Pinnacles National Park Guide (What to Know Before You Go)

Pinnacles National Park guide

Your guide to Pinnacles National Park, including what to see, which trails to hike, and what to know before you go.

When I first planned a visit to Pinnacles National Park, I’m not sure what I was expecting. Mostly, I thought it would be a dry, almost desert-like landscape with spiraling red-tan pinnacles. Maybe it would be a mini Joshua Tree with, you know, less desert. 

I couldn’t have been more wrong with what I was imagining. 

From the first trail we hiked in Pinnacles, we came across lush Jurassic Park ferns, stepping stones of falling water, and damp piles of orange leaves in every direction. 

At one point we were next to huge mossy boulders with misty rocks in the distance. It felt like we had stumbled upon a magical place where fairies could live.

Eventually, as we hiked to a higher elevation we came across a drier landscape but one that was still lush in its own way. We came across the park’s famous pinnacles and a number of other crazy rock formations that were formed millions of years ago. 

Some rocks looked like they could’ve been a Jackson Pollock masterpiece with their dotted multi-color lichen across their face.

Granted, I visited in winter, potentially the best time to visit besides spring (because wildflowers) and I visited right after a week of heavy rain. So I got to see the park when it was at its most vibrant self. 

Even still, I couldn’t help but think how underrated this California national park was as I walked its trails, oohed and ahhed at its viewpoints, and was scared silly when a huge condor flew overhead out of nowhere. 

So I wanted to put together a comprehensive post for you so you can enjoy the best of what this park has to offer too. 

This is my full guide to Pinnacles National Park, including what to see, which trails to hike, and all the practical information you might need to know for your visit. 

Note: this post contains affiliate links, which help run this site at no extra cost to you so I can keep providing free travel advice and tips.

things to do in pinnacles national park

 

What is Pinnacles National Park Known For?

Rock formations, California condors, rock climbing, wildflowers, hiking trails, talus caves, and scenic overlooks. 

talus cave in pinnacles

 


 

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How Many Days Do You Need at Pinnacles National Park? Can You Do a Day Trip?

1-2 days. 

A Pinnacles day trip is the most popular way to visit the park. Although you can camp overnight, there’s only one campground and there isn’t a ton of accommodation that’s super close to the park. 

Being one of the smaller national parks in California, you can see most of the highlights and tackle a good portion of the park’s trails in one day. Of course, if you’re rock climbing, bird watching, or simply wanting more time, a weekend can be a good option too. 

When I visited in January, I did a day trip from the San Francisco Bay Area and it was very accessible. The park is 140 miles south of San Francisco (about a 2.5-hour drive each way), so as long as you leave early (we left around 7:30 am from Berkeley), you should have plenty of time at the park. 

how many days do you need at pinnacles

visiting pinnacles park - how many days

 

How to Get to Pinnacles National Park 

There are two entrances to get into the park – the East Entrance and the West Entrance. This is how to get to either one:

 

East Entrance

Most people who are coming from the north enter through the East Entrance. The eastern part of the park is also where you’ll find the main visitor center and the only campground in the park. To get to the East Entrance, take CA 25 to Pinnacles Parkway until you get to the entrance of the park. 

 

West Entrance

The West Entrance is more commonly accessed by those who are doing a Pacific Coast Highway road trip or coming from the south. To get to the West Entrance, take US 101 to Soledad then turn east onto CA 146 and follow signs to the park. Just note that the road to the West Entrance is more treacherous (think steep and narrow). Don’t take this route if you’re traveling in a large and unwieldy vehicle, like an RV.

how to get to pinnacles national park in california

 

Pinnacles National Park History

Pinnacles Park has a long history that goes back millions of years. 

If you’re coming into the East Entrance, there’s a good chance you’ll pass through the epicenter of California’s most famous fault zone – the San Andreas. 

This area was once a volcanic field that spanned 15 miles long and 8,000 feet high. And it was actually 195 miles southeast of where Pinnacles National Park currently lies, but the Pacific plate has moved a long way in the past 23 million years. 

