Exploring Balconies Caves at Pinnacles National Park

While California has a number of well-known wilderness destinations that provide great hiking and mountaineering opportunities, it also has a number of first-class spelunking destinations.

From Lava Tubes National Monument to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California features a number of different types of caves that spelunkers can visit through tours, and a number of types of caves that cavers can explore. Unlike hiking, or backpacking, however, caving and spelunking carries a different set of skills, and presents a different set of challenges for people. While most people have hiked a trail in 2014, most people have not been in a cave for an extended period of time; and are do not know how they will handle being immersed in total darkness in an unfamiliar location. While many parks in California offer guided tours of caves, such tours only provide a limited introduction to spelunking, as they usually involve a lighted tour of the cave in a group setting.

Even though these tours are a great preamble to spelunking, the best way to become a spelunker – and ultimately a caver is to head out into caves as an individual. Fortunately for people who want to become a spelunker or caver – or just want to see what life is like on the inside of a cave without the crowds, California also features a great spot with safe novice caves: Pinnacles National Park. Located just east of the Salinas Valley, Pinnacles is also the National Park system’s newest National Park, even though it was a National Monument since 1908. Pinnacles is an area with an interesting geologic past of active volcanism, and at times, active fault lines. While the overall geology of the park is impressive, all of the caves in the park are talus caves, which formed when steep, narrow canyons were filled by falling rocks. One of the best spots in the park to explore over fifty million years of geologic history is the Balconies cave.

While the Balconies Caves can be accessed from both the Eastern and Western side of the park, it is worth noting that both sides of the park are not connected by a road, and the best – and easiest way to access the Balconies Caves is from the Eastern side of the park. During the summer months, access to the trailheads in the park is restricted to park shuttles only; however, in the off-season, it is possible to enter the park in private vehicles. The trailhead for the Balconies Cave is located at the Old Pinnacles Trailhead, which is also a shuttle stop during the summer months.

Balconies Caves GateThe Last Adventurer

During my visit, I arrived at the trailhead in the early morning to find it completely empty. In addition to the talus caves, and stellar stargazing, one of the perks of visiting Pinnacles during the off-season is the seclusion it provides. While Pinnacles is only eighty miles South of San Jose, it is in a remote area of California that requires some travel time to get to; which dissuades many visitors. As I walked along the first two and a half miles of trail to the Balconies cave, I couldn’t help but think that Pinnacles, despite its proximity to San Jose, was one of California’s best kept secrets. The trail itself was mostly flat, but provided great views of the surrounding high cliffs of the park including Machete Ridge, and also for a time, traveled along a seasonal creek.

At the two and a half mile mark, I found myself alongside a rock wall that was shaded by a number of trees, next to the Balconies cliff. This was the point where I felt that the spelunking portion of the adventure began, as I had to climb over a number of boulders before ending at the entrance of the cave. As I entered the cave, and crossed into the darkness from the mid-morning sun, I had a moment of trepidation, as I always do, mostly from watching too many horror movies. However, my overactive imagination soon calmed itself in the cave. While there are no tours of the cave, the route itself through the boulders and cave is well-marked by the National Park Service, provided that you have a headlamp (or flashlight) as I did. After a few minutes, I stopped watching the route as intently, and started looking for the natural inhabitants of the cave, the Townsend’s big-eared bat. While I did not see any of the bats, visitors to the park should be aware that the cave is closed at times due to the bat’s natural nesting season.

Finally, after a number of twists, and small turns, I arrived at my favorite portion of the trail – and cave. At the end of the cave, there was a lengthy “passage”, which was about 100 feet long, and was comprised of a number of fallen boulders. This area was about two to three feet wide, or less in spots, and in places, I had to duck to fit under some of these boulders. Unfortunately, after the passage ended, there was a metal gate which signified the end of the cave, and my return back to natural light. While the trail continues on, I elected to turn back to once again explore the cave, and ultimately return to my car for a great 5.3 mile roundtrip hike and introductory spelunking experience that I’ll never forget.