Another exciting day for our family began as we checked out of Laurel Inn Motel in Salinas, CA, and headed towards Pinnacles National Park. We didn’t have to drive for too long before we arrived at the park sign. Since we had come from Salinas, CA, we entered Pinnacles on the west side, through Shirttail Gulch Road, and stopped at Contact Visitor Station for information. The area looked beautiful, but a little deserted at the time, for we were the only visitors in sight.
At Contact Visitor Station
We entered the small visitor station, and were greeted by the only ranger on duty there. As always, we picked up a park map and junior ranger booklets for the kids. We also watched a short introductory movie about Pinnacles National Park, and got some recommendations from the ranger about good hikes in the area.
After a few more minutes of looking at the exhibits, we got back into the car, and headed up the road, towards the Chaparral Trailhead Parking Area. This was also the point where Shirttail Gulch Road came to an end.
Chaparral Trailhead Parking Area
The views from the parking area were really interesting. Off in the distance, there were jagged, pointy rocks unlike any other rocks we had seen before. I thought to myself, as I often do, how fascinating it is that each and every US National Park has something truly unique to offer. Even this small, relatively unknown place has its own individual features that gives it special character.
While enjoying the views of these pinnacles, we walked over to a drinking fountain where we topped off our backpacks with fresh water. Then, we headed towards the starting point of Juniper Canyon Trail, our first hike at Pinnacles National Park.
Juniper Canyon Trail
The path started out fairly easy, taking us under colorful trees and then out to more open spaces. About ten minutes into the hike, our kids noticed a pile of several large rocks off to one side of the path. There was a tiny cave, more like a lair, that had formed underneath. We had to stop for a minute, and check it out.
The trail from here on became gradually steeper, and as we carried on, views of astounding rock formations opened before our eyes. The size of some of these rocks was quite imposing, to say the least, and their shapes varied greatly.
As we continued following the trail, we came to a series of switchbacks. From here we could see the parking area way in the distance, and our car appeared as a silvery-blue speck. We had surely come a long way!
Further up the trail, we caught up with a couple of young guys who had stopped on the path, looking at something in the nearby bushes. As we got closer, I noticed one of them started gesturing at us, trying to tell us something without raising his voice too much. At first, we couldn’t figure out what he was saying, but when we got close enough, we discovered there was a rattlesnake in the bushes! It had just crossed the trail we were on, and the guy was trying to warn us to be careful.
The rattlesnake continued to go deeper into the bushes, and didn’t seem bothered by our presence. Finally, it disappeared from sight. Even after we could no longer see it, we could still hear its hissing rattling sounds for a bit longer.
Lunch at the Top
From this point on, it wasn’t much longer until we arrived at the highest point of the Juniper Canyon Trail. This was good news because our kids had already started getting cranky, and demanded food, drinks, and candy.
The Juniper Canyon Trail ended at the top of the mountain we had been climbing this whole time. There, we found a beautiful, open area with amazing views, and a lot of massive rocks. As it often happens, the kids started climbing and jumping, and completely forgot how hungry, thirsty and exhausted they were.
After enjoying the views for a bit longer, we finished our gourmet lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and bananas, and packed up ready to go.
North on High Peaks Trail
Our path from here continued up north on the High Peaks Trail, a rather lengthy trail that covered quite a large area of the park. I expected the hike to get a little more interesting, after seeing a few photos online from tourists. A little more interesting, however, was quite the understatement!
Almost as soon as we stepped on the High Peaks Trail, the path became steeper and crazier. As we wound our way between rocks, we enjoyed spectacular panoramas of the park, accompanied by soaring California Condors, found in good numbers here. These are truly majestic birds with impressive wingspans!
Pipe Rails, Foot Holes and Stairs
We continued following the path as we held onto a metal pipe rail while walking across the side of a large rock.
The trail then became a series of stairs and man-made foot holes that were cut in the rocks to help us make our way through a variety of obstacles. There were more pipe rails, narrow passages between rocks, and steep inclines. It was honestly one of the most fun trails ever, and I felt like a kid again – an excited kid at a playground! Naturally our own two children had a great time conquering all the steep rocks found in this area of Pinnacles National Park!
Eventually, we came to a point where the High Peaks Trail split. After consulting our trusty park map, we confirmed that from here on we would have to follow Tunnel Trail in order to loop around, and eventually get back to our car.
Tunnel Trail to Juniper Canyon Trail
Tunnel Trail most definitely had more interesting features to offer. As we continued following the path, we began to descend along a series of switchbacks. It became pretty clear it was going to be all downhill from here on out. Again, the trail wound around large boulders while offering beautiful views of the park.
