Chapter Home Page Environmental Update
Site Search

Explore, Enjoy and Protect the Planet

Pinnacles National Monument

Looking Up at the Pinnacles from Condor Gulch


Welcome to Pinnacles National Monument

Pinnacles National Monument is a wonderful place to visit. The Monument itself is over 23 million years old, and is part of an extinct volcano. Being located in the San Andreas Rift Zone, a series of faults lie just east of the park. It was created when the Pacific plate wrenched off a portion of the North American plate. It is known that volcanoes occur here because the earths crust is broken, allowing magma from beneath the earth to swell up. Pinnacles National Monument has slowly drifted northward 195 miles from Lancaster, California. The other half of the volcano is called the Neenach Formation which still resides near Lancaster. Once being the size of Mount Saint Helens, the centuries of rain has weathered the rock formation to approximately 1/3 of its original size creating what is known today as the Pinnacles National Monument. With its many spires, crags and variety of terrain, it is truly a spectacular place to visit. The Pinnacles are a great representation of four different kinds of plant communities. They are chaparral, riparian, xeric and foothill woodland communities and has been preserved for future generations to enjoy.
The Balconies Cliffs from the top of the Pinnacles
The Pinnacles are home to many eagles and falcons each year. They roost high on the the pinnacles away from humans. Many of the climbing routes are closed from January 15th each year for several months to allow the birds to nest in the area. Other animals residing in the area are owls, bobcats, mountain lions, rabbits, hawks, blacktail deer and the gray fox. 
(back to table of contents)

How to Get There

The Pinnacles are 115 miles from San Luis Obispo and can be reached in just over 2 hours. To reach the Pinnacles from San Luis Obispo, drive north on Highway 101 to King City, then exit onto G13, follow the signs to State route 25 then north 19 miles to the monument entrance. There is a $4 day use fee.

The drive itself is quite beautiful once you reach Highway 25. In the spring months the grasses are green, covered with wildflowers, accentuating the oaks and Digger Pines in the area.

Once at the park, check out the Visitor Center for the history of the park and how it was constructed and note the Seismic monitoring station as well.

(back to table of contents)

Exploring the Pinnacles

If this is your first visit to the park, I recommend starting with the Condor Gulch Trail which reaches the High Peaks Trail, then continue over to Bear Gulch, then return on the Bear Gulch or Moss Springs Trail.
Hiking Along the High Peaks Trail
(Photo By Monica Tarzier)
The route begins across from the visitor center. With a slow and steady climb for 0.7 miles, this trail takes you into the heart of the Pinnacles. Take particular note of the lush valley of oaks and Grey Pines. Over 1500 feet above you are the tops of the hundreds of spires which will engulf you as you ascend the mountain. At the overlook, stop to admire the views of Condor Gulch and the towering spires above. Look to see if you can spot nesting birds and small waterfalls which may be tumbling down the cliffs above. Leaving the overlook, the trail gets steeper and climbs into dense chaparral. The views to the east are spectacular. At the 1.7 mile point, the High Peaks Trail is reached. Turn left and follow the trail in and out of the spires. Take particular note of the red rock formations to the north called "The Balconies". There is a 0.5 mile cave through this rock formation.
From the High Peaks Trail, you can see the Monterey Peninsula, and the barren West Pinnacles Campground. Continue on the High Peaks Trail to the Juniper Trail. Head east down to Bear Gulch, then take the trail to the reservoir. Once at the reservoir, you may be able to explore the Bear Gulch Caves,  if they are open to the general public, and you have brought along a flashlight, then return to the visitor center. 
[Bear Dam]
Bear Dam at the Entrance to Bear Gulch
(back to table of contents)

Plant Communities of the Pinnacles

The Pinnacles consist of four different plant communities. They are xeric, riparian, chaparral and foothill woodland communities.

