58 miles SE of Monterey

A little-known outpost 10 years ago, the 24,000-acre Pinnacles National Monument is now one of central California's most popular weekend hiking and climbing spots. In Steinbeck Country, southeast of Salinas, the mild-winter climate and plentiful routes make it an ideal off-season training ground for climbers. It's also a haven for campers, bird-watchers, and nature lovers. One of the world's most unusual chaparral ecosystems, it supports a community of plants and animals, including six endangered California condors -- the largest bird in North America, with a wingspan of nearly 10 feet -- and one of California's largest breeding populations of raptors. Bring binoculars!

The Pinnacles -- hundreds of towering crags, spires, ramparts, and hoodoos -- seem out of place amid the rolling hills of the coast range. Part of the eroded remains of a volcano that formed 23 million years ago, 195 miles south in the middle of the Mojave Desert, they were brought here by the movement of the San Andreas Fault, which runs just east of the park. (The other half of the volcano remains in the Mojave.)

You could spend days here, but it's possible to cover the most interesting features in a weekend. With a single hike, you can go from the oak woodland around the Bear Gulch Visitor Center to the dry, desolate crags of the high peaks and then back down through a half-mile-long cave with underground waterfalls.