In planning our recent trip to San Luis Obispo (post coming soon!), my husband and I were a little stumped about how to approach the drive down. We had already decided to take Highway 1 on the way home, but what about the trip down on Highway 101? I wasn't particularly excited about any of the stops before Paso Robles, and that was a solid 3.5 hour drive from our home in Berkeley! Not something I wanted to tackle with two kids in the backseat. It wasn't until the morning before our departure that we realized we would be passing by (sort of) Pinnacle's National Park! It was already on my list of places to explore and it was the perfect midway point on our drive.
We had been warned that it gets really hot in this part of California, and that the middle of summer was a risky time to attempt hiking. I made the naive mistake of checking the weather in Soledad (the nearby town that we would pass through when we got off the 101) and was relieved to see that the high for the day was only mid-70's...totally acceptable! What I didn't realize is that during the 10 mile drive from Soledad to Pinnacle's, you are traveling inland and the temperatures can easily rise 15-20 degrees. When we got off the freeway, it was a cool 70 degrees, and 15 minutes later we were parking the car in 85 degree weather and it was just after 10 am (ooops!).
After researching the different hikes here, we decided on the Balconies Cliff-Cave loop. I was particularly excited about the portion that takes you through "caves" that have been formed from large boulders that rest on one another to create a cave-like feeling. With the exception of a short incline at the beginning of the Balconies trail, the hike is level and easy.
A little over a half mile into the hike the trail splits and you have the option of continuing up the hill along the Balconies trail or going directly to the caves. We had read that approaching the caves from the back end (via the Balconies trail) was the easiest way to make your way through the caves. Since we had two young kids with us, we figured the easier route was probably the smarter choice. Taking the Balconies trail first was also good because this portion of the hike is completely exposed and we wanted to complete it before it got even warmer.
We arrived at the entrance to the caves and were thrilled to find a spot in the shade to have a snack and some water before our cave hike. It was easily 90 degrees by this time and we are all complete wimps when it comes to heat. After scarfing down some grapes and water, we got our flashlights out and our homemade headlamps and continued on our way.
The first portion of the hike involves climbing up some large boulders to get to the entrance of the caves, at which point the trail takes you through a portion that is completely dark and requires a flashlight or headlamp. This part was so much fun! The kids loved it, and with our flashlight and headlamp (made by attaching a bicycle safety light ($3.99 at the hardware store) to an old headband of mine) we were easily able to see our way through the darkness.
The portion that is completely dark is very short (a couple of minutes) and ends with a steep (but short) climb out of the darkness (pictured above). This portion is why it was recommended that you approach the caves from the back entrance, since climbing down into the darkness is more difficult than climbing up.
We were a little apprehensive about doing this hike with small kids, but we saw a handful of other families with toddler aged kids going through the caves as well. Our 4 year old had no problems at all, although there are definitely portions where a kid could get hurt if they were to fall off the rocks, so you will want to monitor closely. Our 2 year old definitely needed to be in our ergo carrier for safety reasons.
The entire hike took about 2 hours, and by the time we were back to the car it was a sweltering 95 degrees. Definitely not a hike to do in the middle of a summer day, but absolutely worth the effort if you can get there early, or visit during a cooler season.
What are your favorite stops on the way to Central/Southern California?
Details: Pinnacle's National Park is about a 2.5 hour drive from Berkeley. Admission to the park is $10. Get there early to avoid any crowds and the heat! Also remember to bring water, snacks and sunscreen.