Day trip - Pinnacles
If it's gray and cloudy out on the coast, head inland to Pinnacles National Park. Pinnacles is the transformation of an ancient volcano from 23 million years ago. Over time, the volcano formation was eroded by wind, ice and rain, exposing majestic rock spires. The park is also a reserve of the California condor, and kids can see these majestic birds soaring high in the sky (totally different from the zoo). The best time to visit Pinnacles is winter or spring; in summer it gets pretty hot.
Tip: There are two entrances to Pinnacles. The East entrance is accessible on Highway 25. Take Highway 146 for the West entrance. (There is no road that goes across the park.) From Monterey, it's slightly more than an hour to the west or east entrance of the park.
Pinnacles Visitor Center - At the Visitor Center, check out a model of the park and touch table, pick up park map. Also, if you forgot to bring a flashlight, there's a store. Around the visitor center are picnic tables.
Bear Gulch Cave - Everyone in the family, including little kids, will have fun exploring this cave, formed when massive rocks tumbled over a narrow gorge. It's just a short walk from the Bear Gulch Day Use Area to the cave entrance.
Step between tilted rocks (why don't they fall over), and follow the paved walkway into the cave. Climb up stairs underneath huge boulders, squeeze between narrow spaces (kids have the advantage over parents here), listen to the sound of water flowing through the cave, look up to sheer walls of rock above.
When you come to the cave end, return on the Moses Spring Trail, or kids may want to turn right around for a second trip back through the cave.
Tip: There's no artificial lighting - bring a flashlight(s), kids love to have their own light.
Reservoir - The Bear Gulch Cave ends at the reservoir. This is a great spot for a picnic, but no swimming.
Look for California condors - Pinnacles is a nesting area and natural play place for the highly endangered California condor. Condors hatched in zoos are released here into the wild. Also, in recent years, condors have nested and produced baby condors in the park. The condors are tracked, and have tags. (This is one way to tell a condor from a turkey vulture.)
Hiking Trails -
Bear Gulch Cave Trail - Rim Trail Loop
- A easy loop (2.2. miles) is to go through Bear Gulch Cave, then take the Rim Trail back. On the Rim Trail, kids can watch rock climbers scaling sheer walls.
High Peaks Trail to Scout Peak
- Scout Peak is one of the best places to see the California condors, from noon to 3pm. When we visited on a weekend, two condor spotters had identified a female condor (No. 444) nesting on a cliff across the way; we also saw the condor soaring in the sky.
High Peaks Trails - Steep and Narrow section
- From Scout Peak, the High Peaks Trail continues north. It's just a fantastic section, with towering rock spires and views of amazing rock formations below. Older kids can hike this trail and it's well worth it, but the trail is narrow, precipitous, and parts of the trail are steps down a rock face with only a hand rail.
The best loop if you hike the High Peaks Steep and Narrow section is go back on the Condor Gulch Trail, which also has fabulous views.
Tips for enjoying Pinnacles
Drinking water - Even on a short hike, bring water bottles with you. In the dry, warm air in Pinnacles, it's easy to get dehydrated, so drink plenty of water.
Bring binoculars and flashlights - Bring binoculars to spot California condors, turkey vultures and other raptors. Flashlights are needed to explore the caves (cell phones don't have enough illumination).
Footwear - Hiking up the High Peaks or Condor Gulch Trails, closed- toed shoes are a must (do not try these trails in sandals or flip-flops). These trails are steep and rocky.
Sunscreen and hats - Days are usually sunny, so slather the sunscreen on the kids and wear hats or baseball caps.
Don't throw rocks down - This park is filled with rocks, but on the high up trails, don't throw rocks down, which could hit people below.
Restrooms - Hiking the High Peaks Trail, there's a restroom at Scout Peak. Otherwise, no facilities, and any toilet paper left by the side of the trail stays for a long time.
Pick up all your trash - For longer hikes, bring a picnic lunch. On the upper trails, no trash cans, so pack out all your trash. And don't leave apple cores along the way.