January 10, 2013, was a “monumental” day for the California national monument known as Pinnacles when it formally became this country’s 59th national park. Pinnacles National Monument was established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908. The park was created for the vision and preservation of local homesteaders and later was developed by a group of residents living in the area who went by the name “Pinnacle Boys.” What today is Pinnacles National Park has grown physically since that first inception to its present size of about 26,000 acres in the southern portion of the Gabilan Mountains.
The park hosts between 350,000-400,000 visitors per year, many from Europe and Asia. Yet, with its proximity to the San Francisco Bay Area (over 7 million people and 101 cities), the park is accessed by hikers, climbers, bird watchers (especially those seeking the endangered California condors), geology buffs and artists. Pinnacles’ natural wonders—which includes the mammoth rock formation, crags, spires, wildlife, flowers, caves and even a tunnel arch—make it an ideal destination for nature photography.
Unlike most national parks, Pinnacles is distinctly divided into two parts, west and east, with no road linking the two. Michelle Armijo, who worked at the park as an education specialist interpretation ranger for nine years, notes that, “A road would impact both the beauty and terrain of the park.” Armijo, who still spends her time as a volunteer for the park, also said that because of the uniqueness of the San Andreas fault, the talus caves and high peaks are still creeping northwards each year along the Pacific plate, though measured by a mere 30mm to 50mm per year over the past 10 million years.
Geological Formation Of Pinnacles
The talus peaks began forming millions of years ago as the Farallon Plate subducted under the southwestern part of the North American Plate, creating California’s coastal mountain range. This combination of subduction of other plates (most notably the Pacific plate) spawned the infamous San Andreas Fault, which all Californians are constantly reminded of by way of earthquakes. The fault crosses California from the Salton Sea in the south to Cape Mendocino in the north.
According to the park’s guide, “The Pinnacles volcanic field—believed to be 15 miles long and 8,000 feet high—was born 23 million years ago. The volcanoes were not where the Pinnacles are now but 195 miles to the southeast.” That’s present-day Lancaster, in Southern California. These fantastic formations ended up on the Pacific plate and crept north, carrying two-thirds of the Pinnacles volcanic field with them. The other one-third stayed behind and is now known as the Neenach Formation.
In its present state, Pinnacles National Park covers a terrain on the eastern side of the Salinas Valley, accessed off U.S. Route 101 via Soledad (called the “Gateway to the Pinnacles”) and onto California State Route 146. This is known as the west entrance to the park. Visitors coming to the east entrance arrive via State Route 25 south off U.S. Route 101 at Gilroy, referred to as the Pinnacles National Park Highway, and eventually making a right turn into the park onto State Route 146, 28 miles south of Hollister.
The park is connected by a labyrinth of foot trails that lead from one side to the other and up and over the towering High Peaks area, where one can step back in time and enjoy views of the talus spires and crags toward the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Diablo Mountain Range and Santa Clara Valley to the east.
Where To Go: West Or East Pinnacles?
As for photography, choosing to focus on the west or east sides of the park depends solely on what you are interested in capturing, as both sides offer unique and diverse views.
If you are interested in photographing the sheer dominance and beauty of the talus peaks, then the west entrance would lead you to an amazing view where these volcanic peaks seemingly tower straight out of the parking lot. The west is also the sunset side of the park, as the sun would set to the west (behind you) as you capture the view of the High Peaks.
Juniper Canyon Trail also begins on the west side of the park, and in the spring it leads you through a multitude of wildflowers and places you alongside sheer walls of talus and even a tunnel cut through the talus just below the High Peaks Trail.
Also from the west entrance, one can hop onto the Chaparral Trail, which winds alongside the talus peaks but also circumvents them, and closely follows Chaparral Creek, which in the spring is laden with wildflowers. The treasure of this trail is that it leads through the cavernous Balconies Cave via the ancillary Balconies Cave Trail.
Balconies, one of two caves in Pinnacles (with Bear Gulch Cave on the east side being the second—more on this later), closes for a portion of the year when bats are breeding or showing signs of being disturbed. This cave requires some scrambling, so try to stay as light as possible with gear and bring either a flashlight or a headlamp. One may also have to wade in the winter, so be prepared. Balconies Cave offers some incredible photo opportunities and is easier to photograph when the light is soft, as harsh-light days create extreme contrast as light pours through the openings created by the talus boulders.
One should note that the west entrance is controlled by an electronic gate that stops visitors from entering following sunset until 7:30 a.m. the next morning. However, if you are already inside the park, the gate has a sensor and will open to let you out—good to know if you plan on doing some astrophotography. It should also be noted that the park’s main visitors’ center resides on the west side of the park. It is open year-round from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Rangers and volunteers are available to answer specific questions regarding the park and even answer your photo-related questions.
The east side, unlike the west, has no gate. If you want dawn light, then head for the east side as the sun will be rising to your back as you look up toward the high peaks.
