When it comes to California, you know the National Parks, right? Yosemite, Joshua Tree, Death Valley – yep, yep, and yep. How about Sequoias & King’s Canyon for the Giant Sequoias or Redwoods for the Coastal Redwoods? Okay, sure. But do you know the less commonly known parks, like Lassen Volcanic, Channel Islands, or Pinnacles? Pinnacles National Park is surprisingly close to the Bay Area and easy to visit in one day – but it’s one of the least visited!
Pinnacles National Park is also one of the newest parks in the U.S. (it was fifth-newest at the time of writing), and only became a park in 2013. It has been a national monument since 1908 though – and as you’ll see, it deserves the protection for its natural wonders and incredible wildlife.
After our first visit in February 2021, I convinced Mr. V that we needed to make a return trip to explore more of this stunning part of California. While Pinnacles isn’t big, it begs for the time to explore its trails and caves and to feel the forces of time that have created it. We made our return trip in April 2021, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about visiting again since then!
If you’re planning your first trip to Pinnacles National Park, it helps to know how the park works and what there is to do. In this post, I’ll share a bunch of basic info about visiting Pinnacles, as well as a list of the best things to do at Pinnacles National Park, the top hiking trails in Pinnacles, and four different Pinnacles National Park itinerary suggestions to help you plan your trip. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself wanting to plan a return visit too…
In this post, I promote travel to a national park that is the traditional lands of the Popeloutchom (Amah Mutsun) and Chalon peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
This post was originally published in March 2021, and was updated in October 2021 for 2022 travel.
If you see any errors or have questions, please let me know in the comments.
Planning Your Visit to Pinnacles National Park
Before we dive into the ‘what to see and do section’ there are a couple of important logistics you’ll need to know to plan your trip.
East vs West Entrance & Park Areas
The first important thing you need to know about Pinnacles National Park is that there are two entrances, East and West, and there is no road that connects the two. If you only have one day in Pinnacles, you can realistically only visit one half of the park, due to the time it takes to drive around to the other side. Below, I’ve shared the best things to do in Pinnacles National Park on the East side, and on the West side.
Both sides of the park have their benefits – both have great trails and scenery – but it’s up to you which one you want to visit. I always try to mention below which activity/trail is on which side of the park.
There are also two small areas (not quite enough to be considered ‘districts’ by National Park Service standards) in Pinnacles: High Peaks and Balconies. These are two different formations and both worth exploring if you’re up for the hikes. If you do want to visit both areas in a single day, it’s best to use the West entrance to the park.
Driving & Parking in Pinnacles National Park
For the most part, driving in Pinnacles National Park is easy: there is one road on the West side and one road (with one fork) on the East side. You can’t really get lost or make a wrong turn.
Parking on the other hand – that’s a doozy. The peak season to visit Pinnacles National Park is mid-February through early June. On weekends during this window (including when we visited in late February and early April), parking fills quickly. Arrive early or prepare to wait in line to enter the park (we waited about 30 minutes). During non-pandemic times, there’s a Weekend & Holiday Shuttle on the East side to shuttle people from the Visitor Center to Bear Gulch Day Use Area.
Pinnacles National Park Entrance Fees
As part of the National Park system, Pinnacles operates under the same rules as other parks. You’ll either need to pay an entrance fee or use a National Parks Pass to enter.
Here are your options:
- The private vehicle entrance fee is $30, good for 7 days. You’ll have to pay this to access the first time you enter Pinnacles, but it will be valid if you visit one entrance and then drive to the other, as long as that’s within 7 days.
- You can walk into the park for $15 per person, good for 7 days. Pinnacles is one of the few parks I think you actually could hike-in to explore, thanks to its smaller size.
- An annual America the Beautiful Pass is $80. This gets you into every national park and all fee-collecting federal lands. I got my first one in 2019 and it’s such a money-saver that the America the Beautiful Pass is totally worth it! You can get the America the Beautiful Pass from REI.
You can read more about the fees – and check that the above is accurate – on the Pinnacles NPS website.
