Pinnacles National Park and Monterey Bay Aquarium

About 80 miles southeast of San Francisco is Pinnacles National Park. It has only been a National Park since 2013, though it became a National Monument way back in 1908. We didn’t really know what to expect, but we visited because it is a National Park. We learned that the name “Pinnacles” refers to the rock formations leftover from a dormant, eroded volcano.

Aside from these formations we also saw wildlife, wildflowers, and Talus caves, which are caves made by giant boulders falling onto narrow gorges. It’s a small park, less than 42 square miles, so we planned to spend three days there. It gets hot in the summer, but the temperature was in the 60s while we were there, and it felt great.

The first hike we took was the High Peaks Trail/Condor Gulch Trail loop. We added on the Moses Spring/Bear Gulch Cave/Rim Trails which made it about a 6 mile hike. The extra trails took us through the Bear Gulch Cave, which involved going up a steep staircase and under huge boulders.

The cave was pretty modified with stairs and handrails to make it easy to get through. It was dark, so we put on headlamps.

When we got out of the cave there was a reservoir, where we stopped to have a snack. The squirrels were aggressively eyeing our food, so we aggressively told them to beat it.

After the Talus Cave, the trail climbs 1,300 feet up into the pinnacles. We were amazed at the colorful lichen covering the rocks; brown, yellow, many shades of green, and even orange.

Most of the elevation gain was hiking switchbacks, but there were areas where the trail helped us out, with railings and footholds.

When we got up high, the views were incredible.

We were in the area where the California Condors nest. We saw huge black birds flying, but couldn’t really pick out the condors, since there are other vultures and ravens, too. One flew overhead and landed near us, and we could see that it was a condor. They are pretty funny looking birds, they look like they are wearing feathery turtlenecks.

The California Condor was nearly extinct in the 1980’s. A captive breeding program was put in place and they have been reintroduced to some areas of California, as well as Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks. Conservation efforts have been successful, but they are still critically endangered, their biggest obstacles are habitat destruction, power lines, and lead poisoning from eating animals shot with lead bullets.

The next day we went for a much flatter hike, about five miles round-trip on the Old Pinnacles Trail to the Balconies Cave. There were many types of tiny colorful wildflowers blooming.

Brian loved the pine cones from the Coulter pine trees, also known by their more descriptive name, Big-cone pine. They look like spikey footballs, and can be 10 pounds when fresh, so we didn’t spend too much time under Coulter pines!

When we got to the cave, it wasn’t immediately clear where the trail was, and we had to climb over rocks and a stream to get into the cave.

Once we were inside (and it was dark), we might not have known the trail continued past the first “room” if not for a little arrow pointing to a passage. This cave was a little more interesting to navigate than the Bear Gulch Cave and we were also the only ones in it.

After the cave, the Balconies Cliffs Trail climbed a bit to show off some nice views while we made it back to the Old Pinnacles Trail for a flat walk back.

Both trails were really interesting and beautiful, and Pinnacles National Park exceeded our nearly nonexistent expectations! We stayed in the campground in the park (on the east side, the east and west sides of the park actually don’t connect by a road). They offered RV sites with electric hookups, and we booked the last available one. There was a lot of wildlife to be seen. Acorn woodpeckers were flying to a granary tree. In the campground we saw many quail, vultures in a tree nearby, and raccoon paw prints all over our truck!

On a rainy day, we drove west to the coast to visit Monterey Bay Aquarium. It was busy, even on a Monday! We spent all day at the aquarium, seeing their large variety of animals.

Brian loved that they didn’t just have “flashy” and “glamorous” species like penguins, and sea otters, but also weird and interesting species.

They had a special exhibit on Tentacles, which had octopus, squid, cuttlefish, and nautilus. It was mesmerizing to see them change colors before our eyes.

There is a large tank that is kelp forest habitat, which is native to the Pacific Ocean. The leopard sharks and school of sardines were fun to watch. We also loved the jellyfish and large colorful anemone.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium emphasizes the environmental impact of fishing, the importance of eating seafood that is sustainably harvested, and the negative impact of human behavior and plastic in the ocean. They have a program called Seafood Watch that makes recommendations for which types of seafood are most ocean-friendly. It isn’t always fun to hear about, but it’s important, and they do a good job of educating and increasing awareness.

Day 567 | Mile 60,581

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