The newest national park in the United States, Pinnacles National Park, is located in central California, relatively close to several other destinations. It is less than two and a half hours from San Francisco, and even closer to San Jose, Santa Cruz, and Monterey. But despite its proximity to the residents and visitors of these cities, the park only had around 215,000 visitors in 2016, according to the National Park Service. This places it in the bottom quarter of national parks by number of visitors for the year. Perhaps this is because central California has many other attractions that draw visitors and compete with Pinnacles. Perhaps it’s because Pinnacles is a fairly new park and hasn’t gained the notoriety of parks that have been around decades longer. Either way, it’s certainly not due to a lack of natural beauty, because Pinnacles has no shortage of magnificent scenery.
Getting the Lay of the Land
The park has two main entrances – one on the east and one on the west. It’s important to plan your hikes ahead of time and decide which entrance you will need to utilize. The roads leading into the park do not connect, so getting from one entrance to the other requires an hour-long drive that goes around, not through, the park. My husband and I chose to enter the park through the eastern entrance. Even though we were traveling from the west, the route to the eastern entrance was not significantly longer and led to a greater selection of hikes.
The winding road to the park took us through scenic hills and fields even before we arrived at the park. At the visitors’ center, we were greeted by a very enthusiastic guide who offered many suggestions of trails. We settled on the Condor Gulch Trail, as it has an overlook one mile into the trail. I was pleased with this route because I could hike to the overlook and decide if I wanted to continue or return and hike to Bear Gulch Cave. The Condor Gulch Trail was described as more strenuous after the overlook, so I wanted to see it before I committed to completing it. I enjoy hiking but didn’t want to wear myself out too much. I was saving some energy for my exploration of Santa Cruz that evening and San Francisco the following day.
The Condor Gulch Trail
The route to the overlook was pretty. However, once I reached the overlook, the views started rapidly becoming more and more exciting. I decided to turn one more corner beyond the overlook to see what spectacular view was ahead. One extension of my hike led to another, and before long, I had hiked another half mile, constantly saying that I was only going to go a little more. I didn’t notice any increase in difficulty in the hike after passing the overlook, despite what the trail map said. If anything, the trail seemed easier, as I was constantly distracted and motivated by the views that surrounded me. I ultimately decided to turn back not long before reaching the intersection with the High Peaks trail. Those interested in a longer hike could take that trail back, making a loop of about 5.5 miles altogether. Though spending more time on the Condor Gulch Trail kept us from exploring the Bear Gulch Cave, I have no regrets about continuing past the overlook.
A Getaway from the City
I never imagined California as a destination for solitude, but Pinnacles National Park certainly provided an escape from the crowds of the cities (and even the multitude of people that is found in more popular national parks). We saw around a dozen other people during the whole hike, and many of those were in one group that we encountered near the end of our return hike. We saw no one on the trail past the overlook. I’m sure this was partially because we visited on a Friday afternoon in February. However, it’s clear from the total tally of visitors that this park doesn’t see the overwhelming crowds that others do. For now, Pinnacles National Park remains an underrated hiking destination full of top-notch scenery.