Pinnacles National Park is the closest to San Luis Obispo, the newest and the smallest in the park system. President Barack Obama signed legislation Jan 10, 2013 upgrading the national monument to the more prominent national park status. The 59th national park is 26,000 acres of volcanic spires and a home to the endangered California condor, one of the world’s largest flying birds.
The park was shaped by a 23 million year old volcano that now suffers a split personality.
Once it was an 8,000 foot high stratovolcano about the size of Mt. St. Helens. Long after the magma cooled the San Andreas Fault split the structure, moving it at an average rate of 1.5 inches a year. The northwest bound side is the national park. The other half can be found in the less spectacular Neenach Formation 195 miles south near Lancaster. U.C. Santa Cruz graduate student Vincent Matthews III connected Neenach to Pinnacles in 1973.
The planned through road mentioned in the story below was never built and with much of the park designated as wilderness it seems unlikely in the future.
On Dec. 31, 1966 staff writer Elliot Curry wrote about Pinnacles. I removed the road directions from the over 40-year-old story current directions from the National Park Service are at the end. Check the Pinnacles website for current information on services and regulations.
A wonderland of wilderness
About 30 million years ago a volcano erupted in San Benito County a few miles east of Soledad, pouring molten lava over thousands of acres and creating a dome-shaped mountain that probably stood as high as 8,000 feet.
Ever since that pre-historic day, Mother Nature has been busy cutting, molding, washing shaping this great mass of volcanic debris into what is now the Pinnacles National Monument, and she isn’t done yet.
The scenic and scientific marvels that make up the Pinnacles are encompassed in an area of 14,497 acres lying 130 miles north of San Luis Obispo. The monument was first put into the public domain by proclamation of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1980. Since 1916, it has been administered by the National Park Service.
It is now proposed that 3,720 acres of the monument area be brought under the law of the 1964 as a wilderness area. A public hearing on the proposal is to be held Feb. 10 at 9 a.m. in the supervisors’ chamber of the Monterey County courthouse in Salinas.
The wilderness proposal does not enlarge the area of the monument nor does it include any of the areas now developed for camping and hiking. It would set aside the southern portion of the monument, however, for preservation in its natural state, banning all hunting, grazing, roads, utilities, or other developments which would alter the natural “wilderness.”
The wilderness area would continue to be available for scientific research, fishing, primitive trails for horse or foot travel, and for guided tours on a limited basis. In the face of the population explosion, the objective of the wilderness act is to preserve a few places where future generations may see the land the way it was before the coming of “civilization.”
Superintendent of the pinnacles is Delyle R. Stevens, a veteran of many years with the National Park Service, including over 20 years in Yellowstone. Stevens has developed plans for the pinnacles which include much more than the wilderness area. lA prime proposal is to open a road in the north part of the park connecting the east and west entrances. This would make it possible for tourists, leaving Highway 101 at Soledad to go through the park, view the pinnacles and return to 101 at King City without back tracking at any point.
The pinnacles attracted about 118,000 last year, and Stevens said nearly all of them come from the area between San Francisco and San Luis Obispo. Thousands of Boy Scouts and Camp Fire Girls visit the park each year, since its hiking trails are ideal for this type of activity.
The pinnacles from which the monument gets its name, are great spires of rock left standing while softer rock has eroded away. When the molten lava, which gives the rock a red color, poured out of fissures in the ground it gathered up other rock in the area to form a mixture known as volcanic breccia, easily identified and studied along the hiking trails.
Faulting and cracking of the earth, together with millions of years of erosion, has created a fascinating area of narrow canyons, caves, and great rock formations balanced one atop the other. The two main faults in the park are believed to stem from the San Andreas Fault which is only six miles away.
The geologic story of the pinnacles has not ended, as quakes, erosion and plant life continue to work on the ancient volcanic mass to the edification and interest of students.
The canyons of the park are shaded by oak and digger pine trees and there are hundreds of acres of what Californians know as chaparral. In this area it is composed mainly of chamise, buckbrush and manzanita. One of the happy sights of the park are the numerous deer.
There are some 15 miles of well marked trails in the park, over which short, long, easy or rugged walks can be taken. Some lead by moss covered boulders, beside springs and hidden pools, others lead to rocky “balconies” with spectacular mountain and panoramic views.
Favorite season for visitors to the pinnacles is from mid-February through May. This is the season when many of the slopes are covered with wildflowers.
How to see Pinnacles
For the San Luis Obispo family that wants to get close to nature for a day or a weekend the Pinnacles National Monument is not too far away, but the trip should be well planned in advance. Don’t just jump in the family car and head north.
It is 130 miles to the east and main entrance to the pinnacles by way of King City.
[Driving directions updated below. Curry recommends the East entry in winter but warns it is hot in summer. Much of the following article is included for historical interest, check with the website for current information.]
Here are some planning suggestions for a one day trip: Leave San Luis Obispo by 6 a.m. Take a big picnic lunch and if you plan to cook or make coffee, take fuel for a fire. There are no restaurants either in or near the park. There are tables and fireplaces, restrooms and water. Go to the visitors center in Bear Gulch, where you can get oriented for hiking.
One dollar per car is the charge or the $7 annual National Park Permit good anywhere in the United States will let you in. You’ll be ready to hit the sack when this day is over.
For people with trailers, campers sleeping bags, tents, etc., the Pinnacles are made to order for a weekend outing. Take everything you will need and remember that there is no electricity. There are about 150 camping places available and at present there are no time limits.
There is a separate area for organizational camping, for which advance arrangements should be made with the headquarters office.
In case you do forget something, the nearest store and service station is at Paicines, 23 miles to the north toward Hollister.
Pets are permitted in the park if kept under physical control.
National Park Service directions to Pinnacles National Park.
From the South:
To the East Entrance:
Take Hwy 101 North to the town of King City. Exit at 1st Street. Turn right toward King City. Continue straight until 1st St turns into Bitterwater Rd (Monterey County G13). Follow Bitterwater Rd until it intersects Hwy 25. Turn left on Hwy 25 (North) and follow for ~15 miles. Turn left onto Hwy 146 to enter the monument. Turn left into the Pinnacles Campground and check in at Pinnacles Visitor Center. The Bear Gulch Area is 3.5 miles further into the park along Hwy. 146.
To the West Entrance:
Take Hwy 101 North to the town of Soledad, and then take Hwy 146 east. Take care as you’re driving through town; the highway takes a few turns. Follow Hwy 146 for 14 miles into Pinnacles National Park.