Where to Stay Near Pinnacles National Park
When it comes to planning a multi-day trip to Pinnacles National Park – or staying overnight after a long day of hiking, your options in the park are limited. But, there are good options near Pinnacles National Park on both the East and West sides.
On the East Side of Pinnacles National Park
- You can stay at the official Pinnacles National Park Campground. Reservations can be made online, up to six months in advance. Here’s the official page with all details about camping in Pinnacles.
- Not far outside the park boundary, Bar SZ is a public dude ranch where you can stay the night and try your hand at ranching if you choose. It’s the nearest place to stay to the East entrance.
- San Benito Camping Resort is a no-frills option, but they also have cabin and cottage options. They’re also weirdly expensive for what they are.
- To reach Pinnacles National Park from the Bay Area, you’ll pass through the town of Tres Pinos; the Tres Pinos Inn is the place to stay in town (and the only place to stay in town!)
On the West Side of Pinnacles National Park
- Inn at the Pinnacles is the closest option to the West entrance; it’s only a 5-minute drive to the park entrance. It has a luxurious but dated style and is priced higher than other options a little further away.
- Valley Harvest Inn, located in Soledad where CA Highway 146 begins and leads up to the West entrance, is a good budget-friendly option. It too is dated and has fewer comforts, but makes up for it with that lower price point.
- Soledad also has a chain motel: the Motel 8 is another budget-conscious option if you’re staying overnight near the West side of the park.
What to Pack for Pinnacles National Park
In addition to all the goodies I normally recommend packing for California, there are a few extra items I recommend packing for Pinnacles National Park specifically:
- Sunscreen/sun protection – The sun can get blazing, even during the winter months.
- Good shoes – As the primary activity in Pinnacles is hiking, you’ll want good shoes to keep your feet comfortable and stable.
- Plenty of water – There are water stations at Chaparral and Bear Gulch, so make sure you bring enough water bottles to stay hydrated during your hikes.
- Day pack – Carry snacks and extra water on your back instead of in your hands – you’ll need them while exploring High Peaks and the Talus Caves.
- Flashlight – If you plan to explore the caves, especially Balconies Cave, you’ll need a flashlight to see.
Okay, now let’s cover all the incredible things to do in Pinnacles that you need this info and gear for!
The Best Things to Do in Pinnacles National Park
As you plan your Pinnacles National Park itinerary, here are the main things to do.
1. Stop by the Visitor Center (East/West)
No matter which side of the park you enter on, it’s always worth stopping at the visitor center. Rangers can update you on trail and cave status. Once you’re up-to-date on the park, it’s time to head in and start exploring.
At the East Entrance, you can snag necessary souvenirs and get the stamp for your Passport to Your National Parks. The West Entrance Contact Station has a smaller shop and resources for visitors too.
2. Hike to High Peaks (East/West)
Pinnacles National Park is so named for the high peaks of volcanic rock that were thrust up from the earth’s crust and migrated through tectonic forces to this part of modern-day California. These High Peaks are beautiful and unique among California’s national parks – and indeed all of California’s mountains and rock formations.
As they are both dramatic and elevated, it requires hiking several miles to reach the High Peaks section of Pinnacles National Park. You can access the area from both sides of the park on different trails, but be prepared for serious elevation changes and at least a half-day to do the hike no matter which route you choose.
Additionally, once you’re in the High Peaks area, the trail narrows to single-file with railings and – at times – foot tracks carved into the rock. This tactical section isn’t too scary, but worth being prepared for, as it can cause back-ups on the trail and requires attention to your foot placement while hiking.
Don’t let that deter you though: this part of the park was so enthralling that I planned a second trip to Pinnacles after discovering the area on our first trip.
3. Explore Bear Gulch Cave (East)
As mentioned, the Talus Caves in Pinnacles National Park are one of the main attractions – and part of the hiking experience. Talus caves are formed by stones and boulders that fall and collect to form caves; they are different than solutional or erosion caves.
On the East side of the park, Bear Gulch Cave is accessible from the Bear Gulch day-use area (and a short hike on Moses Spring Trail, more on that below. In addition to the wild rock formations, Bear Gulch Cave is home to a colony of Townsend’s Big Eared Bats.
