After a big breakfast on a bright and sunny New Year’s Day, I decided to head for Pinnacles National Park for a little adventure. I wanted to go where there would be a lot of people to make my hike more festive and holiday-ish. I immediately thought of the very popular Balconies Caves. From previous experiences, I knew there are a few different routes to the caves from Bear Gulch on the east side of the park, all of which are long and time-consuming. Due to my late start and full belly, I ruled these routes out and opted for the easier and quicker west entrance trailhead near Soledad. To get there, I took a scenic back road drive over La Gloria Road from Highway 25.
La Gloria Road slices through the Gabilan Mountains on an unpaved, twisty, washboard gravel track about 30 miles south of Hollister. There are awesome views and some great examples of what I call “farm art,” rusted vehicles and implements that will put a smile on your face, even though they have seen better days. That said, the east side entrance and approach to the Pinnacles in San Benito County scores much higher for overall beauty and drivability than the west side. After you drive into Monterey County and down into Soledad, the road is narrow and winding with very little exceptional scenery. Not until you are actually in the park does the landscape wow you with outstanding rock formations and color. Once you are there, however, the iconic Pinnacles and sky high Machete Ridge do not disappoint.
From the Chaparral Trailhead parking area, it is only 0.6 mile to the entrance of the caves on the Balconies Trail. Families and couples and solo hikers were out in force, providing the fun, chatter-filled walk I was seeking. Normally, I go to places like this for solitude and reflection. Today I wanted New Year’s Day excitement. There were giddy kids everywhere and an air of jubilation on the trail. Perfect!
The Balconies Caves at the Pinnacles are talus caves, formed by a different process than limestone caves you may have visited in other locations. As these hard, pyroclastic volcanic rocks were split apart into steep spires or pinnacles by fault movement, broken pieces of rock (aka “talus”) fell into the crevices between the pinnacles and were jammed into place by the force of gravity. These rock fall events left behind open spaces beneath the jammed-in boulders that resemble caves and are, in some places, interconnected. They are great fun to wiggle around in and explore. Sunlight shines into the open spaces in spots. In others, darkness reigns, adding to the spooky underground atmosphere.
The Balconies Caves are a little less than a half mile long. Bring a headlamp or flashlight for the dark spots and be prepared to use both hands and feet to descend the steeper sections. I arrived at the entrance at the same time as a big family ranging in age from 5 to 14 in the kiddie contingent, along with their middle aged parents and relatives. I must have looked especially senior, frail, and dementia-prone on New Year's Day because this amazingly friendly family decided to adopt me. They continually offered me assistance in climbing down into the cave and insisted that I walk in the middle of the pack “in case something happens.” They were so sweet. Somehow, despite being old and decrepit, I made it through to the end without cracking my skull, forgetting my name, or keeling over with apoplexy. Insert winky face here.
After a little exploring on the Old Pinnacles Trail, I walked the Balconies Cliffs Trail back to the trailhead. This is a very pleasant hike with terrific views of Machete Ridge and the Balconies Cliffs. The cliffs are stained in places with long dark ribbons of manganese, which has been weathered out of the rocks and washed down the face of the cliffs forming black stripes.
I saw four climbers scaling Machete Ridge. Two had already reached the summit and two others were on their way. From where I was standing, it looked like they were doing this exercise freestyle, completely without ropes. They were either ridiculously skilled super-athletes and/or out of their freaking minds! I watched for a little while before realizing that, should one of them fall, I would be scarred by the memory for life. Give me a nice, safe hiking trail and an overprotective little family any day!
By the time I got back to my truck, the sun was beginning to set over the Santa Lucia Mountains and I decided to scoot back home on 101. If you have time, I recommend hiking to the Balconies Caves from Bear Gulch, but if not, or if you just want to do a quick visit, then the west side entrance is a good choice, too. There can be flowing water in the caves sometimes, making footing very slippery, so check the park web site ahead of time. Go explore the caves and have a Happy New Year!
And please, my friends do not litter.
For a location map of Balconies Caves in Pinnacles National Park, please click here.