The article "In Pursuit of Wildness: Pinnacles National Park" by Robert Griego was originally published on the "RoadRUNNER Touring & Travel" magazine website on 04/24/2017.
Once upon a time, it was called Pinnacles National Monument, but today it is America’s newest national park. That’s where this story begins.
Graduating from San Jose State, getting married, and landing my first permanent job with the National Park Service all within one week was a miracle. “We’d like to offer you a job as an Administrative Assistant at Pinnacles National Monument.” I accepted without even knowing where it was located. I have always loved nature and the great outdoors, but my degree in business administration and management was pointing me toward a career in a big city. So this offer from the National Park Service was a dream come true.
A one-room cabin was our first home, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s, and living on the east side of Pinnacles was the beginning of a special journey. Our son, Keith, was born in Hollister, 35 miles away.
Pinnacles is located in central California among the chaparral, oak woodlands, and canyon bottoms. It was formed some 23 million years ago by erupting volcanoes. Today as you enter the park, the green pastures are heaven for cows and horses. You will likely see peregrine falcons, golden eagles, and the inspiring California condor.
It is rich in history, as described in the National Park Service publication The Heart of the Gabilans: An Administrative History of Pinnacles National Monument. I recently spoke with the author, Timothy Babalis. His words bring to life the hard and meaningful labor of the young men who made up the CCC. My dad was part of that era, working for the CCC in Arizona and New Mexico. He made $30 a month constructing roads, campgrounds, bridges, lookout towers, and building for the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service. He was required by his contract to send $25 home monthly to help his family. President Roosevelt’s New Deal put millions of young men to work after the Great Depression. Today, the efforts of the CCC can be seen in most national parks. Here at Pinnacles, their fine rock work can be seen on buildings, bridges, and the High Peaks trail system.
This little-known monument became Pinnacles National Park on January 10, 2013. Pinnacles is perhaps one of the best-kept secrets of the National Park Service. Birders, hikers, climbers, and nature lovers fall for it immediately. It is a rock climbing paradise. I was on the Mountain Climbing Search and Rescue Team for three and a half years and climbed nearly all the routes. The rock climbing passion is still with me today.
The movie Jonathan Livingston Seagull was also filmed here, and that was an exciting day for us. The movie producers and camera crews came to tell a love story about a seagull and it put Pinnacles on the map, though visitation was still considered low in comparison to other national parks.
I’m a biker at heart and my favorite ride is west on Highway 198 from Visalia, past Coalinga, then north on Highway 25 to the east side of Pinnacles National Park. The road winds through the valleys and opens up with vast grasslands where content cows and horses graze. You might even see the tule elk, which are making a comeback. There are a few sharp curves to wake you up, but overall it is peaceful and relaxing. One hundred years ago it would have looked much the same. In the spring, wildflowers profusely color the landscape.
I’ll camp a few nights at the east side Pinnacles Campground, hike the High Peaks Trail looking for California condor, and walk the short Bear Gulch Trail to the reservoir. Perhaps the best time to visit is March or April to enjoy the wildflowers. But my favorite time is the Fourth of July, camping and then riding into Hollister for the annual Hollister Rally held July 1 – 3. This event was suspended for many years but has come back in full force. Johnny’s is a must, a central point for all motorcyclists. The music rocks, the food is great, and you can see bikers roll down San Benito Street by the thousands. Hollister was made famous by Marlon Brando in The Wild One.
If you are thinking about a new motorcycle, sit on a corner and just watch the variety of bikes rolling into town. There is an Indian dealership on the north end of Hollister that I love to visit. Sometimes I’ll continue my ride westerly on Highway 156, stopping at San Juan Bautista State Historic Park, and then on to Monterey and Carmel. This route is only 40 miles. Highway 1 south toward Big Sur, San Simeon, Cambria, and Morro Bay is pure joy, but that’s another story.
I meet so many bikers on the road who know very little about the national parks. They are often amazed to learn that there are many types of park passes that can cut down on your budget when visiting. I’m always encouraging fellow bikers to buy an annual pass because an annual pass permits entrance for two motorcycles if the two people who sign the pass arrive at the same time on two motorcycles, regardless of the number of people on each motorcycle.
You will not be disappointed with the easygoing country ride to Pinnacles National Park, hiking some of the trails, camping, viewing the California condor, and maybe topping it off with a ride to the Hollister Rally. As Brando might have said, it’s a bit on the wild side.
Planning a Visit
When Pinnacles was signed into legislation in 2013, it became the country’s 59th national park. Located southeast of San Francisco in the Gabilan Mountains, it sprawls across 26,000 acres of ancient volcanic ground. Because it is less well known than Yosemite, Yellowstone, and other California parks, it offers solitude without scrimping on sights. Here you’ll find everything from sprouting wildflowers and hundreds of bee species to caves and—if you’re lucky—a California condor. Temperatures can be extreme in summer. If visiting then, pack plenty of food and water and stay hydrated!To Do
Rock climbing, day hiking, wildflower viewing, birding, stargazing, caving, picnicking, camping, Ranger-led activities, and a visitor center and nature center.Hours
Open 24/7/365, weather permitting. Highest visitation is in fall and during spring wildflower season. It is very common for the campground to fill on weekends and during holidays. Arriving in the middle of the week will improve your chances of a campsite.Cost
Fifteen dollars per motorcycle or vehicle; $10 individual; $25 annual. All passes valid up to seven days for Pinnacles National Park. Interagency annual passes are $80 and offer admittance to more than 2,000 national parks and federal recreation lands. Ten dollars for seniors; free for U.S. military.For more information or to purchase a pass, visit the NPS website at www.nps.gov/pinn.
Text and Photography: Robert Griego