The Forces of Beauty
The difference is immediately apparent. Rock spires, ramparts, and crags that bear no resemblance to the nearby foothills dominate the landscape here. Massive monoliths, sheer-walled canyons, and boulder-covered caves define millions of years of erosion, faulting, and tectonic plate movement.
Rising out of the chaparral-covered Gabilan Mountains, east of central California's Salinas Valley, are the spectacular remains of part of an ancient volcanic field. One third of this field lies 195 miles to the southeast. Does this seem impossible? It is part of the story of the San Andreas Fault Zone, which runs just east of the park, and of the forces that have shaped this landscape for millions of years. It is the story of heat, frost, water, and wind wearing away rock. Fault action and earthquakes also account for Pinnacles' talus caves, formed when boulders fell into deep, narrow gorges and lodged between the rock walls. These boulders form ceilings and areas of darkness, enticing visitors and many species of bats. Pinnacles' topography is not all spires and crags. Much of the park consists of rolling hills that range in elevation from 824 feet along Chalone Creek to 3,304 feet atop North Chalone Peak.
Pinnacles was proclaimed a national monument in 1908. A national park since 2013, it includes over 26,000 acresmuch of which is designated wilderness. The park protects natural and cultural features, recreational opportunities, and open space in an increasingly urban setting.
Pinnacles is a place for rejuvenation. People come to appreciate the unspoiled wilderness, hike the trails, climb rock walls, explore quiet caves, stargaze in clear night skies, and picnic or camp in the shade of ancient oaks. Please help us continue the work of previous generations and preserve Pinnacles National Park for future visitors.
Critical Habitat for California Critters
Varied topography and weather, as well as the National Park System, help protect Pinnacles' many habitats for plant and animal species. Chaparral (a plant community characterized by a variety of evergreen drought-resistant shrubs) and other vegetation provide shelter and food for birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects. With 400 species of bees, the park protects the largest diversity of bees in a single place in North America.
Several bat species find refuge in Pinnacles' caves, cliffs, and trees. Balconies Cave attracts solitary males that roost in tiny cracks, away from human disturbance. Bear Gulch Cave hosts a maternal colony of Townsend's big-eared bats, unusual because they stay in the park year-round. They breed and raise pups in spring and summer and hibernate in winter.
The California red-legged frog is the largest native frog in the western United States. Once an endangered species, it is re-establishing here. You may see this nocturnal frog around Bear Gulch Reservoir.
Stewardship in Action Pinnacles National Park is a nesting area for the California condor and is one of a few release sites in the United States and Mexico. Loss of habitat, shootings, and poisoning from lead bulletsin gut piles or lodged in animal carcasses that the bird feeds onled to its listing as an endangered species in 1967. An aggressive captive breeding program in the 1980s and '90s increased its chances for survival. One of the largest birds in North America, the condor weighs about 20 pounds and has a wingspan of 916 feet. It soars on thermal updrafts at speeds of 55 miles per hour and altitudes of 15,000 feet. You may see condors flying over the high peaks at Pinnacles.
Faults, Volcanoes, and Erosion
The Earth's crust consists of plates that fit together like pieces of a puzzle. These plates are always moving, some diving under others (subduction), others grinding past each other along fault zones.
Our Pinnacles story began millions of years ago when the central part of the Farallon plate subducted under the southwestern part of the North American plate, creating California's Coast Range and spawning volcanic activity. After the central Farallon plate's subduction, the Pacific plate collided with and wrenched off a chunk of the North American plate, creating the San Andreas Fault Zone. Molten rock poured through fissures that opened as plates ground against each other.
The Pinnacles volcanic fieldbelieved to be 15 miles long and 8,000 feet highwas born 23 million years ago. The volcanoes were not where the Pinnacles are now but 195 miles to the southeast. How did these fantastic rocks get here? As the Pacific plate crept north, it split the volcanic field and carried two-thirds of the Pinnacles' volcanics with it, leaving behind the Neenach Formation. On the Pinnacles' slow journey, the mass sank beneath the surface. In time, the power of wind, rain, ice exposed the old volcanic field, eroded t he rubble, and the Pinnacles formation was born.