Fast forward to around 10,000 years ago, when the Ohlone people, specifically the Chalon and Mutson groups, lived around this area.

Note: NPS says there’s no evidence these indigenous groups lived within park boundaries, just nearby and that they would visit the Pinnacles land. However, there have been indigenous artifacts found within the park and I don’t see why they wouldn’t have lived in parts of the park at one time. With that said, there hasn’t been a thorough archeological dig to prove one way or the other.

Eventually, the Spanish Missionaries came to the Pinnacles area in the late 1700s and built the nearby Mission Soledad in 1791. Unfortunately, the arrival of the Spanish caused disease to spread through local indigenous populations, killing off many of the Ohlone people who once lived in the area. 

By 1891, the Spanish were long gone and a homesteader named Schuyler Hain took interest in the land. He was known as the “Father of Pinnacles” for his preservation efforts and was a big reason why the park was declared a national monument in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt. 

And finally, Pinnacles National Monument became the 52nd national park in the US and the 9th (and youngest) national park in California in 2013, under President Barack Obama. 

Pinnacles History

 

Tips for Your First Visit to the Park: What to Know Before You Go

If this is your first time visiting Pinnacles National Park, here are a few things you should know: 

  • No dogs are allowed on trails – You can have them on a leash in campgrounds, parking lots, roads, and picnic areas but they’re not allowed on trails. 
  • Bring a flashlight or headlamp – If you plan to explore the two caves in the park, bring a flashlight, or better yet, a headlamp so you can explore them hands-free. 
  • The caves are sometimes closed – If you really want to visit the caves, make sure to check the NPS website ahead of time for closures. If there has been heavy rain or flooding, the caves are usually closed. And portions of the Bear Gulch Cave are closed from mid-May through mid-July to protect the local bat species. 
  • There’s no cellphone service in the park – Although you should be able to find maps at the visitor centers, it doesn’t hurt to download directions and trail info ahead of time since there’s no cell service throughout the park. 
  • Parking fills up fast, get there early – If you don’t get there early enough, you might have to park in an overflow parking lot. We arrived to the park around 10 am on a Saturday and the Bear Gulch Parking Lot was already filled. Instead, we parked in the overflow parking lot nearby, which added on a couple of extra miles to our hike. This is just something to keep in mind if you’re visiting the park on a weekend and not getting there until after 9 am. 
  • There’s no road that goes through the park – Unlike some national parks, there’s no road that goes through the park and it takes a lot of time to drive from one entrance to the other (about two hours one way). This means that the only way you’ll really be able to see the park is through its hiking trails. 
  • Bring what you need and be prepared – Bring the water you need for the day and fill up on gas before you arrive, there’s no water along the trails and no gas stations in the park. There are some snacks at the Pinnacles visitor centers but that’s about it. 
  • There’s no backpacking pinnacles – If you’re looking for a multi-day backcountry hike, you won’t find it at Pinnacles. With the small nature of the park, there are no backcountry campsites and all the trails are fairly short day-hike lengths.   
  • Grab a National Park Pass – If you’re visiting multiple national parks this year, make sure to buy a National Park Pass to save money on the entrance fee. 

 

 

travel tips for pinnacles national park

 

What to See & Do at Pinnacles National Park

If you’re wondering what to do in Pinnacles National Park, these are the top activities and things to see in the park. 

  • Hiking – More about the Pinnacles trails I’d recommend below, but hiking is the best way to see the park and one of the most popular things to do in Pinnacles National Park. 
  • Rock climbing – With its funky, huge rocks, Pinnacles is a popular place for rock climbing. There are signs along the trails directing you to rock climbing spots in the park. This is a good guide for recommended routes based on difficulty.  
  • California Condors – Pinnacles National Park condors are a sight to behold. These birds have a 9.5-foot wingspan, weigh around 20 pounds, and can fly up to 55 miles per hour with the right updrafts. In other words, they’re badasses. 
  • Caves – Bear Gulch Cave and Balconies Cave are the two Pinnacles National Park caves you can visit. Bring a flashlight or headlamp and explore. 
  • Overlooks – Don’t miss one of the many Pinnacles overlooks, my favorites are from the high peaks trail that let you look down at the landscape for miles and miles.  
  • Wildflowers – During the spring, Pinnacles lights up with over 100 different types of colorful wildflowers. 

