Natural Features & Ecosystems
23 million years ago multiple volcanoes erupted, flowed, and slid to form what would become Pinnacles National Park. What remains is a landscape unlike any other. Travelers journey through grasslands, chaparral, oak woodlands, and canyon bottoms. Hikers enter rare talus caves and emerge to towering rock spires teeming with life: Prairie and Peregrine falcons, Golden eagles, and the inspiring California condor.
A few million years of powerful explosions, lava flows, and landslides created the 30 mile wide volcanic field that forms the foundation of Pinnacles National Park today. This field of fire was then split down the center by the San Andreas Fault and the west side traveled 195 miles north at a rate of 3-6 centimeters each year, all while being worn away by water, weathering, and chemical erosion! The result of these millions of years of fire, ice, and upset are the serene rock formations visited by 250 thousand visitors each year. Strange, the way a violent and dynamic past has resulted in such a peaceful landscape for today's hikers and climbers!
Today, these rocks give many species of plants and animals a place to call home, including the highly endangered California Condor. Pinnacles is one of four sites where captive-bred condors are released to live in the wild, and many of these birds live out their lives flying between Pinnacles and the Big Sur coast. California condor numbers are now on the rise after reaching a low of only 22 birds in the early 1980's. Thirty years of captive breeding, careful monitoring, and exhaustive preservation efforts have brought that number up to over 400 birds, over 200 of which fly free in California, Arizona, and Utah. In any given day over 60 birds may flying in and around the park, but that number is usually much lower and condors are a rare site, especially compared to their cousin, the turkey vulture. With a good eye and a little luck, though, visitors may be able to spot two or three soaring over the peaks in search of a carrion lunch!
While condors and magnificent rock spires are certainly what draws many visitors to Pinnacles, they are by no all there is to see at the park. Visitors can explore two systems of talus caves, which are formed by massive boulders wedged in ravines and widened by water and erosion. Rocks the size of houses will hang steadily over your head as you make your way through a cool, dark environment that provides a home for Townsend big-eared bats and red-legged frogs, among others. If you prefer to stay in the sun, you can hike our 32 miles of trails which are decorated during the spring months with California poppies, bush lupine, mariposa lilies and a variety of other wildflowers. These flowers are pollinated by the park's 400 species of bees, a higher density of species per area than any other known place in the world! You may also see bobcats, coyotes, black-tailed deer, any number of lizards and snakes, tarantulas, and perhaps even a mountain lion! You never know what you'll find when you visit Pinnacles National Park!