(San Andreas Fault Zone slices through 600 miles of California. Along it the Pacific and North American plates crunch past each otherone headed north, the other west. The offshore Mendocino fracture zone is the northernmost extent of the San Andreas fault system. The fault is part of the Ring of Fire, a zone of earthquake and volcanic activity partly encircling the Pacific Ocean.
Fault zones are likely places for volcanoes to occur. Here the Earth's crust is broken, allowing magma to ooze up from below the surface or gases and ash to suddenly erupt as pressure is released. Many land volcanoes are found near plate boundaries. But most volcanismabout three-quarters of all lava eruptions on Earthtakes place beneath the ocean.
Erosion from weather, water, and, wind is responsible for the spires and towers you see at Pinnacles today. Water3the most powerful forceerodes by seeping into cracks freezing, expanding, and prying off flakes and chips of the brittle rock. Where the rock is weak, erosion works more quickly; stronger rock resists these forces. Over millions, of years, these changes scoured nearly a mile of rock from the volcanoes, resulting in the distinctive rocks seen throughout the park.
People have lived nearby for hundreds of years, but we still know little about them. Chalon and Mutsun Indians were hunter-gatherers who seasonally harvested the area's resources. In the 1700s Spanish missionaries introduced a new religion and lifestyle but unwittingly brought diseases that almost decimated Pinnacles' Native Americans.
Emigrants arrived next. Pinnacles soon became a destination for picnics, festivities, camping, and exploration.
Homesteader Schuyler Hain, who led tours of the caves for years, began a grassroots preservation campaign. Stanford University president David Starr Jordan, US Forest Service chief Gifford Pinchot, and local families joined in. Their efforts paid off in 1908 when President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed these geological formations a national monument. In the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built trails, tunnels, and the Bear Gulch Dam and day use area. Today's visitors join a long tradition of treasuring and preserving this beautiful national park.
Pinnacles' Mediterranean climatehot, dry summers, cool winters, and moderate rainfallinfluences the park's plants and trees. Chaparral, with its dense, woody evergreen shrubs, dominates the landscape. Woodlands offer blue oak and gray pine. Riparian areas flaunt ferns and mosses. Meadows sprout native and exotic grasses. Cliffs support multicolored lichens. And every spring a miracle seems to happen. Wildflowersover 100 speciesburst into bloom, dazzling the eye with color.
Hiking Pinnacles National Park has over 30 miles of trails, ranging from easy to strenuous. Many trails intersect, and you can plan a short loop or a longer all-day trip. Trails are self-guiding. Popular destinations are Bear Gulch Reservoir, High Peaks, and the Balconies area.
Try Out A Trail
Exploring the Two Caves Balconies and Bear Gulch caves are talus caves created when boulders formed a roof over a narrow canyon. Some cave areas are narrow and twisting, with low ceilings and uneven footing. Passing through may require scrambling over rocks and wading through water. The caves are dark; use a flashlight. Caves may be closed by flooding. Portions of Bear Gulch Cave are closed seasonally to protect sensitive bat species. Contact the park or check our website for the status of caves.
Rock Climbing The rock at Pinnacles, mostly volcanic breccia and tuff, is weak compared to the granite and basalt of many climbing areas. Technical rock climbing is recommended only for persons well-trained and properly equipped. Bolts, nylon slings, and protection hardware are not maintained by the park. Pinnacles rock can be so unstable that even new bolts may fail. Always test holds and bolts before trusting your life to them. Climbers should be alert for rocks that may become dislodged or equipment that may be dropped onto unwary hikers below.
Before climbing at Pinnacles contact the park or check our website for information. Be familiar with the park's climbing bulletins before your climb. For detailed descriptions of routes and difficulty refer to a climber's guide, available online, at bookstores, and at the visitor center.
When to Visit The park is open year-round, 24 hours a day. The busiest times are mid-February to early June, when the weather is comfortable and the wildflowers glorious. Weekends during those months are especially crowded, and you may need to park in one of the overflow lots.
If you enjoy solitude, exploring peaceful trails, or discovering wildlife, why not try something different? Visit on a weekday or off-season. Bring a picnic dinner. Hike along Chalone Creek in the moonlight. Stroll along Old Pinnacles Trail when it is raining. Watch for condors soaring on warm updrafts, woodpeckers burying acorns in the bark of gray pines, or bobcats trotting along the road.
