(Orville Myers, Herald Archive)
ON THE TOWERING LIST of stunning vistas and ideal hiking paths in and around Monterey, the Pinnacles National Monument could easily get lost.

But its beauty is lost on no visitor.

Located roughly 50 miles east of Monterey Bay, the Pinnacles is a 26,000-acre tract of trails winding through caves, grottos and meadows en route to so many rocky red spires. The craggy formations conjure up images from the Badlands of South Dakota; they're the result of millions of years of interaction between fault lines and volcanoes.

"It's a pretty diverse park," says Albert Faria, chief ranger at Pinnacles National Park. "The most unique features are the pinnacles themselves, the spires in the park that were the emphasis for creating the national monument here."

And while it is now considered a national monument, a movement is afoot to turn the unique landscape tucked away in the Gabilan Mountains into a full-blown national park.

Climb in

The park is a favorite with rock climbers, so much so that rock-climbing guides are available in spring and summer to show climbers the best places. Vertical rocks for climbing can be found mainly on the west side of the park, where the evidence of millions of years of volcanic and tectonic activity is most obvious.

Climbers may visit for the day or camp in the park; there are 34 sites available for RVs, complete with hook-ups for electricity and water. More than 100 tent sites are also available. Reservations must be made online at reserveamerica.com.

Endangered vultures

Thirty-two adult condors live in the park. It's possible to see them swooping gracefully overhead while hiking the most popular trail in the park, the Condor Gulch Trail. With their 10-foot wingspan, the condors are easy for amateur hikers and birders to recognize soaring above the Pinnacles. They float high in the air until settling to roost as darkness settles in on the peaks.

Staff at the Pinnacles work in concert with the Ventana Wildlife Society to mate and raise the birds. Condors from along the Big Sur coastline are mated with birds from the Pinnacles to ensure diversity; any eggs are sent to the Los Angeles Zoo to be hatched, Faria said.

"The chicks are brought back to the park and raised to adulthood in a captive situation with other condor birds that it can interact with," he said. "Once they're big enough to survive to adulthood, they're released."

Condor release events are held annually in the autumn.

The park is most busy in the spring, when runoff from winter rains gurgle through the park. Verdant hills relax to the east of the rocky overlook on the Condor Gulch Trail, a moderately easy mile's hike from the ranger station at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area.

(David Royal, Herald Archive)
These eastern folds of pine and golden rock comprise the edge of the Gabilans.

Underfoot are the trails of the various colorful shades of volcanic rock that characterize the Pinnacles.

The volcanic rock at the Pinnacles is the product of a volcanic eruption that happened when movements of the earth's plates carried volcanic mass that originated near present-day L.A. to the place where the Pinnacles sit now.

The two caves at the Pinnacles, which house bats and require a flashlight to explore, are talus caves — the result of large boulders forming roofs.

During wet spring months, several inches of water can pool in these caves. During the drier, warmer summer months, though, they are more easily explored.

Political landscape

President Theodore Roosevelt created the Pinnacles National Monument in 1908 after a local homesteader and self-appointed Pinnacles tour guide, Schulyer Hain, led a movement to preserve the area. The National Monument was originally 2,500 acres.

Roosevelt utilized the Antiquities Act to preserve the Pinnacles; it allows a president to set aside "historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures... to be national monuments."

By contrast, an act of Congress is required for land to become a national park.

The proposed legislation would add an additional 2,715 acres to the Pinnacles; the Wilderness Act of 1964 expanded the Pinnacles to 16,000 acres and also authorize the acquisition of 18,200 acres known as the Rock Springs Ranch Tract.

The legislation would also rename the Pinnacles Wilderness area; it would become Hain Wilderness. Day-to-day management of the Pinnacles would not likely be impacted.

The Approach

To find the west side of the park, take Highway 101 to Soledad and head east on Highway 146. RVs are not recommended on the winding narrow road that winds west from Soledad to this intriguing natural playland. Rustic ranches, hills, switchbacks and gulches line California Highway 146, where cell phone service is non-existent. Visitors with RVs should instead approach the park from the east, on Highway 25 through Hollister.

Chances to learn

Many take advantage of the Friday and Saturday evening hikes led by park rangers. Hikes are free to the public and take place throughout spring and summer months. Educational talks are also regularly held at the outdoor amphitheatre in the campground. These cover topics ranging from the life and times of mountain lions to the endangered California Condor.

To learn more about the Pinnacles, see www.nps.gov/pinn.