Pinnacles National Pork

I leave the cool, clear, high elevation evergreen forests of Sequoia National Park where I have been running the heater every morning to take the chill off, and drive down over 6,000 ft to the Central Valley where it is hot, dry, and straw-colored.  As if that weren’t shock enough to my system, all of California is suffering a heat wave this week.  I’ve gone from snuggling under a down comforter to “hot, hot, Africa hot” in under two hours.

I am off to visit our newest National Park, Pinnacles, newly anointed in 2013.  The road through irrigated farm land and nut orchards is pot-holed and heavily trafficked by trucks.  It seems like I will never get to the turnoff for Pinnacles National Park.   The final nine miles are hilly, winding, and often too narrow for me to fit in one lane, leaving me the choice of straddling the line into oncoming traffic, or driving over the center stripe punctuated with knobby reflectors.    The rough cattle guards every mile seem to rip at the newly healed “stitches” in the Winnie’s underbelly.  After two straight weeks of spotty cell service, smoky camp fires, and shrieking, ill behaved toddlers, I realize I am just about “National Parked Out.”

Late evening hike to Balcones Caves Loop

Late evening hike to Balconies Caves Loop

Note gate to enter cave at end of path.

Note gate to enter cave at end of path gives an idea of the size of the boulders.

This cold cave is a great place to escape the heat!

This cold cave is a great place to escape the heat! Flashlight required, as it gets dark further in.

This is a talus cave, formed when boulders formed a roof over a narrow canyon.

This is a talus cave, formed when boulders fell into a deep narrow canyon and lodged against the rock walls.

Pinnacles National Park is the newest recreational area to be designated as one of only 59 national lands with official “Park-with-a-capital P” status, and the last remaining park in the State of California that I have yet to visit.   But from what little research I have done on this park, it seems to fall short of the typical wonderland that warrants  being designated as “National Park.”  No towering peaks or raging rivers.  No sacred sites or ancestral ruins.  No “tallest tree in the world,” or “grandest canyon on earth.”  I am struggling to understand what it is about Pinnacles that would prompt Congress to bestow this esteemed designation.  I am just not seeing it.  As I am driving up the curvy two-lane farm road that reminds me of the rolling grassy hills and scrub brush of the Texas Hill Country, I say aloud, “Okay, Congress.  This’d better be good!”

Balconies Cliffs

Balconies Cliffs

This loop is a "lollipop," which is a loop at the end of an out and back trail.

This loop is a “lollipop,” which is a loop at the end of an out and back trail.

Total distance for the loop is 5.5 miles.

Total distance for the loop is 5.5 miles.


I have arrived on the “pinnacle” day of the year, the summer solstice.  It’s also the full moon.   Knowing many parks typically have full moon hikes or night sky programs on the night of the full moon, I am excited to get to the Visitor’s Center and sign up for any interpretive programs.   Only the “Visitor’s Center” is nothing more than a country general store with a few books and tee shirts for sale, all bearing the same Pinnacles logo.   There is one woman in civilian clothes behind the counter.  (I later learn she is a Park Ranger out of uniform.)

I have checked the weather forecast of Pinnacles National Park and it says a high of 87.  Hot, but I consider booking a site in the campground with hookups.   But my in-dash thermometer registers over 100 degrees, and it sure feels a hell of a lot like hell for only 87 degrees.  My suspicions are confirmed when the first thing I see when I walk in the door is a bright orange sign warning of “Extreme Heat Advisory.  Over 107 degrees!”   I feel like I have been transported back to the hell of a Central Texas summer.

The woman behind the counter is helpful and almost apologetic.   There are no Ranger-led programs.  In fact, there is only one…literally one “Lone Ranger” who takes care of the one small campground.   This is it.   Thirty miles of hiking trails, one campground, and one Lone Ranger.  In our newest National Park.

The High Peaks Trail loop

The High Peaks Trail loop

Interesting peeling red bark of the Manzanita tree.

Interesting peeling red bark of the Manzanita tree.

The area is predominantly rolling hills, with large boulders scattered about.

The area is predominantly rolling hills, with large boulders scattered about.

Natural arch along the High Peaks trail.

Natural arch along the High Peaks trail.

My first question is “What happened to the 87 degree weather forecast?”  She tells me that the national forecast is based on zip code twenty miles toward the coast, where it is indeed 87.  Here in the Pinnacles NP, it’s 107.  She asks, “You DO have air conditioning, I hope?”

