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Pinnacles National Monument: Should It Be Labeled A National Park?


A congressman from California has introduced legislation to have Pinnacles National Monument renamed Pinnacles National Park. Photo of the High Peaks by Clayton Mansnerus.

There's a move afoot in Congress to have the name of Pinnacles National Monument changed to Pinnacles National Park. U.S. Rep. Sam Farr of California believes the monument's 14,500 acres with their unique geology and many species that are either threatened or endangered at the state or federal level deserve the title.

"Upgrading Pinnacles to a national park makes sense for historic, natural and economic reasons,” the Democrat said Friday. “This area is much more than rock formations. It’s a huge swatch of land with historical significance for the state, it provides an important refuge for the California condor and it has great potential for tourism revenue.”

The monument is one of the oldest ones in the National Park System, having been designated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908. It received its name from "rock spires and crags that are remnants of an ancient volcano," notes the National Park Service. "The volcano eroded over millions of years as it moved northward along the San Andreas Fault. Rock debris in the form of boulders has weathered and settled, leaving behind spires of volcanic rock and talus caves."

Pinnacles National Monument has two main areas of caves; the Bear Gulch Caves are near headquarters in the East District, and the Balconies Caves are near Chaparral Campground in the West District.

There is no known evidence of Native American habitation in any caves, though extensive archeological work is yet to be done, and local Native (Mutsun and Chalone) stories have largely died with their tellers. Non-Indian legends that have survived refer to the use of the caves as a hideout by the notorious central California bandito Tiburcio Vasquez, whose brutal contribution to local history ended with his hanging in San Jose, California, in 1875. Stories of hidden treasure and robber’s roosts still cycle through campfire stories and local lore, but the location of Tiburcio’s hides seem speculative, notes the Park Service.

The Civilian Conservation Corps built trails through the caves in the 1930's and these trails have endured many storms and travelers. The stairways and bridges they constructed were needed to navigate the caves without the use of ropes and ladders. Today, the Bear Gulch and Balconies caves are principle attractions for visitors at the Monument.

Rep. Farr's move drew quick praise from The Wilderness Society.

“Congressman Farr’s work to protect public lands and wild rivers in his congressional district should be lauded," said Sam Goldman, the society's California Wilderness coordinator. "The California Wild Heritage Campaign, a coalition of hundreds of businesses and organizations around the state, stands with Congressman Farr to highlight the importance of this ecological and geological gem in the Central Valley.”


I've been there, and it is an incredibly cool place (a volcano on a fault line? Wow!). But I have to say, I don't think it's worthy of National Park status. It's current status as a National Monument is adequate in my opinion.

If you abuse the crown jewel label of the National Park Service, you reduce the value of the moniker.

I would say I wish the eastern rim of the volcano, which is in Lancaster, was part of the NPS. I hadn't visited that site, so I'm not sure what it's like, but it would be cool to have both sections of the volcano as part of one unit, separated by 100 miles or so of continental drift.


My travels through the National Park System:

Pinnacles National Monument is gorgeous and the talus caves make it a fun place as well. It would already be a National Park if it were in, say, Ohio. But it raises that same debate; what makes a site "national park worthy"? I'm not sure I would consider "great potential for tourism revenue" a qualification. At this time this monument is not easlily accessible by California standards (near a freeway), even though it is not that far outside of a couple of major population areas. Increasing tourism revenue would absolutely require the need for a new highway to the site and probably a new road between the two halves of the monument. (No roads cross from one side to the other, requiring a considerable drive to get from the easier to reach west half to the more remote east side.) I guess the first decision to be made is which we want, preservation or tourism revenue? Due to the narrow canyons and difficult terrain I don't think you can easily have both at this site. I believe that the goal of obtaining more tourism revenue would require a considerable expansion of the infrastructure, both in and outside of the park.

The "....great potential for tourism revenue” is most likely the primary driving force behind the movement to make a National Park of Pinnacles National Monument. That is sad, reprehensible, and despicable. It would be a giant step toward commercialization. JF

Right now, access to much of Pinnacles is limited - not even by foot - to minimize impacts to condor breeding and foraging areas and the whole monument is closed to overnight backpacking. And this I feel is a good thing, but if it is given "Park" status, I'm not certain but I thought there are some requirements to provide more public accessibility. This might be one instance where "Monument" status may actually provide more protection than "Park" status.

Pinnacles NM is developing a new management plan right now. The time for comments from the public was one year ago. They offered three alternative management principles as can be seen in the public newsletter from August 3 2008:

There the three alternatives were: Research and Learning, Backcountry Experience, and Disneyl^WEnhanced Visitor Experience. The fourth option is is to continue the park management as is. In the newsletter you can find maps that visualize how those guidelines would affect the use of park land.

I've been there, enjoyed Bear Gulch Cave when the entire length was open to the public, and wish to return for some real hiking.

I really don't see how the place would warrant full "National Park" status. It's really small and doesn't have one major feature or multiple smaller features that I would think would merit the big NPS designation. I don't see how it could support the kind of visitation that Congressman Farr envision. There frankly isn't that much to do other than hike. You can drive to a few overlooks and see the Pinnacles. Right now entry is closed off at night, although they have automated gates to allow people to leave. Maybe it's good if you're a climber, but that's a rather limited segment of the population.

It's actually pretty close to a major freeway (US-101). None of the full National Parks in California are that close to any freeways except maybe Redwood (US-101 passes through it) and Joshua Tree (I-10). Freeway access is hardly a disqualifying factor, since Yosemite, Lassen, and SEKI are miles away from freeways. People go to those places despite the distances.

However - this does demonstrate that in many ways the "National Park" status is a politically derived one. There are lightly visited national parks, such as Dry Tortugas and Great Basin (I know the ancient bristlecone forest is there) where it might be argued that there wasn't really anything special that merited the designation. Some member of Congress had a spot in their district that they thought could use some tourist dollars.

The Pinnacles is a great place. Fantastic vistas and the spires are awesome. It's a hefty drive from San Jose through Hollister so it's not crowded. It gets REAL hot during July and August and is very dry. The caves are very neat, but sometimes they are closed due to the bat situation. The small pond is also fun to sit by. I also don't think it merits the status of a National Park, but then I've not been to most of the dinky ones either.

If Cuyahoga in the heart of dirty old Cleveland or the slummy looking bath houses of Hot Springs can be national parks, why not Pinnacles?

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