Inspiring spires in California at America’s newest national park

Pinnacles National Park, USA

Hi Peaks, Pinnacle National Park, USA Photo: Paul G. Johnson


Located inland from the coast of Central California in the USA, the towering spires and colorful cliffs of Pinnacles National Park have attracted people for thousands of years. Local citizens led the effort for protecting them, inspiring US President Theodore Roosevelt to proclaim this part of the Gabilan Mountain Range as one of the nation’s first national monuments in 1908. In January 2013, Pinnacles was proclaimed as America’s 59th and newest national park.

Pinnacles started with a bang about 23 million years ago. A volcanic field grew as one plate of the earth’s crust pushed under another. After erupting explosively for millions of years, the volcanoes went quiet. Erosion then carved the cliffs, crags and canyons of today.

Pinnacles National Park features some of the largest and most accessible talus caves in the world. Formed by boulders falling across narrow canyons, the caves create space for both wildlife and humans. The rock formations, chaparral groves, woodlands, creeks and caves have been home to the native Chalon, Mutsun and Pagsin peoples for thousands of years. Modern members of these tribes, still living in the region, work with park staff to expand knowledge of their ancestors’ relationship with the land – its plants, animals and waters – and how they managed it for centuries.

Official protected status for Pinnacles dates back to the early 1900’s, when a prominent homesteader in the area, Schuyler Hain, sought to set aside its lands for the American people. Hain worked tirelessly to enlist the interest of politicians and the public. His successful efforts led to the creation of one of America’s first declared national monuments in 1908.

Today, close to 200,000 visitors a year enjoy Pinnacles recreational opportunities, including hiking, viewing scenery, photography, camping, picnicking, rock climbing and viewing wildflowers in the Spring. Pinnacles’ hiking trails and technical rock climbing are internationally known, and the Park draws thousands of rock climbers each year.

View photos of the park

Slide show photos by Gavin Emmons and Paul G. Johnson

Size and Location

Pinnacles National Park consists of approximately 27,000 acres (11,000 hectares) and is located in the southern portion of the Gabilan Mountains in California’s Central Coast Ranges. Pinnacles lies about 40 miles (64 kilometres) inland from the Pacific Ocean and about 80 miles (129 kilometres) south of San Francisco Bay.

Although the terrain is mountainous with locally steep topography, the area is generally low elevation, ranging from less than 1,000 feet (300 metres) to 3,267 feet (996 metres) at the Summit of North Chalone Peak. Hawkins Peak, which is composed largely of the rock “pinnacles” which make up the Park’s name, stands at over 2,600 feet (792 metres).

Flora and Fauna

One of the world’s rarest bird species, the California Condor, once soared above woolly mammoths in this region. Though modern human impacts recently brought them to the brink of extinction, Pinnacles provides nesting habitat, and a captive breeding programme hatches them for release in Pinnacles and other sites in California.

Pinnacles is also known to have the highest diversity of bee species in the world. Researchers have discovered more than 400 species, with some as small as mosquitoes, and in colors that are as varied as the flowers that depend on them for pollination.

Pinnacles amphibian species include the Western Spadefoot (Spea hammondii) and foothill yellow-legged frog (Rana boylii). California Red-legged Frogs have disappeared from much of their former range. Reptiles include the Western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata), Coast horned lizard (Phrynosoma blainvillii), Silvery Legless Lizard (Aniella pulchra pulchra) and San Joaquin coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum ruddocki).

Mammals found at Pinnacles include the Pallid Bat (Antrozous pallidus), Townsend’s Western Big-eared Bat (Corynorhinus townsendii), Big-eared Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys elephantinus), and American badger (Taxidea taxus).

More than 160 bird species are found at Pinnacles. Some use the diverse habitats here year round, while others migrate each year. Migratory species include Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii), Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus), Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), Longeard Owl (Asio otus), Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) and Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria Virens). Two raptors also regularly nest in Pinnacles’ cliffs: the Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus) and Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus).

Species endemic to Pinnacles include the Gabilan Slender Salamander (Batrachoseps Gavilanensis), Big-eared Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys elephantinus), Pinnacles Shield-back Katydid (Idiostatus kathleenae), and Pinnacles Riffle Beetle (Optioservus canus).

Over 650 vascular plant species have been documented in Pinnacles, and many new species continue to be discovered. The Oak species – Valley Oak, Live Oak and Blue Oak – are living symbols of California. Oaks offer food and shelter to wildlife. Their acorns also provided a staple food source for California’s first peoples.


As towns in the nearby Salinas Valley continue to grow, protection of Pinnacles and neighboring ranchlands becomes increasingly important.

Climate change is expected to alter ecosystem processes, such as fire regimes, hydrologic cycles, and biogeochemical cycles, among others. The fire regime in Pinnacles has the potential to be dramatically altered by climate change, and may have the largest influence on the Park’s resources.

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