The park restricts access to the caves during certain times of year to protect the colony, so be sure to check the NPS Pinnacles Conditions page to know whether the cave is open or closed.
4. Explore Balconies Cave (West)
Not to be outdone, the West side of the park also has a cave system you can hike to. Balconies Cave is so named for the neighboring rock formation (that looks like balconies carved into the side of the mountain).
Balconies Cave is also home to bats, though not a colony, so the cave doesn’t typically close to protect them. It does have some incredible hiking including a serious elevation drip in the second half of the cave. Be sure to bring a flashlight, as you’ll need it to navigate the dark labyrinth of rocks and boulders that make up the cave.
5. Keep an Eye Out for California Condors (East/West)
It might sound strange, but birding is one of the top activities in Pinnacles National Park, and you should definitely plan on some birding during your visit!
Pinnacles National Park is well-known as the main site for the California Condor Restoration Program. When the program began in 1987, there were fewer than two dozen California condors in the world; Pinnacles became a release site in 2003. Today there are almost 500 condors in the world, and over 300 of them live in the wild – a massive restoration effort that has so far been successful.
You can spot California Condors in Pinnacles National Park. In fact, it’s one of the best places to do so. They are most commonly found in the High Peaks section of the park – or soaring up on the thermals above the park. Keep an eye out for their distinctive band of white feathers under the wing and red, featherless heads.
There are plenty of other birds in Pinnacles National Park too – you can spot the California Quail (the state bird), roadrunners, wrens, and I’ve never seen as many woodpeckers in my life as when exploring Pinnacles!
6. Go Stargazing (East/West)
Finally, Pinnacles National Park – like so many National Parks in the western U.S. – is a great spot for stargazing. If you’re staying in the park late (or staying at the campground), be sure to plan time to get out and enjoy the stars. Pinnacles’ natural geography provides great protection from the light pollution of nearby communities, especially on the East side. This is a great way to end the day.
The Best Hiking Trails in Pinnacles National Park
I already mentioned that hiking to High Peaks is one of the best things to do in Pinnacles National Park – but not everyone is up for the effort that requires. In this section, I’ll break down 7 great hiking trails in Pinnacles (including two that take you to High Peaks).
Pro-tip: Trail conditions for these hikes change frequently. Check the NPS website for all alerts when you plan your trip.
1. Juniper Canyon Loop (West)
This is my absolute favorite hike in Pinnacles National Park, and the one I recommend if you want to experience High Peaks in all its glory.
The 4.3-mile Juniper Canyon Loop combines Juniper Canyon Trail, High Peaks Trail, and Tunnel Trail; it ascends into the heart of High Peaks and loops through the formations before descending back to the Chaparral day-use area. This is certainly a strenuous hike, but not as bad as I expected based on stories I had heard.
There are several junctions on this trail that connect to other trails, allowing you to access both the West and East sides of the park.
2. Condor Gulch/High Peaks Loop (East)
If you’re visiting only the East side of the park during your trip and want one long, challenging hike, this is the best option. On this 5.3-mile strenuous loop, you’ll climb up to Condor Gulch Overlook, then continue up to the Steep and Narrow portion of the trail in the High Peaks area of the park. This is definitely strenuous, but a stunning trail to complete.
If you like hiking a little and want to do a few easy hikes, here are the ones I suggest. I think you could do 2-3 of these in a single day, depending on how early you get started.
3. Condor Gulch Overlook (East)
Condor Gulch Trail is a moderate hike from Bear Gulch Day Use Area. The 2-mile out-and-back hike to the Condor Gulch Overlook is one mile each way. While this hike has some elevation change, it’s worth the effort to feel like you’re within reach of the High Peaks area and the chance to spot Condors soaring overhead on thermals.
4. Balconies Cliffs/Cave Loop (West)
The Balconies section of Pinnacles National Park is well worth exploring if the cave is open during your visit. This 2.4-mile loop hike is probably more on the moderate side (based on my experience hiking in the park), but has spectacular views and the chance to explore a talus cave.