 

 

california condors - pinnacles attractions

pinnacle national park hikes

 

Pinnacles National Park Trail Map

If you’re going hiking in Pinnacles National Park, use these Pinnacles trail maps to plan out your hiking routes for the day. 

pinnacles hiking map

Pinnacles trail map

 

Best Hiking Trails in Pinnacles

best hiking trails in pinnacles

pinnacles national park trails

 

East Side Trails

Bear Gulch Cave Trail

1.5 miles out and back | Elevation Gain: 240 ft | Estimated Time: 30 minutes-1 hour

If you’re looking for an easy trail, the Bear Gulch Cave Trail is a good place to start. It’s fairly flat, starting from near the Bear Gulch Day Use Area and takes you to the Bear Gulch Cave (bring a flashlight) and further on to the Bear Gulch Reservoir. 

Once you reach the Bear Gulch Reservoir, you’ll turn around and head back towards the Bear Gulch Day Use Area via the Rim Trail. This is a good trail to start with to experience a cave and the talus arches, while still enjoying a lot of beautiful scenery. 

 

Pinnacles Visitor Center to Bear Gulch Day Use Area 

4.6 miles out and back | Elevation Gain: 300 ft | Estimated time: 1.5 hours

Another one that’s on the easier side, this hike takes you through the peaceful Chalone and Bear creeks on the way to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area (which is also the perfect place for a picnic). 

 

High Peaks-Bear Gulch Loop 

6.7-mile loop | Elevation Gain: 1,425 ft | Estimated Time: 4-5 hours  

This is the hike we tackled and one of the best hikes in Pinnacles National Park to see the highlights and get in a good variety of sights. Along the way, you’ll get plenty of views of rock formations and pinnacles, stunning overlooks, and possibly some condor spotting (we spotted a couple on our hike). 

The elevation gain is constant but spread out so it never feels like too much. With that said, there are some steep inclines and declines, so be prepared for a workout. The views are very much worth it though. 

If you have the time for a slightly longer hike, I’d recommend adding on a couple of miles and starting from the Peaks View Parking Area. This will take you through a lush landscape and mini waterfalls on the way to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area. It’s beautiful.  

From Bear Gulch, you’ll hike along the High Peaks Trail and back down through the Condor Gulch Trail until you return to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area.

All up, with the additional two miles added on, plenty of stops for pictures, and a 20-minute lunch break, the hike took us just under four hours. 

pinnacles hike - high peaks to bear gulch trail

pinnacles trails

 

Chalone Peak Trail 

9 miles out and back | Elevation Gain: 2,040 ft | Estimated Time: 3-5 hours 

A less popular trail that still includes a lot of elevation gain to get to the highest point in the park. Although you won’t see quite as much as you would on the High Peaks Trail, this is a good alternative if you want a challenging trail that’s less crowded. If you’re up for the climb, you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views at the top. 

 

West Side Trails

Balconies Cliffs to Balconies Cave Loop 

2.4-mile loop | Elevation Gain: 400 ft | Estimated Time: 1-1.5 hours 

An easy trail to start your day with, this is the best short trail to take you to Balconies Cave. Just note that it might require some scrambling and a flashlight or headlamp is recommended. 

 

High Peaks to Balconies Cave Loop 

8.4-mile loop | Elevation Gain: 1,540 ft | Estimated Time: 4-5 hours 

If you’re looking for a challenge, the High Peaks to Balconies Cave Loop is a good trail to tackle from the west side of the park. This is the best trail from the west to see the highlights of the park. You’ll get overlooks, a cave, possibly spot some condors, and plenty of views of the pinnacles. 

