us about how nature is a delicate balancing act that, when observed and preserved, can be downright incredible. The condors, for instance, may not be too pretty but they are nature’s janitors. With the help of their purifying digestive systems, she says, carcasses that could carry plague and disease for humans are filtered and neutralized. Pinnacles also provides a habitat for another increasingly endangered and important flier – the bee. With 400 bee species, the park has the highest bee diversity per unit area of any place on Earth. 

Buzzing with a heightened appreciation for nature, and possibly heat stroke-induced euphoria, we set out for the last leg of a roughly 9-mile loop and soon arrive, from the lowlands, at the foot of the towering Balconies Cave peak. Rising high above us, it is nevertheless what lies below it that interests us. 

Stepping from the hot broad light of a smoldering afternoon into the caves, there is an instant cool, calm and hush that causes the hairs on my arm to rise. In the dry, hot heart of the Central Valley, we hear the unmistakable sound of water; trickling, whispering and cool as it searches the nooks and crannies of the cave system for a path deeper and darker down. 

Here—in the depths of this shadowy underworld, in the parallel universe of the Gabilan Mountains—I find what I like to call the hiker’s high: a sacred second where we find ourselves at home and at peace, small and safe, in the cavernous belly of nature.   

Jamie Relth - local writer and photographer