Eventually, we arrived at a small bridge with more pipe railings, and from here we could see the trail’s most interesting feature – a narrow but long tunnel cut through a massive rock. Who would have expected to see a tunnel while hiking on Tunnel Trail!
We walked through and snapped some pictures, then continued following the path until it finally took us back to the already familiar Juniper Canyon Trail. From here, we had another 1.2 miles to the parking area. The kids were starting to get a little cranky by this point, but it was all downhill until we reached the car, so they weren’t too bad!
Back to the Ground
Once back in the parking area, we decided it was best to take a break from hiking, and give the kids a little time to work on their Junior Ranger booklets. We drove back to Contact Visitor Station, and when the kids were ready, we presented the completed booklets to the same park ranger we had talked to earlier. He checked over their answers, and had the kids take the Junior Ranger pledge. Then, they got their shiny badges to add to their ever growing collection.
At this point, everyone in the family but me, seemed to think we were done for the day. We had hiked for about 3 hours, seen beautiful panoramas and California Condors, and climbed quite a few rocks. Many people would say this was enough and head out to dinner. I couldn’t, however, leave Pinnacles National Park without visiting one of its most unusual features, the talus caves.
I had never heard of these caves until I watched the movie at the visitor station. They sounded fascinating, and I had to see at least one of them! So, what were these talus caves, anyway? We learned they had formed underneath large rocks that had fallen down, and became stuck in narrow passageways between cliffs.
The most famous talus cave at Pinnacles National Park was the Bear Gulch Cave. Unfortunately, it was in another area of the park, which was not easily accessible by car from where we were. One could hike to it via the Juniper Canyon Trail to High Peaks Trail, but that would take a long time, and it was already late afternoon.
Luckily, there was another talus cave we could visit that was much closer to where we were. It was a located along Balconies Trail, and getting to it was pretty simple. We drove back up to the same Chaparral Trailhead Parking area, and took Balconies Trail to Balconies Cave.
After we parked, I got ready to go, but I wasn’t going to push anyone else to follow me if they didn’t feel like it. To my surprise, hubby’s grumbling was minimal, and he and the kids decided to join.
Balconies Trail started out as a beautiful nature walk that took us near giant boulders. There were signs along the path that pointed towards rock climbing areas. It was no surprise, considering the size of some of these cliffs.
The trail became more and more exciting as it continued to follow passageways between enormous rocks, eventually bringing us closer to the Balconies Cave. We were stunned when we saw where we were about to go. To me, it looked and felt like a scene from an epic Indiana Jones movie.
There were massive rocks hanging above the trail ahead of us, and the passage was quite low and narrow. We slowly made our way through, and reached a more open area. This didn’t last long, however! The next thing we knew, we were standing near an iron gate with a sign that stated that flashlights were required in the cave. Luckily, we knew that in advance, and were prepared.
We hiked towards a dark opening under a pile of gigantic rocks, which led down into the cave. At this point, the kids were ecstatic! Any reason to use flashlights is cause for kid-celebration! Feeling like real explorers, the girls led the way into the cave, and we followed.
Walking in this dark space under thousands of tons of fallen gigantic rocks was truly surreal. We cautiously proceeded to make our way through the cave, climbing over large stones, as the kids proudly directed us. They followed the arrows that were painted on the walls of the cave, and after not too long, we started seeing natural light seeping through cracks between the rocks above us.
In a few more minutes, we exited through another iron gate, and were back on a more normal looking path.
Balconies Cliff Trail
We slowly started making our way back towards the car, this time taking Balconies Cliff Trail. Interestingly, this trail ascended higher up in the rocks, and then looped around in the direction of the parking area. So for a little bit, we were walking near the top of the talus cave we had just visited. The path eventually connected with the first part of Balconies Trail, which led us back to the car.
Leaving Pinnacles National Park
As we got ready to leave Pinnacles National Park, the colors of the late afternoon were getting warmer, and the sun was slowing creeping towards the horizon. Another magnificent day, filled with unique experiences was coming to an end.
From rocky peaks and soaring California Condors to the dark depths of a talus cave, Pinnacles National Park completely surpassed any of our expectations!
We continued to revisit these great moments from the day, while we drove closer and closer to our next destination. It got dark, and our stomachs (especially hubby’s) reminded us it was time for dinner. We decided to make a quick stop along the way at a Little Caesars to pick up a couple of pizzas for the road.
At the end of all this, we pulled up near our next hotel, Charter Inn & Suites in Tulare, CA. After checking in, we retired to our room, and went to sleep pretty quickly. All of us, including me, needed to get much needed rest before jumping into more exciting California adventures.
Join us again, as we explore the giant, ancient trees of Sequoia National Park, a memorable and spiritual experience!
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