The Xeric community is best described as the barerock community. It is found on exposed cliff faces and rocky outcroppings which possess little or no soil. Lichens, mosses, spike mosses and succulents such as Dudleyas and live-forevers. Water is very scarce, little soil accumulates and the temperatures are very extreme. All plants living in this community must be very hardy and adaptable. Any pockets of soil which you may find are considered to be island oases in the Xeric Community.

The Riparian community is most notable in winter when the rains come and fill local streams. The water loving plants thrive. Cattails, ferns, blackberries, willows, cottonwoods and sycamores are some of the more common species. In summer, the water goes underground to the 1 1/2 to 2 foot level, which may lead you to believe this is not a riparian community. But as long as the root systems are in the water table, these plants will flourish. Most of the major drainage channels at Pinnacles have flowing underground streams year round.

The Chaparral community is by far the most expansive community in the Pinnacles. It covers 80% of the park. It is one of the parks most important features. No other National Park area has such an extensive or truly representative stand of coast-range chaparral. Chaparral covers all but a small portion of the hillsides. It is the dense brushy cover of the hills. When you look closely, you can see a great difference between north and south facing slopes of the hills. About 90% of the vegetation on the south facing slopes is chamise, a dry needle leaved plant with brittle branches. Other plants occur, but only in small patches; mainly buckwheat and manzanita. The same three plants occur on the north facing slopes, but the amount of chemise decreases significantly and there is an abundance of holly-leaf cherry and toyon. The north facing slopes have a lush green color. These two communities are called the dry-phase and moist-phase chaparral. There are several reasons for the difference between the moist-phase and the dry-phase chaparral communities. The north slope receives less sunlight during the year and is cooler. The cooler temperatures allow more moisture to be retained over a longer period of time, more plant types become established, which causes more humus to develop in the soil which can then hold more water. The south slopes have more sunlight, allowing only the hardiest plant species to survive. Neither of the two types of chaparral grow in an easy environment. All plants of the moist or dry-phase of the chaparral must be capable of handling long periods of drought and hot temperatures. The chaparral provides habitat for an amazing number of animal species.

A Pinnacle Standing Alone
The Foothill Woodland community is the only other community on the hillsides. It occupies some of the hilltops. Though it covers only 7% of the monument, it is just as important as the chaparral. It is easily recognized as those areas covered by grasses dotted with the blue oak and digger pine. The soil of this community is much finer than that of the chaparral and also much richer in organic material. The organic material usually has a shallow depth of 2 feet or less. It is incapable of holding water for any great length of time. The plants here either go through their entire life cycle during the wet and spring months or they have roots which reach a permanent source of water, like the blue oak and the digger pine which send roots as far down as 150 feet. This community supplies as much as 70% of the food source for the wildlife of the Pinnacles. 

Knowing more about the different plant communities will help you identify more easily the different plant types described in many of the wildflower and plant books. 

(back to table of contents)

Camping Facilities

Tent Trouble
Around the Campfire
Pinnacles Campground Inc.
2400 Highway 146
Paicines, CA 95043
(back to table of contents)

Additional Information

For more information on the Pinnacles National Monument contact the agencies listed below. (back to table of contents)

[back]Back to Natural Wonders of California's Central Coast.

[back]Back to Santa Lucia Chapter.

[home]Back to Sierra Club home page.

Santa Lucia Chapter of the  Sierra Club
P.O. Box 15755
San Luis Obispo, CA 93406
Telephone 1-805-543-8717.

Sierra Club National Office
85 Second St., Second Floor
San Francisco, CA 94105-3441, USA
Telephone 1-415-977-5500 (voice), 1-415-977-5799 (FAX)
Take Action
Chapter Campaigns
Get Outdoors
Join or Give
Santa Lucian
Our Chapter
Contact Us
Other Groups
Bill Deneen Awards
Explore, Enjoy and Protect - Santa Lucia Chapter hike in Machesna Wilderness
Machesna Wilderness hike
April 2002
Photo by Gary Felsman

Come to Sierra Summit 2005, Sep. 8-11 in San Francisco