Weekend Warrior Series: 10 Hours Exploring Pinnacles National Park

This past weekend I went caving… Kinda. Conner and I went on a day a trip from San Luis Obispo to the Pinnacles National Park for one of the 10 free days that the National Parks Service offers every year. 

We had been to the park once before last year on another free day (yay free National Park days!). That time, we had entered through the East entrance to hike the High Peaks trail  which was absolutely gorgeous, and I highly recommend. Below is a slide show of when we hiked the High Peaks trail.

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FYI for a Pinnacles trip: There is no road which goes straight through from the East entrance to the West entrance of the Pinnacles, so make sure you know what entrance you want to visit BEFORE you go. We decided to drive to the West this time which was more developed than the East entrance. It had campgrounds, a large visitor’s center with camping supplies, and even a swimming pool.

Since we hiked up to the peaks last time, this time Conner and I decided to explore the caves! There are two separate caves at the park. There are the Bear Gulch caves and the Balconies caves. Whether or not the caves are open depend on the time of year, because there are some resident BATS that colonize in the Bear Gulch cave and raise their young there during the Summer! For more information about which caves are open and when, check here.

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The type of caves at the Pinnacles are called “Talus Caves.” Talus caves aren’t traditional  caverns which travel into the side of a mountain. Instead they’re formed when water eroding the rock of the landscape’s boulders combined with the movement of the tectonic plates at the nearby San Andreas fault line over thousands of years time cause chunks of rock to break off and fall to tumble into a gorge inbetween them. This creates a closed off cave with a ceiling.

Conner and I chose to explore the Balconies caves. There’s more than one trail to the Balconies Caves, we chose a 5 mile out and back moderately challenging route with an added loop which started from the Old Pinnacles parking lot.

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The walk was flat but there was some rock scrambling once we got into in the cave. Climbing through the boulders was exciting. Pro tip: remember to pack a flashlight/headlamp for when you’re in there, because it’s completely pitch dark.

When you’re rock scrambling you’ll also preferably need both hands for climbing which holding an iPhone as your flashlight could interfere with, so a headlamp is the smartest option for optimal visibility and movement.

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This is the route we followed from the parking lot and through the caves, looping back toward the trail entrance.
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We came from the Old Pinnacles trailhead and headed toward the Balconies caves

After we explored the Balconies caves, we backtracked and hiked upward at this sign toward a loop trail with a higher path which featured beautiful views of the enormous surrounding rocks. There were many faces to rock climb along the loop trail too, if you’re into that…

Many varieties of geological formations are observed in the park, but the most prominent are by far are the reddish gray appearing spires which dominate the skyline.

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These pinnacles are the rocky spires remaining from millions of years of tectonic plate activity and lava flows in the ancient volcanic field which is the landscape we know today as the jagged landscape of the park. So cool! Read more information about the different types of rock formations at the park, here.

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Pinnacle spires in the background

In addition to the bats in the caves, we encountered many other types of animals on the trail including bats, hawks, vultures and more.

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One type of animal we encountered..

I enjoy visiting the Pinnacles because it feels smaller and therefore more accessible compared to some of the other national parks, but there is still so much to explore. I know that I’ll be back soon to check out the Bear Gulch caves or hike the High Peaks trail again sometime soon.

Here’s a video I made of our cave exploration!

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