As far as night photography goes, the park is a gem as light pollution is at a minimum, especially if you are shooting east, north or south. Shooting west, one can pick up the ambient spill of towns in the Salinas Valley. I like trying to photograph with a moon (either almost full or a crescent). It is fun to play with the positioning of the moon between the talus formations. Almost any time of the year works for moon and astrophotography, and there are still many images I have in my mind that I want to try at night.
If photographing wildlife is more your preference, then you will have the opportunity to see deer, bobcats, a few mountain lions (though it is rare to spot them), falcons, birds of prey, mule deer and gray fox.
Now, all this may sound great, but remember there is an entire east side to the park. As mentioned, this is the route most accessible for those coming in from the greater San Francisco Bay Area.
There are a series of nine trails of varying difficulty listed, from moderate to strenuous. The Bear Gulch trail will lead through a diversity of ecosystems and through the Bear Gulch Cave, where bats reside. Like Balconies Cave, when high activity of the bats is detected, this cave is also closed, so check before going if cave photography is high on your list. Unlike Balconies cave, Bear Gulch Cave is a more open cave experience with stairs and even waterfalls during the rainy season, so you may want to carry just a small backpack or a belt-pack system. Nearby is Bear Gulch Reservoir, which offers excellent sunrise and sunset opportunities when clouds are present.
Pinnacles National Park Climate & Conditions
The High Peaks are a treat to photograph at any time of year. One can capture them from the meadows below or hike up into them (an elevation gain of approximately 1,500 feet). Though it is listed as “Mediterranean,” Pinnacles’ climate can vary. It does snow at the Pinnacles a few times each winter, especially in the High Peaks (with an elevation of over 2,700 feet), but the snow does not last long as warmer air off the nearby Pacific Ocean 50 miles west melts what does fall rapidly.
Summers can be extremely hot, so the edges of the day are the better bet. The park receives moderate rainfall, and this influences the park’s plants and trees. Chaparral dominates much of the park’s topography. The woodlands offer a mix of primarily gray pines and blue oaks, which are beautiful to photograph. In the spring, the meadows, especially on the east side of the park, offer a bevy of wildflowers with peak season being March through May, when 80 percent of the park’s plants are in bloom. Manzanita also grows large in areas and is distinguished by its thick warmish-red bark and red berries in the spring. They can make for some very colorful subjects or foregrounds.
I recommend packing a light bag with lenses covering a range of 24mm to the longest telephoto you can comfortably carry. Take your time and bring lots of water. Sunrises and sunsets are awesome, as well as dawn and dusk, when the soft hues mix beautifully with the warm-colored rocks.
Home Of The California Condor
I think I have saved the best for last: Pinnacles’ amazing California Condors. These incredible birds were almost extinct in the wild in 1987, and the remaining condors were taken into captivity at zoos in Los Angeles, San Diego and Oregon. At the time, there were only two dozen of these birds left in the world.
Southern California released the first captive condor back into the wild in 1992, followed by Big Sur’s Ventana Wildlife Society in 1997. In 2003, Pinnacles joined the California Condor Recovery Program and became the state’s official release site for the bird. Presently the condors’ numbers in the wild are nearing 300, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Quite a comeback story.
The park released close to 30 condors over a 15-year period while focusing on educating hunters about the danger of lead ammunition, which results in the poisoning of these birds. Condor wings are tagged with visible numbers and are tracked by at least one radio transmitter. Some of the birds are also given GPS transmitters.
Photographing these large birds (wingspans can reach 10 feet) is a bit difficult, but I have had success positioning myself in the High Peaks about two hours before sunset as the birds return from a day of foraging. If I am quiet enough, they will soar nearby—it is an incredible experience to hear them fly past, but you must remain still. My wife, Beri, said it was like a spiritual experience, and I would have to agree. Once you get up to photograph, you will immediately see them stay farther away. I recommend arriving about two hours prior to sunset for the best show and light.
California condors tend to ride the updrafts looking for a place to sleep for the night and can reach heights of 15,000 feet. I would recommend at least a 300mm lens or longer if you wish to go tight. My best image came when I was tracking three condors resting on a rock formation in the high peaks. I had a Sony 400mm f/2.8 lens with a 2x converter (effective 800mm), when one of the birds decided to take off from one ledge to the next. It is by far my best image ever of a condor and shows just how colorful these birds are. I was so excited that my Sony a9 tracked the bird and recorded it tack-sharp. I was handholding the lens and shooting virtually straight up.
Planning Your Trip To Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles offers many diverse photo opportunities, but it’s not an easy park to hike, so think of taking lighter packs—especially if you want to go into the High Peaks area.
I would also plan for at least a four-day visit to truly experience what both sides of the park offer. If staying on the west side, look for hotels in nearby Soledad. On the east side, look for hotels in Hollister. Regardless of the time of year, bring plenty of water and snacks—and enjoy the beauty.
See more of Don Smith’s work at donsmithphotography.com.