We talk about some of the hiking in the area.  She tells me due to the heat advisory, it’s not recommended.   “You can always hike at night.”   In all my travels, this is the first time I have ever had anyone actually suggest I hike at night…

As a National Park junkie, I feel like I’ve been had.  Finally, after some small talk, I get up the nerve to ask the one question that has been on my mind since I first began researching my visit, “Why is this a National Park?”  As she braced both of her hands on top of the glass covered park map on the counter, it seemed as if a hush fell over the room, (only there was no one else in the room.)   “It was political pork.”

Looking out over what is considered the "High Peaks."

Looking out over what is considered the “High Peaks.”

A few "pinnacles" from which the park gets its name.

A few “pinnacles” from which the park gets its name.


Climbing up over the High Peaks is extremely steep. Foot holes were carved in the rock.

Climbing up over the High Peaks is extremely steep. Foot holes were carved in the rock.

She goes on to tell me that the Congressman for this district, Sam Farr, along with several of the officials from the neighboring towns were angered by the multi-millions of tourist dollars going to the nearby coastal towns of Monterey and Carmel  just 30 miles west, and wanted their piece of the pie.   They began a congressional campaign to elevate the status of Pinnacles National Monument to one of the 59 designated “Parks.”  It was political “pork,” and it passed.  This is clearly a passionate subject for the out-of-uniform ranger, as she tells me, “We had to change every single sign and piece of collateral material in the entire park with our own funds.  We got no help.  On top of that, as a part of the National Park system, we lost 3% of our funding that same year.  Thank you, Sam Farr!”



Heading down the side of one of the peaks. Steep!

Heading down the side of one of the peaks. Steep!


I’ve driven too far to stay less than two nights, so I pay my $36 a night for electricity, and decide I will make the best of it.   I do two hikes while here.  The first is a five mile late evening “lollipop” hike (out and back with a loop on the end) to the Balconies Cave (even the name suggests I am in Texas) and Balconies Cliffs overlooks.   It’s pleasant enough with some interesting rock formations and a talus cave that was formed when boulders collapsed over a narrow canyon, sealing it overhead.  It’s fun to scramble up and out the cool cave to make the loop.

But I want to hike the “premiere” hike in the park, the High Peaks Trail. This will be a six mile loop with 1,500 ft of elevation gain through the tall pinnacles. The ranger tells me it heats up in a hurry on those exposed rocks, so I had better get an early start. My former hiking gang will be surprised to know I was on the trail before 6:30am. It was a beautiful, cool morning climbing up through the volcanic spires that are so unique to the rolling grassy hills that surround this area. Sitting atop the San Andreas fault, the Pinnacles area was once a line of volcanos, part of the Pacific “Ring of Fire.” Those volcanoes were split apart during earthquakes, leaving the pinnacle formations.

Pinnacles has a Condor Reintroduction program, whereby birds raised in captivity are released into the wild.

Pinnacles has a Condor Reintroduction program, whereby captive-bred birds are released to live in the wild.

Though fun at first, I am relieved to get this "High Peaks" section of the loop behind me.

Though fun at first, I am relieved to get this “High Peaks” section of the loop behind me.

Condors like to roost in these rocks, though I did not see any.

Condors like to roost in these rocks, though I did not see any.

Lots of beautiful Manzanita trees in the park.

Lots of beautiful Manzanita trees in the park.

Pinnacles is a nice little park. Scenic. Well signed trails. Lots of climbing routes for rock climbers. It’s also a refuge for the endangered California Condor. But should it be a “Park?” In my opinion, they did well with “Monument.”

19 thoughts on “Pinnacles National Pork

  1. I grew up in the Bay Area and remember a family trip to the Pinnacles, maybe 50 years ago now. I don’t remember details, just that there were caves and it was wonderful. I’ve lived my adult life in upstate NY and havent been back in that area. But I have thought that when my turn comes to go nomad I want to see the Pinnacles again. Your pictures and tale are the first I’ve seen of it in all that time, so thanks for letting me know what it is about. Not the most dramatic of places, but for me, a happy if vague, memory.

  2. I also remember visiting with my family when I was a teenager. We were able to hike through the caves. There was a section where a shallow river or stream had to be traversed while in the cave. I heard that the cave trail was closed for safety reasons. It’s supposed to be cooling off in the next few days up here in Sacramento. Hopefully it’ll cool down where you’re at too.

