Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Pinnacles National Park: Take two!


It's been a while since I got around to posting about our trips on the blog. While I am hoping to find time in the upcoming weeks/months to do more frequent posts, I encourage you to follow along on instagram where I share more timely updates of our adventures.

This past spring we took our 2nd annual trip to San Luis Obispo (details coming soon!), and just like last year, we made a detour on our drive to Pinnacles National Park. If you are headed to Southern California from the Bay Area, this is really somewhere to put on your list of stops. It's the perfect opportunity to stretch your legs and has resulted in two really unforgettable hikes for our family.

There are two main entrances to the park, one on the East (accessed from Hwy 25) and one on the West (accessed from Hwy 146). In both instances, you are looking at about a 30 minute detour from Highway 101. The park is best known for two different "cave" hikes, each accessed from a different entrance to the park. On our first visit last July, we entered through the West entrance and did the Balconies-Cliff Cave loop (details here). Despite being over 90 degrees, the hike was awesome and watching my 4 year old easily conquer the boulders in the cave was something I won't forget anytime soon.

A picture from our first trip. We used a bike light and headband to create headlamps for the kids.
On our most recent visit, we entered at the East entrance and did the hike to the Bear Gulch caves and reservoir. This is definitely the more adventurous of the two cave hikes and required more agility as well as wading through a small stream for portions of the hike. As with the first hike we did, there are portions of the cave that are pitch black and require a flashlight or head lamp to light the way.

The hike itself is fairly safe to do with kids, but absolutely requires a heightened level of monitoring and some tight hand-holding on portions. I chose to keep our 2.5 year old tightly secured in an ergo carrier for the portions that involved climbing up steps in the dark with significant drops on one side of the stairs. There was a hand railing and a short wall along the steps that made it safe for adults and older kids, but definitely enough room for a toddler to slide through (have I scared you away yet?). If you asked my husband, I was probably over-reacting to the perceived danger, but just the same it seems worth mentioning.

Arrows are clearly marked on the rocks so you don't get lost in the caves.

The cave hike is broken into two portions. The first involves climbing up stairs in relative darkness, and the second portion involves maneuvering under large boulders and wading through a stream that was ankle deep in several parts. The water was slow moving and very clean/clear on our visit. I would imagine that the water was also higher in the Spring when we visited, opposed to during a summer or fall visit. If you aren't interested in getting your feet wet, there is a side trail that allows you to bypass the second portion of the cave hike.

Unlike with the frog we saw earlier, I chose NOT to mention the snake to the kids, although they might have enjoyed it!
Once you make it through the caves, there is one final climb up a set of stairs and then you will find yourself at the Bear Gulch Reservoir. There isn't a ton of shade along the reservoir, but we managed to find a cool spot to eat a picnic lunch before heading back.

You have several options for the hike back. The two most popular seemed to be returning the way you came or continuing on the Rim Trail Loop. We chose the Rim Trail (going down the steep steps and through the caves seemed a bit more dangerous than approaching them from the bottom) and enjoyed a leisurely hike along a wide trail that gradually weaved down the hillside and back to the parking lot.

Another advantage of visiting in Spring, aside from the cooler temps, are the wild flowers!
Overall, the hike was really beautiful with a lot of trees and lush greenery that popped against the backdrop of the red rocks. There were a number of instances along our hike that reminded me of our recent trip to Sedona. While I recommend visiting Pinnacles in the Spring or Fall, if you do happen to be passing through in summer, this hike provides considerably more shade than the cave hike accessed through the West entrance.

Have you been to Pinnacles? What are you favorite stops between Northern and Southern California?

Details: Pinnacle's National Park is about a 2.5 hour drive from Berkeley. Admission to the park is $15. Get there early to avoid any crowds and the heat! Also remember to bring water, snacks and sunscreen. Spring or Fall is the best time to visit Pinnacles. It gets VERY hot during the summer. If you plan to visit the Bear Gulch Caves, you will want to check ahead to make sure they are open, as they close from mid-May to mid-July for a protected breed of bats that live in the area, in addition to weather related closures at other points in the year. The parking lot at the Bear Gulch visitors center fills up very early in the day and most likely, you will need to park at the East entrance and take a shuttle to the Bear Gulch visitors center. This was a surprise to us, so plan on adding an extra 20-30 minutes to your outing to account for the shuttle wait times. It turned out to be a very smooth process, but definitely added extra time to our trip.