It’s worth noting you can access this trail two other ways: from Old Pinnacles Trail (which starts on the East side), and from High Peaks Trail (using part of Old Pinnacles Trail to create an 8.4-mile loop).
5. Moses Spring to Bear Gulch Cave (East)
Moses Spring is an easy/moderate hike from Bear Gulch Day Use Area. It connects to Bear Gulch Cave after a little more than 0.5 miles. If you hike the length of the cave, that makes the whole hike roughly 2.4 miles out and back.
6. Moses Spring to Bear Gulch Reservoir (east)
Moses Spring also connects to the Rim Trail and goes to Bear Gulch Reservoir. This increases the effort but is well worth the view at the reservoir. It’s about two miles to hike the Moses Spring/Rim Trail loop to the Reservoir. You can also access this trail from the West side by descending from High Peaks Trail.
7. Sycamore Trail (East)
Sycamore Trail is an easy, mostly flat hike that takes you from the Visitor Center to Bear Gulch Day Use Area. It’s not as scenic as other hikes but is a nice way to explore the park without a lot of elevation change. This hike is 2.3 miles one-way, so plan for the full almost-five-mile hike or catch a shuttle back to the Visitor Center.
What to Do for One Day in Pinnacles National Park
Now that you have all the info, it’s time to put together a Pinnacles National Park itinerary for your trip. Here are some suggestions, based on how much time you have to visit.
As a Day Trip to Pinnacles National Park
If you’re planning a day trip to Pinnacles, you’ll either need to wake up super early or plan to arrive mid-morning from destinations like Monterey or the San Francisco Bay Area. This means you may not want to hike to High Peaks since it can get hot during the day (depending on when you visit).
On a day trip, I would choose one side of the park to visit – you won’t have time for both. Stop by the Visitor Center to check on trail conditions and parking options. Once you find parking (or take the shuttle into the park), head out on a hike. Be sure to plan a trip to one of the Talus Caves, depending on which side of the park you’re on (both are easily accessed from a short hike, so that’s a good way to hit two birds with one stone). If you plan ahead, you can have a picnic at one of the day-use areas before heading out of the park.
For a Full Day on the East Side
If you decide to stay near Pinnacles National Park and have one full day to explore the east side, here’s what I would do:
- Rise and shine early to ensure you get good parking.
- Base yourself from Bear Gulch day use area.
- Hike Condor Gulch/High Peaks Trail before the day gets too hot.
- Have a picnic at Bear Gulch.
- Hike Moses Spring Trail to Bear Gulch Cave.
- Keep an eye out for Townsend’s Big Eared Bats in the cave.
- Make your way back out of the park toward the Visitor Center.
Then you can either camp and go stargazing in the evening, or drive back to your East side accommodation.
For a Full Day on the West Side
For a full day on the West Side, here’s what I suggest:
- Arrive early to make sure you get parking; we were there by 7:30am and had to park at the Jawbone Parking Area since Chapparral was already full.
- Hike the Juniper Canyon Loop to get up into the High Peaks area early in the day.
- Keep an eye out for California Condors soaring overhead while you hike.
- Have a picnic lunch at Chapparral.
- Take the Balconies Trail to Balconies Cave.
- Loop back around on Balconies Cliff Trail.
- Head back out to the Visitor Center on your way out of the park.
There is no camping on the West Side, so you’ll need accommodation outside the park.
If You Have Two Days in Pinnacles National Park
Most of this post has focused on what to do if you only have one day in Pinnacles National Park or are planning a day trip. If you have two days, I recommend spending one day in each half of the park. (This is similar to my plan for Saguaro National Park in Arizona, which is also split into two halves.) You could spend the first day on the West side, and the second day on the East side – or vice versa.
Spending your two days in Pinnacles this way will give you the chance to explore everything the park has to offer… and mean you don’t have to plan two separate trips, as we did!
Now that you know how to visit the park, what to do, and which hike(s) you’ll make, you’re all set for a perfect day in Pinnacles National Park. If you have other questions about visiting Pinnacles National Park, let me know in the comments!