It is hot here on an early October day, made more so by the need to wear my mask when other people are around, which many are since it’s a Saturday morning and Covid has closed all but one parking area here on the east side of Pinnacles National Park. We are about ninety minutes south of San Jose, California, in a small group of low mountains between the Salinas Valley and the Central Valley, and despite the hilly terrain, the heat doesn’t vanish even with some elevation gain.

The park, one of the nation’s newest – “upgraded” from a national monument by President Obama in 2013 – isn’t as overtly spectacular as many, especially its brethren here in the Golden State. It lacks the towering granite of Yosemite or the mighty trees of Sequoia. But as with every national park I have ever visited, I am only too happy to be here. Sycamores and oaks provide some shade – although not enough on a day approaching 100 degrees – as I travel the Bench Trail and aptly named Sycamore Trail from the closed visitors center to Bear Gulch, a journey of a bit over five miles round trip.

I am grateful for this mighty shade provider!

My eyes split their time looking down at the trail lest I trip and up at the surrounding mountains, hoping for a glimpse of a California Condor, the largest North American land bird with a ten foot wingspan. Condors were completely extinct in the wild in 1987, but thanks to a successful breeding and reintroduction program, these magnificent avians are now back in their ancestral homes, with 25 here at Pinnacles. They refuse to come out for me, though, so my eyes make do with the rock formations giving the park its name.

The Peaks View look at some of Pinnacles’ rock formations

Pinnacles National Park is part of the remains of the ancient Neenach Volcano, which erupted about 23 million years ago near what is now Lancaster, just north of Los Angeles. Sitting on the San Andreas Fault, the dividing line between the North American and Pacific Plates, this portion was carried here, nearly 200 miles to the northwest. Geologic matching of mineral composites found nowhere else leave no doubt about this origin, and provide rock formations unique to this part of California. These formations, popular with climbers, divide the park in two – east and west – with only hiking trails connecting them.

Up the Sycamore Trail you’ll see rock formations like this one.

The movements of Earth’s plates also created one of Pinnacles’ most visited features, talus caves carved into the scree that are home to at least thirteen species of bats. (Note that the caves are closed during Covid, although a couple of nice hikes can take you to cave entrances.)

My journey up the Sycamore Trail takes me through a gulch that still has a bit of water in it here at the end of summer, past some pretty awesome boulders, and toward the pinnacles themselves. Quail, squirrels, and other small animals and birds greet me, but I don’t see any of the larger critters that call the park home. The hike gains some elevation – although not a ton, but for those preferring a smoother albeit less shady walk, the trail runs parallel to a road, which can easily be used since traffic is forbidden in the park right now outside of official vehicles.

I am a rock star!

Both sides of Pinnacles National Park are currently open as of this writing, but the east side has much more to see and do for those who aren’t interested in scaling the more sheet rock surfaces of the west entrance. During peak – and non-Covid – season, the park operates a shuttle on the east side, but right now it is simply an open parking lot near the visitors center. On the plus side, admission is currently free! Make sure to bring sun screen, bug spray (flies are out in force around the camp grounds), comfortable closed-toed shoes, and plenty of water as water stations are rare.

More nice views!

Pinnacles National Park isn’t the most breathtaking in the system, but it’s a lovely day trip from San Jose, and a worthy visit for anyone traveling between Northern and Southern California. Enjoy some cool rock formations, mighty oak trees, and hope for a glimpse of a condor as you walk through this ancient volcano.

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