Pinnacles National Park reopens, but with some restrictions

Pinnacles National Park, a 26,000-acre landmark south of Hollister renowned for its towering rock formations, dark caves and California condors, has reopened after being mostly closed for two months in the coronavirus pandemic.

The park, first set aside for protection in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, began allowing day use visitors on Friday. Until then, the only people allowed in were those with overnight camping reservations.

Entrance fees are not being charged. But there are restrictions. For now, shuttle buses are not running, the caves are closed, and the visitor centers are closed.

Most significant, visitors coming for the day are not allowed to drive vehicles into the park. It’s six miles from the eastern entrance along Highway 25 and 2.5 miles from the western entrance outside Soledad to get to the heart of the park where its most popular trails are. Parks officials are encouraging people who want to visit to be dropped off at the gate with bicycles and picked up later.

Only visitors with disabled placards on their vehicles will be able to drive in. The reason, said Pinnacles Superintendent Blanca Alvarez Stransky, is that park officials are trying to avoid long lines of cars and crowded parking lots, which could pose health risks while the pandemic is still a threat.

“We realize that this is for a more hardy outdoors person,” she said Saturday. “We are working really hard and very diligently to open the park to more visitors. That will be in another two to three weeks. We wanted to give people some opportunity now, even though it’s still limited. We know that it’s not ideal, but we’re trying to do the best we can under the circumstances.”

Judy Sintetos and Yoko McMillin follow the High Peaks Trail at Pinnacles National Park on April 22, 2010. (Gary Reyes/Mercury News) 

Pinnacles receives about 220,000 visitors a year. Most come when the weather is cooler in the spring and winter months. By summer, when temperatures can reach 100 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, visitation drops. Stransky said as temperatures heat up and the risk of big crowds decreases, she hopes to open parking lots inside the park for day use visitors by mid-June.

America’s national parks are slowly re-opening. Over the past week, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree and other national parks have reopened in limited ways, usually with campgrounds, restaurants and hotels closed. Officials at Yosemite say they hope to re-open in the next several weeks, with day-use visitors required to first obtain a reservation online to keep crowds at the park to 50 percent of normal summer sizes.

Pinnacles is not as well known as Yosemite, or other national park units in Northern California like the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which includes Alcatraz Island and the Marin Headlands. But it is a unique attraction.

Located 30 miles south of Hollister in rural San Benito County, and 75 miles south of San Jose, the park is famous for its huge rock formations. Popular with climbers, the landscape is part of an extinct volcano that erupted 23 million years ago near present-day Los Angeles, then broke up and shifted 200 miles north as plates slowly moved along the San Andreas Fault over millions of years.

The park was a national monument from 1908 until 2013, when President Barack Obama upgraded it to full national park status after signing a bill written by former Monterey congressman Sam Farr. With a higher profile, visitation has increased 25 percent since then.

Stransky said it is illegal to park along Highway 25, a rural route near the park’s eastern entrance, or along Highway 146, a rural route on the western entrance. Rather, visitors should wait to visit until the park opens more widely, she said, or be dropped off at the gate with a bike and picked up later that day. For more information, visit the park’s website at nps.gov/pinn or call 831-389-4486.

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Author: Paul Rogers

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