Balconies Cave, East Entrance and San Juan Bautista
[Pinnacles National Park, CA / San Juan Bautista, CA, Nov 27, 2021]
On our second day, we left even earlier than the day before. We knew the gate to the west entrance of Pinnacles didn’t open till 7:30 am and we were there just a few minutes after that. We had our sights on Balconies Cave, one of the most unique features of this park. Balconies Cave is a talus “cave” but it’s really more of a tunnel. A rockslide stacked rocks and gigantic boulders against the rock walls, forming the tunnel.
The parking lot was almost deserted! Only a handful of cars had made it earlier than we did.
Balconies Cave shares a trailhead and parking lot with Juniper Canyon, so it’s easy to do both on the same day if you have the stamina and don’t mind crowds.
This trail is also a lollipop. The “stem” of the lollipop is quite flat for the first half mile. It’s mostly chaparral shrubs and some junipers through here. After that, you enter the canyon and there are various boulders and rocks on either side. There are several creek crossings but this time of year it was all dry.
We knew we were getting close when the rocks around us started closing in on the trail.
From here, it’s a tight squeeze between and under the rocks. This is not even the cave part yet but you can definitely get a sense of how falling rocks could eventually form a tunnel.
The entrance to the Balconies cave is just past this point. The trail disappears and there are just giant boulders everywhere. Some of them had railings, which helped mark the way.
However, right after this photo was taken, we reached a point where it didn’t look like we could go any further. There was a gap between some of the boulders in front of us but it looked like an abyss/sheer drop off! We thought, “There’s no way this is the entrance!” We turned around, disappointed. But then I remembered my guidebook had mentioned white arrows pointed on the rocks to help navigate. I thought I’d seen one of those pointing down right where the “abyss” was. So we went back and sure enough, the sheer drop off was the entrance to the cave! Do you see the white arrow pointing down in the upper right corner of this photo?
After some slouching, scooching and squeezing, we were in the cave.
The cave is only 0.1 mile long but it is completely dark. We had a small flash light with us; I don’t recommend relying on your cell phone’s flashlight. It’s somewhat of a maze and the steep, uneven rocks make it a bit of an adventure but we resurfaced soon enough.
The rest of the trail is also very cool. You gradually climb up the canyon on a narrow, exposed trail until you get to the base of the massive Balconies cliff.
Since this trail is only 2.6 miles, we finished pretty early and decided to drive to the park’s east entrance. It was a gamble – we knew it would probably be way too busy for our liking but we figured at the very least, we’ll scope it out. We didn’t even have to get back on Highway 101. A local one-lane-each-way road took us through more farmland along the southern side of the park.
The east entrance was a madhouse. The parking lots further in had closed and everyone was parking at the visitor center, then getting on a shuttle. This park is so close to us, we didn’t feel the need to squeeze everything in on this trip. Seeing the east side would be a great excuse to come back.
So we continued north through Hollister and headed for San Juan Bautista, where mission #4 awaited us.
It was founded in on June 24, 1797, making it the fifteenth of the Spanish missions in California. Barracks for the soldiers, a nunnery, the Jose Castro House, and other buildings were constructed around a large grassy plaza in front of the church and can be seen today in their original form.
The three-bell campanario, or “bell wall,” by the church entrance, was fully restored in 2010. A statue of St John the Baptist is also located by the entrance.
A wedding was just about to start when we got there. And as we were leaving, a young lady arrived for her quinceañera.
We also walked around the area surrounding the mission. The main street was just down the road and it was lined with cute shops and cafes. It was a very random place to see a Peruvian store!
With our drive back to Salinas, we completed the loop. We drove counter-clockwise all the way around the park that day!
In the evening, we drove to Monterey, which is only about 30 minutes away. Monterey and nearby Big Sur are a major tourist destination, no doubt taking some traffic away from Pinnacles and the valley. I hadn’t been to Monterey since I ran the Big Sur 21-miler back in April of 2018. I enjoyed seeing the wharf again and taking a walk along the coast.
We stumbled upon this sign on our walk to dinner near the wharf. It cracked us up to see Kusadasi, Turkey on it. Most people have never heard of it, but we actually visited in 2019. Kusadasi is a major beach resort on Turkey‘s side of the Aegean and it’s a springboard to nearby Ephesus, an ancient Greek city. It was fun to reminisce – that was my last major international trip pre-Covid.
Our dinner at Osteria la Mare was fantastic. The location over the water allowed us to see the sunset, and the food was delicious! It was a great way to cap off our last full day of the trip.