On January 10, 2013, President Obama signed legislation elevating the Pinnacles to National Park status and giving Bay Area residents their most accessible National Parks for hiking, camping and rock climbing. Previously a national monument, established as such by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1908, the Pinnacles themselves are the western half of the eroded and exposed basaltic core of an ancient volcano that has been slowly moving northward astride the San Andreas Fault from its start point 150 miles south near Lancaster, CA.

Our hike takes us around the northern edge of these dramatic rock outcroppings, and into some rugged and hauntingly beautiful terrain. While the Pinnacles can be accessed from either the East or the West, Highway 146 is not a through road across the park. Camping is offered on the East side and that’s where we will begin today. After entering the park, proceed along the Pinnacles Highway to trailhead at the Chalone Creek Rd. The trail to the Balconies Caves and Cliffs follows the creek as it heads towards our dual destination. At the three-mile mark, make your choice – caves or cliffs first.

The cliff trail offers some outstanding vistas of the looming peaks nearby. The cliffs are a popular destination for Bay Area rock climbers. You may even catch a glimpse of a roosting California Condor, as we did during a recent visit to Pinnacles (Hiking the loop trail around the highest pinnacles is exciting adventure itself and not without some somewhat scary twists and turns on the highest trails above).

The caves formed many millennia ago when immense, eroded boulders fell upon one another and water subsequently eroded passages between them. Your passage will take a bit of scrambling and climbing, but it’s interspersed with shafts of light from openings above. Step through an iron-gated portal and enter into the darkness for an exciting contrast of confinement to the expansive openness of the cliffs above.

This hike is best made in the spring or fall due to the high temperatures that are the norm during the summer. Regardless of the time of year, always pack plenty of water, and when accessing the caves, carry individual flashlights and bring a light sweater or windbreaker as the caves can get a bit chilly, especially after a spring shower.