  3. I’m going to differ with you on this one. National Parks are not always about magnificence, they are sometimes about saving a piece of the ecosystem that is unique and that needs a bit of love and care. Monument status doesn’t always do this, after all, they are drilling oil in our “monuments”. We visited Pinnacles during the Spring Equinox and it was a fabulous respite from winter farther north. The flowers were gorgeous, the High Peaks trail afforded vistas of the coast range that you don’t often see. The geology of earthquake country is ever present, and yes, we did see a condor. So maybe it was “pork” according to the ranger, but as a soil scientist who actually worked on the soil survey in this park, there are lots of “pork” projects going on in this country that are much less valuable.

    • Our own Senator, Kay Bailey Hutchison was instrumental in selling out our federal lands to drilling by the oil industry during the “drill baby drill” Bush years. The idea was sold to the American people as a way to preserve our national security by upping domestic oil production. Then the same political party was successful this past year on lifting the ban on foreign oil exports, to be sold at under $40 a barrel no less. So much for national security and an oil independent nation.

      The people running our government have never been more out of touch with reality and deep in the pockets of big oil and big money and all the corruption that comes with it. In fact with our current political climate, rumor has it that England will soon also be declaring July 4th as a national holiday.

  4. Like others we were there before the National Pork changed it form Monument to Park. We had much better conditions – on July 4th – for the same hike, it was really quite nice. I do prefer Pulled Pork over Political Pork! Thanks for this post I was thinking of a return trip, maybe not.

  5. I think timing may be everything here—we visited in early May a couple of years ago and really enjoyed the park. I must admit I also wondered about it being upgraded to a National Park—it was interesting to read the ranger’s point of view, and to read what Sue had to say about it. Anyway, we would go back! But never in the summer.

  6. We visited there several years ago, coming in from the West which is easier access, and did not stay in the park. We loved hiking both of those trails in one big loop (maybe 8 miles). We even saw bats within arms reach in the cave! We loved it during the shoulder season…summer would be hellish…as you discovered!

  7. You may have enjoyed it more if you had been able to go there first, then on to Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite. From what you showed us, I am thinking this should still be a monument.

  8. I am pretty sure “timing” had nothing to do with it. This was my 41st out of 59 National Parks, and it was the first one ever that made me say “Why?” instead of “Wow!” All I saw was one large area of oddly shaped volcanic rocks (think one hike’s worth at Joshua Tree) and a small cave. That’s it. No, I am pretty sure it could have been Nbr 1 instead of Nbr 41, and I would have still been asking “Is that all there is?”

  9. Following Yosemite is a tough act to follow for any park. But your two hikes looked liked lots of fun. I love the steps carved into the steep boulder. Interesting to read the ranger’s view and then Sue’s comment. Guess we’ll have to try it ourselves:)

  10. You finally work through that whole inversely proportional money vs. time thingy and then get struck by bad weather. That reminds me …. I have been reading a lot about S. America travel lately and recently starting to look at more photos and I now see more people all bundled up in coats with snow on the ground. My first reaction …. why are they wearing that …. it’s not supposed to be cold in S. America! LOL. In my own dreams every day is perfect weather, and it looks like you found one that was too much “like home” for comfort (said by someone who has been working in the Texas heat the past week). And speaking of weather, how about the water? I was recently planning my idea of some great fun on a float trip in S. Texas. Temperature (hot as hell), check; water (ice cold), check; rain (none), check; water flow (too fast – tubes not allowed and canoes are too hot for my liking) uncheck – busted!

  11. But perhaps the most disappointing thing travel-wise that I can recall is back when I was chained to the proverbial corporate desk, waiting all year for my four days to be “free, free at last” only to hop aboard a jet and land at a favorite SCUBA destination while then being forced to sit on shore in the rain and watch the chop while wrapped in a towel to keep warm.

    As my good buddy Joe says …. “It’s always something!” 🙂

  12. I agree, it should have been left a monument. We went there on the advise of friends to photograph the condors but they were so far away it was impossible. It was so hot we couldn’t do any hiking, no night hiking for me, I’m not that keen. It’s the most disappointing national park we have been to too.

  13. I’m a bit appalled that the Ranger was out of uniform and spoke so openly about the “pork”. Those chiseled steps look a bit intimidating. But you did it.

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