 

Campsites in Pinnacles National Park

There’s only one Pinnacles campground on the eastern side of the park. It has individual and group campsites as well as RV sites. You can check openings and book a spot here up to six months in advance (or 12 months for group sites).  

 

Other Places to Stay Near Pinnacles National Park

If you’re looking to stay in the area but you don’t want to camp, your best bet is to find accommodation near Hollister (if you’re coming from the north) or Soledad (if you’re coming from the south). 

However, hotel options are slim since there’s really not much in this part of California. Airbnbs are few and far between as well. 

Here are a few options that are closest to the park:

 

Best Time to Visit Pinnacles National Park

With its temperate Mediterranean climate, you can visit Pinnacles National Park at any time of the year. However, the most popular time to visit is from mid-February to early June

There are two reasons for this. The first is that Pinnacles is one of the best California national parks to visit in winter with its lack of snow and temperate weather. 

The other is the 100 species of colorful wildflowers that take over the park in the spring. I haven’t seen these myself yet, but I’ve heard the Pinnacles National Park wildflowers are a sight to see. 

I visited on a weekend in late January after a week of heavy rain and the park was busier than I expected but still not too crowded. 

If you want to go when there are even fewer crowds, try visiting in the fall when you’ll have more of the park to yourself. 

I wouldn’t recommend going in summer unless you’re okay with extreme heat. The park, being inland from the Pacific Ocean, can get to over 100 degrees Fareinheight on summer days. If you do go in the summer, pace yourself and bring a hat and plenty of water with the lack of shade on the trails. 

best time to visit pinnacles national park

when to visit pinnacles

 

What to Pack for Pinnacles

As I mentioned above, Pinnacles National Park has a fairly temperate climate year-round. The one exception is summer when temperatures can soar above 100 degrees Fareinheight. 

No matter what time you visit, but especially if you’re visiting in summer, make sure you have plenty of sun protection. Many of the Pinnacles hiking trails are exposed and don’t have much shade so bring sunscreen, a hat, and UV-blocking clothing

If you plan to explore the caves in the park, bring a flashlight or headlamp. And don’t forget your binoculars for spotting those California Condors. 

If you’re visiting in the winter or spring, bring a good rain jacket since it’s usually a wetter climate at the park. You’ll also want to bring a quality pair of waterproof hiking shoes – wading through streams isn’t uncommon in the winter and early spring. 

And since paths can be rocky and there’s sometimes scrambling involved, especially in the caves, make sure your shoes have a good grip and preferably ankle support. Lastly, if you have it, don’t forget your National Park Pass (aka America the Beautiful Pass). 

pinnacles packing list

 

More Resources for Planning Your Trip to Pinnacles

NPS Website

Recreation.gov (for booking a spot at Pinnacles campground)

Pinnacles National Park Facebook page (for more daily updates)

 

Practical Info

Address: 5000 Highway 146, Paicines, CA 95043

Entrance fee: $30 per vehicle (valid for seven days)

Pinnacles National Park hours & phone numbers

  • Park entrances are open daily from 7:30 am-8:00 pm
  • Bear Gulch Nature Center: Currently closed; Phone: (831) 389 – 4486 x4235
  • East Pinnacles Visitor Center & Book Store: Thurs-Mon, 9 am-4 pm; Phone: (831) 389-4485
  • Pinnacles Campground (Eastside): Open daily, 9:30 am-5 pm; Phone: (831) 200-1722
  • West Pinnacles Visitor Contact Station: Currently closed; Phone: (831) 389-4427 x4487

 


 

Get your FREE California Travel Planner – including printable checklists and my favorite two-week itinerary for the state. 

 


 

Looking for more California travel inspiration? Check out these related posts below! 

65 Things to do in California

Best Hikes in San Francisco 

Where to See the Redwoods Near San Francisco 

Big Basin Redwoods State Park Guide 

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