If you're in the Bay Area and eager to visit a national park, but don't have time to drive all the way east to Yosemite or north to Redwoods, consider Pinnacles National Park. Two hours south of San Francisco, just past the farming community of Salinas that Steinbeck made famous in Grapes of Wrath, Pinnacles offers mesmerizing scenery from top to bottom.
Pinnacles National Park
The namesake of the park will linger in your imagination for days: jagged, rough-cut slabs pushed up when tectonic plates ground together millions of years ago. The fantastic day hikes up into these craggy spires offer limitless views, abundant wildflowers in the spring and the possibility of spotting Pinnacles' most famous resident: the California condor. With a wingspan of almost ten feet and the ability to fly up to fifty-five miles an hour, these awesome birds are endangered but are making a comeback within the safety of the park boundaries.
If all Pinnacles offered was distinct rock formations and endangered species, it would still be worth the trip. But after reaching the heights of Pinnacles, follow the trails down to another geologic marvel of the park: talus caves. Unlike subterranean caves formed completely underground, talus caves were formed by large boulders tumbling into steep ravines over many, many years. The result is a system of caves that swim in darkness for long stretches but then suddenly explode into the light, which makes for fantastic color and shadow displays as you wind through their cool tunnels.
Talus cave entrance
Speaking of cool, one thing to remember when visiting Pinnacles: it gets extremely hot during the summer, so be sure to pack plenty of water on your hikes. Another unique feature of this park is the absence of a through-road; the park has an east entrance and a west entrance, but no road cuts the park in half, which is a blessing for wildlife. The park is small enough to be reasonably accessible by foot, but if you plan on camping, head to the East Entrance Station and the park's lone campground.
If you're not the camping type and want to pamper yourself a bit after a long day of hiking, make reservations at the Inn at the Pinnacles near the West Entrance. The Inn at the Pinnacles is run by a local couple who know the region well and can answer any question you might have. They also serve a delicious and hearty breakfast and host a fun evening social featuring California wine made right from their own vineyard.
Pinnacles National Park
If you're interested in rugged hiking, the chance to spot rare wildflowers and endangered species, and the opportunity to clamber through some bizarre but beautiful caves, then head to Pinnacles National Park.