Central California's Gabilan Mountains parallel the Salinas Valley, running north and south for many miles. For the most part, the range consists of mundane, chaparral-covered foothills generally reaching an elevation around 3,000 feet. While driving along US-101, they become mere backdrop to the many miles of vineyards and more lands under cultivation for food crops.
However the few square miles within Pinnacles National Monument atop the Gabilan Mountains above the town of Soledad present an utterly contrasting and unexpected environment. Here the landscape is dominated by a world of stone: immense rock monoliths, spires, crags, steep-walled canyons, and cliffs. They are the remnants of an ancient volcano formed about 23 million years ago. Originally 15-25 miles wide and 8,000 feet in elevation, the volcano has been worn down by the elements - heat, frost, water, and wind - into a wide array of fantastic formations. Erosion and earthquakes have also created unusual "talus" caves, formed by boulders dropping into narrow canyons until they were completely covered over. (Photo, left: the formations from which Pinnacles National Monument got its name.)
However the formations at Pinnacles actually come from only about two-thirds of a volcano! Volcanoes frequently occur along fault zones. The Pinnacle volcano formed right on the San Andreas Fault a short distance northeast of what is now the Los Angeles Basin. West of the fault, the Pacific Plate is constantly moving northward while east of the fault, the North American Plate moves west. The conflicting plate movements split the volcano apart. (Photo, right: Machete Ridge, a pinnacle seen in profile, is a favorite for serious technical rock climbers.)
Over the past 23 million years, the Pacific Plate carried the western two-thirds of the volcano 195 miles north to its present location. The mass of rocks sank below the surface until erosion uncovered them and created the formations seen today. The remnants of the eastern part of the volcano remain northeast of Los Angeles as part of the Neenach Formation (the desert mountains as you head towards Barstow from L.A.).
(Photos, above: two different looks at the Balcony Cliffs.)
Balcony Trail, an easy 2.4-mile loop trail through the heart of the monument, samples a bit of everything it has to offer. The short trail from the parking lot to the start of the loop passes through a meadow of deep native grasses rarely seen on unprotected lands. The trail winds through a narrow canyon at the base of the formations. The shade of the rocks and a small stream keep things cool and moist with lush plant life. The trail leaves the canyon floor and starts climbing up towards the Balcony Cliffs, soon reaching a saddle with spectacular views in every direction. The trail then drops sharply back to the canyon floor into a very lush and heavily wooded section. Two deer were observed here. This is the approach to Balcony Cave (photo, left), one of Pinnacles' talus caves.
The short, 300-yard long cave, is a narrow, boulder-covered section of the canyon. If offers an entirely different experience. A few sections are pitch dark so flashlights are mandatory. Further it is not level walking inside the cave. There are several scrambles up and down boulder piles, something of a challenge while trying to aim a flashlight. One other pleasant factor: the cave is cool! Outside, the semi-desert, rocky environment is very hot away from the canyon bottom. (Photo, right: Rock climbers scale a small cliff adjacent to the trail.)
The Pinnacles region has long been a nesting site and is one of the few release sites for the critically endangered California condor. A captive breeding program started in the 1980s created sufficient population to start returning the giant bird to the wild. The scavenger is one of the largest birds in North America and can reach a wingspan of over nine feet and weighs twenty pounds.
A network of trails accesses Pinnacles National Monument with trailheads on the east and west sides. Route California-146 does not cross the park. The park's center of activity is on the east side with a visitor center and pretty nice campground. Ca-25 runs north-south east of the park, with Ca-146 going west into the park. On the west side, Ca-146 runs east from US-101 at Soledad. Just before entering the monument the road passes the turnoff to Chalone Vineyards (the first wine producer in Monterey County). This gorgeous mountain top vineyard and ranch is a sight to behold. A dirt road runs several miles form Ca-146 to the visitor area, and it is open to the public. There is scheduled wine-tasting, too.