Would you like to learn firsthand about bats? How about seeing the Milky Way in a sky unpolluted by city lights? Ranger-led programs are available seasonally, as staffing allows (reservations may be required). Some activities are available year-round. Read park bulletin boards or contact the park about schedules.
Our Birds and Bats Raptors (birds of prey), cliff-dwelling birds, and bats rear young in many rock formations. Please do not enter or climb in these areas during critical breeding seasons. For restrictions contact the park, ask a ranger, or check our website.
What You Need To Know
Getting to the park Pinnacles National Park is in central California, about 50 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean and 140 miles south of the San Francisco Bay area. WARNING: CA 146 does NOT go through the park. To get from one entrance to the other (east or west) you must drive around the park; allow about two hours driving time.
To the East Entrance Take CA 25 to CA 146. Turn west on CA 146 into the park.
East Entrance-Pinnacles Visitor Center The visitor center, at the entrance to the campground, has information, a small bookstore, and exhibits. Staff can help you plan your visit. The visitor center is open year-round T9:30 am to 5 pm. There are picnic tables, restrooms, water, a pay phone, and parking.
Pinnacles Campground The only campground in the park is inside the eastern boundary. NOTE: Camping is prohibited on the west side and outside of this designated campground. The campground offers tent, RV, and group sites; showers; and a store. For reservations visit www.recreation.gov.
Bear Gulch Bear Gulch has picnicking, trailheads, park headquarters, and Bear Gulch Nature Center. The nature center is open seasonally, as staffing permits. You can watch the park film, get a junior ranger book, and learn about the park's natural and cultural history.
To the West Entrance Take US 101; at Soledad turn east onto CA 146 and follow signs to the park. WARNING: The road from Soledad to west Pinnacles is steep and narrow; RVs, trailers, and large vehicles should avoid this entrance.
West Entrance-Chaparral Trailhead Visitor contact station, restrooms, water, parking at trailhead. No phone.
An automatic gate at the west entrance opens each morning at 7:30 am and closes at night. Visitors can leave the park after the gate is closed, but vehicles cannot enter when the gate is shut. This allows for late hiking and climbing.
Lodging, Food, and Gas These are not available in Pinnacles National Park, but they can be found in nearby towns. You are welcome to picnic in the park.
Weather, Heat and Water Daytime temperatures in summer and early autumn can reach above 100°F. • Hiking steep trails requires energy and results in greater water loss through sweating. • Wear a hat and clothing that provide ventilation and protection from the sun. • Drinking water is available only in developed areas; there is no water along any of the trails. • Carry and drink at least one liter of water per person per hour. • Heat and dehydration can be fatal.
Pets Pets are not allowed on trails. They must be leashed while in parking lots and picnic areas and must be attended at all times. Animals left in vehicles during the heat of the day can quickly die from heat exhaustion.
Safety and Regulations Hiking, caving, and climbing can be fun, but rememberit you get injured, you are a long way from medical help. Cell phones may not work in this remote park. Don't let your guard down when it comes to safety. Be prepared. Please follow these regulations and safety guidelines:
Carry and drink plenty of water • Wear shoes with ankle support and non-slip soles that provide good tractionespecially in caves, where the rocks can be slippery. • Carry a proper flashlight for exploring caves. Small lights like penlights and cell phone lights will not guide you safely through a dark, rugged cave. • Watch where you step, sit, or place your hands. Poison oak, stinging nettles, and rattlesnakes are in the park.
Stay on established trails to help prevent erosion. • Green fences indicate restoration work; do not enter these areas. • Bicycles are not permitted on any trails. • Watch for pedestrians and wildlife on roads. • Feeding, approaching, or hunting wildlife is prohibited. • All plants, animals, rocks, and structures in the park are protected by federal law. This includes wildflowers, pine cones, and rocks. They are beautiful, but please leave them for the enjoyment of future visitors. • For firearms regulations, check the park website.
Accessibility We strive to make our facilities, services, and programs accessible to all. For information go to a visitor center, ask a ranger, call, or check our website.
Emergencies contact a ranger or call 911
Plan ahead. Contact the park and check our website for ideas about planning your trip, safety tips and regulations, ranger-led activities, and cave status.
A Wilderness Wonder
Congress has protected nearly 16,000 acres of Pinnacles National Park as wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act. Wilderness is meant to protect forever the land's natural conditions, opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation, and scientific, educational, and historical values. In wilderness, people can sense being a part of the whole community of life on Earth. Preserving wilderness shows restraint and humility and benefits the generations that follow us. Visit www.wilderness.net.
