The stunning rock formations at Pinnacles National Monument once formed part of a volcano the size of Mt. St. Helens. This ancient volcano loomed over Southern California and, in the past 22 million years, it has migrated at a rate of ~1 inch per year north along the San Andreas Fault. Today, its eroded flanks lie 50 miles south of Gilroy — conveniently accessible by Caltrain for the weekend bike camper.
Trip at a glance
Route: Amtrak and Caltrain will put you within dayride distance of Pinnacles. The South San Francisco Krebs Cycle map will get you there. Possible access points:
- Adventure-lite: Transferring to the Amtrak bus and biking from King City (~30 miles northeast to Pinnacles)
- Adventure: Taking Amtrak train to San Jose (~70 miles southeast to Pinnacles) or the Caltrain to Gilroy (~50 miles due south to Pinnacles). From Amtrak, this route is actually quite flat and boring through the exurbs south of San Jose. I rather recommend the 50 mile option from Gilroy. However, check the Caltrain schedule, as it does not run to Gilroy on the weekends.
- Adventure/Epic: Amtrak to Salinas and take the unpaved, overland route (~50 miles east via La Gloria Rd).
Water and food is scarce along all of these routes. Fill up where you can.
Be aware that Hwy 146 is not a throughway between east and west sides of the park. A dirt trail connects the two segments, but bikes are not allowed on trails inside the park. A friend was fined $200 for walking her bike on the trail! Your nearest option for an east-to-west passage in the park is the unpaved La Gloria Road.
Season: Fall, winter and spring. It’s hotter’n hell in the summer! Pinnacles lies inland, in the central coast ranges just east of the Salinas Valley. Without the moderating effect of the ocean, diurnal temperature swings can be significant. During my trip in the first week of January, a frost-bitten night in the teens was followed by 70 degree short-shorts weather. This spectacular preserve of central coast chaparral bursts into bloom during the spring wildflower season.
Camping: The Pinnacles campground is located on the east side of the park. Tent spots can fill up on the weekends so be sure to make a reservation. There is running water, bathrooms, picnic tables and fire rings. The campground store stocks chips, cheese dip and frozen burritos, as well as bundles of almond wood. Curiously, a swimming pool beckons from behind the camp store…
Geological Adventures: Pinnacles is best experienced as a 3 day bike camping trip, with 2 days of riding and one day of hiking (or rock climbing!) in between. Bring a headlamp to explore the talus caves at Pinnacles. These were formed by giant boulders falling down and getting stuck in narrow slot canyons. Check the park website for seasonal closures due to flooding or bat mating season. For the ultimate human powered adventure, pack your climbing gear onto the bike and take advantage of the park’s climbing and bouldering routes.