One hundred ninety five. Miles. That is the distance that the San Andreas Fault has slipped northwestward since the Pinnacles Volcanoes were formed between 20 and 30 million years ago. What I found so incredibly fascinating about this place is that it was once just a simple stratovolcano, very similar to Mt St Helens before she blew.
It erupted and exploded and flowed and rumbled for a few million years before going silent. Then the Farallon plate that was diving below the American plate at last completely melted and finally stopped heating things up, and the Pacific Plate ran right up against the American Plate and instead of diving, it started sliding. The huge stratovolcano was literally split in two, while two thirds rode north on the Pacific Plate and the other third stayed behind on the American Plate.
Over time and many climate changes, the entire volcano was buried under eons of sediments then uplifted and eroded again to expose the multicolored hues of various versions of rhyolitic volcanic rock. The two thirds that forms the present day Pinnacles was uplifted more recently and is far more dramatic that the one third that has soft, old rounded landscapes, left behind 195 miles away somewhere in the vicinity of Lancaster.
We came to Pinnacles mainly to hike some of its many trails and stand on the top of what remains of the old volcanoes. We also came to possibly see the condors who are released here in a special breeding program attempting to bring them back from extinction. Of course, we also came for warm sunshine in March and spring wildflowers. We got most of what we came for, but this evening, after a bit of research, I am pretty sure our condor sightings were really just big, beautiful turkey vultures soaring over the High Peaks.
Waking to an absolutely gorgeous sunny morning at Coyote Lake, we drove less than five miles to Creature Comfort, a dog resort Mo found for Abby in nearby Gilroy. Mo was nervous about leaving her, worried that she might figure a way out, but once we arrived, the many tall chain link fences underlain with plywood barriers to stop the diggers eased her mind a bit. There were about 20 dogs running around all happy and of course they all had to come to the fence to greet the newcomer. Abby thought the world was ending of course, and we were reluctant to leave, but the woman caretaker said, “It is like kids in a day care, you just need to get out of here, and she will be fine”.
The trip south to Pinnacles was just a bit over 50 miles, but once past the small town of Hollister, it seemed we were wandering off into an unknown world. The green hills gave way to brown, even less rain here I guess, and there were a few huge estates and rolling acres of grapevines, surrounded by rangeland.
The Verizon signal gave out and the ATT bars disappeared and we were completely disconnected for the next two and a half days. We had decided not to make reservations, since we were coming mid week, and that worked out just fine, this time. In the future, we will probably make reservations since we learned later that this park can be completely full on weekends. You just never know. When we arrived, however, on a Wednesday afternoon, we had our choice of several of the electric only hookup sites in the main part of the RV park.
We settled in to a site with no reserved sign, and were told to come back after four to pay since there was no one capable of taking money at the visitor center. Interesting. There was a little store there as well, and I bought Fritos on the honor system, putting exact change in a brown envelope as instructed by the ranger at the desk..
The park was quiet, the sun was warm, there was lots of space between sites with many of them empty. Mo and I looked at each other and said, “Why not?”. We let Jeremy out to play, off leash. Sure enough, Jeremy was as great as I thought he would be, but it did help that there were no bushes or creeks for him to explore, just open space, and he hung around the motorhome sniffing and playing until he finally decided to go back inside on his own. It was nice to let him have that bit of freedom.
Mo and I studied the park maps, the trails, the geology folders, the small booklet that I bought (with exact change of course), and decided that our afternoon hike should be the three miles or so up to the reservoir beyond the Moses Caves. I had no desire to go through the caves, so we went around them and up some rather incredible stone stairs to the small dam built by the CCC and the reservoir. It seems we also neglected to plan for the fact that this was spring break week in this part of California.
There were lots of groups of kids in buses, and in the group tent sites, and on the trails. At the reservoir, we sat quietly with a small group of kids who were intently writing their reflections on “reflection” as they looked at the sky reflected in the water of the reservoir.Rather than retrace our steps, we took The Rim Trail which led up and back and around and down again to the parking area. Perfect 3 mile hike for a perfect afternoon. We knew we were saving the big one for the next day when we would have a full day to hike.
Returning to the campground, I went back to the visitor center to pay my fee, only to discover that our site was technically reserved and we would have to move. Seems as though whomever is responsible for putting out the reserved signs was letting down on the job. We took down the awning, tucked everything into the rig and moved across the way to a site we liked better anyway. It was lovely, with a huge live oak shading the picnic table and a perfect view of the mountain ridges to the south. We spent the evening entertained by turkey gobbles, quail calls and high clouds racing across the bright skies.
The next morning we packed up some tuna sandwiches and plenty of water to take on our planned six mile loop hike. There are several options in the park, but with only this day for hiking we thought it would be good to get to the High Peaks Trail. There are several ways to reach that trail, and we chose the Condor Trail, with an elevation of 1200 feet or so in 1.7 miles to the intersection. The morning was sunny but cool, perfect for hiking and the uphill climb seemed easy. The views were expansive and gorgeous, looking back over the park down to Bear Gulch where we started.
At the intersection with the High Peaks Trail, we walked south a bit to see the views, and then continued back north for the 2.7 miles down to the Bench Trail. During this time of week, there are no shuttles, so we stopped for lunch in the warm sunshine and rested our weary downhill legs. All four knees held up, but I was really glad for my hiking poles! It is a LOT of downhill with very few breaks. It was then another couple miles back to the parking area hiking along Bear Gulch, with more ups and downs than expected. Amazing how much more we felt those little elevation changes after several miles of hiking!
It was only mid afternoon when we returned, and we considered going back later to try a bit of the Old Pinnacles Trail. However, neither of us were really up for another six mile hike and on the map it appeared that it was almost 3 miles one way to see the Balconies Caves. Instead we decided to explore the campground a bit and discovered a huge complex of primitive campsites that could probably hold a small rig, but with no hookups, and every single one of them was reserved for the weekend, and many of those included Thursday night! We couldn’t imagine all those tent campers showing up, but we left before finding out on Friday morning.
When we reached Bear Gulch Visitor Center after our hiking loop, there was a grad student from South Carolina taking a survey of your park experience. It seems that the park is considering limiting access to large groups, perhaps limiting the number of people who can enter the trails at one time, and even requiring shuttle only entrance into the park area. We saw some illustrative posters of differing numbers of folks at different sites along the trail. I was incredibly surprised. We had the entire morning and hiked the entire trail without seeing any other hikers until the very end where we met a young couple from Costa Rica, just up from the Bench Trail. But at the parking lot there were suddenly screaming hordes of children, climbing over rocks, yelling, running up and down and generally doing what kids do on Spring Break. Maybe the High Peaks trail is too long for them and the Moses Cave Trail and the Reservoir are the goal of a spring break day. The other goal seems to be rock climbing, with several areas filled with young ones attempting their first ascents. We laughed as we overheard several children saying “not me” when asked who wanted to go first and then hearing the high voice of a young girl piping up with “I’ll go first!”
We were blessed with two days of perfectly gorgeous, coolish, sunny weather, an uncrowded campground, empty trails, wonderful hiking, lots of wildlife, and the possibility of seeing the endangered condor. We studied the maps again, read Merikay’s account of hiking the southern loop of the High Peaks trail and decided, Yes, we will come back to this park again in the springtime. We will avoid Spring Break Week, we will make a reservation in the campground, hopefully for number 91 again, and we will hike the rest of the trails that we didn’t have time to hike this time.
Yes, it is a bit out of the way, but it is a lovely place to spend a few days if you time it right. Kinda nice being off the grid entirely.