Trail Report: Pinnacles National Monument

A few hours south of San Francisco—and just east of the valley that was often Steinbeck's stage—are the reddened remains of an ancient volcano known as the Neenach.

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A few hours south of San Francisco—and just east of the valley that was often Steinbeck’s stage—are the reddened remains of an ancient volcano known as the Neenach. This volcano, formed around 23 million years ago, according to scientists’ estimates, came to straddle the tense intersection between two massive crustal plates: the Pacific and the North American. Long ago, the movement of the Pacific plate along the San Andreas fault cleaved the Neenach and carried most of its mass 195 miles northwest to its current place, presently known as Pinnacles National Monument.

Teddy Roosevelt designated Pinnacles as a national monument in 1908, which until very recently was roughly the last time that a California condor hatched within the monument’s boundaries. (Pinnacles became involved in the condor recovery program in 2003 and reported in April 2010 the first successful hatching of a condor within the monument in more than 100 years.)

Now, 30 condors are inside Pinnacles’ borders and can often be seen circling its characteristic igneous towers, which rise sharply above chaparral-covered hills. The unique landscape, home to a variety of plant and animal species, is a draw for hikers, bird enthusiasts and climbers, who come to scale challenging routes up the volcanic breccia.

Views of the high peaks from Condor Gulch. Photo: Sam Edmondson

Pinnacles N.M. is part of the Gabilan mountains, which are on the Pacific side of California’s central range. Rising from the eastern edge of the Salinas valley, the Gabilans (gavilan is Spanish for "hawk") catch the sun’s golden light as it arcs out over the Pacific Ocean. For this beauty, the range also caught Steinbeck’s imagination: "I remember that the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother," he wrote in East of Eden.

For those who wish to climb into those sun-baked, inviting hills, Highway 101 will get you within a few miles of the park’s west entrance. No roads cross the monument, so should you prefer the east side as a starting point, a detour around the Gabilans to Route 25 is your way in. Over the weekend, we hiked from the east side up the Condor Gulch trail to the High Peaks trail, enjoying perfect weather and clear panoramic views of the terrain. Below are some more photos from the hike.

Shooting stars, the daylight variety, along Condor Gulch trail. Photo: Sam Edmondson

Indian warrior. Photo: Sam Edmondson

View north from the high peaks trail. Photo: Sam Edmondson

Another view from the high peaks trail. Photo: Sam Edmondson

More views from the High Peaks trail. Photo: Sam Edmondson

Wooly Indian paintbrush. Photo: Sam Edmondson

Sunset tree. Photo: Sam Edmondson

The monument is also home to the endangered California red-legged frog, which Earthjustice has worked to protect from extinction. Make a trip this spring to catch the monument’s array of wildflowers and beat the summer heat, which in such exposed terrain is downright oppressive.

Sam Edmondson was a campaign manager on air toxics issues from 2010 until 2012. He helped organize the first 50 States United for Healthy Air event. His desire to work at an environmental organization came from the belief that if we don't do something to change our unsustainable ways, we are in big trouble.