Source: NPS Brochure (2016)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
Administrative History of Pinnacles National Monument (Reta R. Oberg, 1979)
Botanical Inventory of Pinnacles National Monument’s New Lands: A Volunteer Botany Inventory NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/PWR/SFAN/NRTR—2008/083 (Andrea Williams, January 2008)
Camper Study: Spring 2013, Pinnacles National Park NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/EQD/NRR-2014/750 (Marc F. Manni and Yen Le, January 2014)
Foundation Document, Pinnacles National Park, California (January 2015)
Geology of the Pinnacles National Monument University of California Publications Bulletin of the Department of Geological Sciences Volume 24, No. 1 (Philip Andrews, September 22, 1936)
Ground-Water Reconnaissance at Pinnacles National Monument, California USGS Water-Supply Paper 1475-K (R.E. Evenson, 1962)
Impacts of Visitor Spending on the Local Economy: Pinnacles National Park, 2013 NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/EQD/NRR—2014/826 (Philip S. Cook, July 2014)
Invasive Plant Species Early Detection
Invasive Plant Species Early Detection in the San Francisco Bay Network: 2011 Annual Report NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/SFAN/NRTR-2012/620 (Eric Wrubel and Robert Steers, September 2012)
Invasive Plant Species Early Detection in the San Francisco Bay Network: 2012 Annual Report NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/SFAN/NRTR-2013/797 (Eric Wrubel and Robert Steers, September 2013)
Invasive Plant Species Early Detection in the San Francisco Bay Network: 2013 Annual Report NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/SFAN/NRDS-2015/758 (Eric Wrubel, February 2015)
Invasive Plant Species Early Detection in the San Francisco Bay Network: 2014 Annual Report NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/SFAN/NRDS-2017/1080 (Eric Wrubel, January 2017)
Invasive Plant Species Early Detection in the San Francisco Bay Network: 2015 Annual Report NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/SFAN/NRDS-2017/1123 (Eric Wrubel and Raphaela E. Floreani Buzbee, October 2017)
Invasive Plant Species Early Detection in the San Francisco Bay Network: 2016 Annual Report NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/SFAN/NRDS-2018/1159 (Eric Wrubel and Raphaela E. Floreani Buzbee, April 2018)
Invasive Plant Species Early Detection in the San Francisco Bay Network: 2017 Annual Report NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/SFAN/NRDS-2019/1198 (Eric Wrubel and Nick Graver, January 2019)
Invasive Plant Species Early Detection in the San Francisco Bay Network: 2018 Annual Report NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/SFAN/NRDS-2019/1211 (Eric Wrubel, March 2019)
Natural Resource Condition Assessment, Pinnacles National Monument NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/PINN/NRR-2013/709 (Frank W. Davis, David M. Stoms and Patrick A. Jantz, September 2013)
Potential hazards from flood in part of the Chalone Creek and Bear Valley drainage basins, Pinnacles National Monument, California USGS Open-File Report 95-426 (Robert W. Meyer, 1995)
Prairie Falcon Monitoring Protocol for Pinnacles National Park: Narrative Version 2.3 NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/SFAN/NRR-2011/466 (Gavin Emmons, Jim Petterson, Marcus Koenen and David Press, November 2011)
Prairie Falcon Monitoring Protocol for Pinnacles National Park: Standard Operating Procedures Version 2.3 NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/SFAN/NRR-2011/466 (Gavin Emmons, Jim Petterson, Marcus Koenen and David Press, November 2011)
Prairie and Peregrine Falcon Occupancy and Productivity Monitoring
2000 Breeding Season Report for Pinnacles National Monument (Kelly D. Ward, 2000)
2001 Breeding Season Report for Pinnacles National Monument (Betty Hayes and Amy Fesnock, 2001)
2002 Raptor Breeding Season Report for Pinnacles National Monument (Ben Kinkade, 2002)
2003 Raptor Breeding Season Report for Pinnacles National Monument (Gavin Emmons, 2003)
2004 Raptor Breeding Season Report for Pinnacles National Monument (Gavin Emmons, 2004)
2005 Raptor Breeding Season Report for Pinnacles National Monument (Gavin Emmons, 2005)
