Pinnacles High Peaks and Balconies Cave

5-star hike.
8.5 mile loop • Medium difficulty.
Elevation 1,000 - 2,600 feet. Gain 1,800 feet.
Pinnacles National Park, Northern California.
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The striking terrain of the Pinnacles National Monument might make you feel like you're at least a couple of state borders from the Bay Area, but in truth this national park is less than a hundred miles south of San Jose. Our featured route combines two of the most popular trails in the park, boasting caves, some tight squeezes in high places and to top it all off, the chance to see the endangered Californian condor.

High Peaks trail rises among strange rock formations, the erosional remains of a twenty-three million year old volcano, and provides great views across both the Salinas Valley and the San Andreas Rift Zone. Up here you're sharing the scenery with vultures, eagles, falcons and if you're lucky, the Californian condor with its nine-foot wingspan. Areas of the High Peaks do involve negotiating some tight spaces and narrow rock-bordered trails, but safe passage is assured with substantial guardrail protection.

The route next descends to the Balconies Cave where the majority of the elevation change is now behind you. Follow Chalone Creek to the caves, which were created by a rockfall when the hillside now known as the Balconies collapsed into the valley. Use your flashlight (you did remember to bring your flashlight didn't you?) to negotiate the pitch-black cavities beneath the huge boulders as you clamber up, over and squeeze through the caverns. Passage is safe and relatively easy – anyone taking this eight mile route will have no problems with the caves. However, an alternative but slightly longer above-ground route is available if you prefer or if you forgot that flashlight.

The trailhead is accessed from the western park access close to the US-101 (the two park access routes are unconnected), and a day-use fee is payable at the entrance to the park. Summer conditions can be fierce on hikers in this park, so plan to tackle this park in cooler weather and remember to bring plenty of water. Also, remember to check for trail closures in the winter/spring nesting season.

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