Raptor Breeding Season Report for Pinnacles National Monument 2006 (Gavin Emmons, September 2006)
Raptor Breeding Season Report for Pinnacles National Monument 2007 NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/SFAN/NRTR-2008/087 (Gavin Emmons, January 2008)
Raptor Breeding Season Report for Pinnacles National Monument 2008 NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/SFAN/NRTR-2009/192 (Gavin Emmons, March 2009)
2011 Breeding Season Report for Pinnacles National Monument Prairie Falcons and Other Raptors NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/SFAN/NRTR-2012/614 (Gavin Emmons, August 2012)
Prairie and Peregrine Falcon Occupancy and Productivity Monitoring at Pinnacles National Park: 2012 Annual Report NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/SFAN/NRTR-2013/811 (Gavin Emmons, November 2013)
Prairie and Peregrine Falcon Occupancy and Productivity Monitoring at Pinnacles National Park: 2013 Annual Report NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/SFAN/NRTR-2014/892 (Gavin Emmons, July 2014)
Prairie and Peregrine Falcon Occupancy and Productivity Monitoring at Pinnacles National Park: 2014 Annual Report NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/SFAN/NRTR-2014/926 (Gavin Emmons, December 2014)
Prairie and Peregrine Falcon Occupancy and Productivity Monitoring at Pinnacles National Park: 2015 Annual Report NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/SFAN/NRR-2016/1151 (Gavin Emmons, March 2016)
Prairie and Peregrine Falcon Occupancy and Productivity Monitoring at Pinnacles National Park: 2016 Annual Report NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/SFAN/NRR-2017/1379 (Gavin Emmons, January 2017)
Prairie and Peregrine Falcon Occupancy and Productivity Monitoring at Pinnacles National Park: 2017 Annual Report NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/SFAN/NRR-2018/1576 (Gavin Emmons, January 2018)
Prairie and Peregrine Falcon Occupancy and Productivity Monitoring at Pinnacles National Park: 2018 Annual Report NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/SFAN/NRR-2019/1861 (Gavin Emmons, January 2019)
Prairie and Peregrine Falcon Occupancy and Productivity Monitoring at Pinnacles National Park: 2019 Annual Report NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/SFAN/NRR-2020/2018 (Gavin Emmons, February 2020)
Prairie and Peregrine Falcon Occupancy and Productivity Monitoring at Pinnacles National Park: 2020 Annual Report NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/SFAN/NRR-2021/2315 (Gavin Emmons, October 2021)
Raptors of the Pinnacles National Monument: Past and Present Nesting and Possible Impacts of Rock Climbers Cooperative National Park Resources Studies Unit Technical Report No. 30 (Margaret Cymerys and B.J. Walton, 1988)
Report on Wind Cave National Park, Sullys Hill Park, Casa Grande Ruin, Muir Woods, Petrified Forest, and Other National Monuments, Including List of Bird Reserves: 1913 (HTML edition) (Secretary of the Interior, 1914)
Riparian Landbird Monitoring in Pinnacles National Park: Progress Report for 2015 NPS Natural Resource Data Series NPS/SFAN/NRDS-2016/1042 (Mark D. Dettling and Diana L. Humple, August 2016)
Tending the land: Integrating indigenous knowledge into the restoration of a California grassland (Karen Holl, Rick Flores, Brent E. Johnson, Valentin Lopez and Amelia B. Ryan, 2018)
The Geohydrology of Pinnacles National Monument, California USGS Open-File Report 67-2 (J.P. Akers, 1967)
The Heart of the Gabilans: An Administrative History of Pinnacles National Monument (Timothy Babalis, 2009)
Vascular Plant Survey: Pinnacles National Monument, California NPS Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/SFAN/NRTR-2008/086 (Sharon Franklet, January 2008)
Vegetation Classification and Mapping Project Report, Pinnacles National Monument NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/SFAN/NRR—2012/574 (G. Kittel, E. Reyes, J. Evens, J. Buck and D. Johnson, September 2012)
Visitor and Vehicular Data Collection (Otak, Inc., December 2003)
Visitor Study: Spring 2013, Pinnacles National Park NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/EQD/NRR—2014/766 (Margaret Littlejohn, Marc F. Manni and Yen Le, February 2014)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Last Updated: 24-Dec-2021