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How to Make the Most of One Day in Pinnacles National Park

How to Make the Most of One Day in Pinnacles National Park
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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.

If you’re planning to visit Pinnacles National Park and only have one day, don’t worry: you can conquer and see a lot during a short time. It obviously works best if you can have an entire day in the park (meaning you stay in the area), rather than spending hours driving to/from the San Francisco Bay Area. But during my visit in early 2021, I drove down, went hiking and exploring, and drove back home all in one day. If you want to know how to do the same and make the most of one day in Pinnacles National Park, let this be your guide.

Planning Your Visit to Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park Sign

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 abut 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.

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), 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 itYou 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 for 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.

At the time of writing, I couldn’t find any Airbnbs near either entrance to Pinnacles National Park.

Things to Do in Pinnacles National Park (When You Only Have One Day!)

One Day in Pinnacels National Park - High Peaks

As you plan your one day in Pinnacles National Park, here are the main activities I would add to your itinerary.

Stop by the Visitor Center

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, and 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.

Once you’re up-to-date on the park, it’s time to head in and start exploring.

Head out on a Hike

As I mentioned above, you can drive or may have to take the shuttle (on the East side) to access Pinnacles National Park. The most popular activity in Pinnacles is hiking, and “autotouring” won’t really show you what makes this park special. So strap on your good shoes and get ready to climb a bit!

On the East Side:

  • Condor Gulch Trail – One of the most popular trails, it’s a 1-mile hike from Bear Gulch Day Use Area to the Condor Gulch Overlook; you can tack on the High Peaks Loop to make this a solid 5.5-mile moderate/strenuous hike.
  • Moses Spring – This trail leads from Bear Gulch Day Use Area to both Bear Gulch Cave and Bear Gulch Reservoir. If you add on sections of the Rim Trail, it makes a nice 2.2-mile moderate hike.
  • Old Pinnacles Trail – Based on the name, I’m pretty sure this was one of the earlier trails, established to help you visit Balconies Cave on the West side of the park. It’s a 5.3-mile moderate out-and-back hike from Old Pinnacles Trailhead.

On the West Side:

  • Balconies Cliffs/Cave Loop – This trail takes you to see the stunning Balconies Cliffs by going through Balconies Cave (bring a flashlight!). It’s a 2.4-mile loop and is marked easy/moderate.
  • Juniper Canyon Loop – The most picturesque hike in the park, this 4.3-mile strenuous hike takes you into the heart of the High Peaks district. Get ready for steep climbs, narrow trails, and handrails at times!

At the end of this post, I dive into each of these trails more in a section, but I wanted to give you a sample of the options so you can start to narrow down which one(s) you want to do during your one day in Pinnacles National Park.

Explore a Cave

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.

There are two caves in Pinnacles National Park: Bear Gulch Cave and Balconies Cave. Bear Gulch Cave is more easily accessed from the East entrance (though you can hike to it from the West), and Balconies Cave is more easily accessed from the West entrance.

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. Otherwise, Balconies and Bear Gulch Caves are open all the time – but currently the caves are both closed due to the ongoing pandemic.

Hiking in one of the caves is high on my list for a return visit to Pinnacles!

Keep an Eye Out for Condors (& Other Birds)

One Day in Pinnacles National Park - Birding

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 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!

Go Stargazing

Stargazing in Pinnacles National Park - Michelle Provost via Flickr
Photo courtesy of Michelle Provost

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.

Perfect Pinnacles National Park Trails for a Day Hike

If you’re curious which of Pinnacles’ many hikes are best if you only have one day, here are a few. Almost all of these are easy hikes too, which makes them ideal if you (like me) are not a huge hiking buff!

Easier, Part-Day Hikes

Pinnacles National Parks Part-Day Hikes Sign

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.

Condor Gulch Overlook

  • Distance: 2 miles
  • Trail Route: Out-and-back
  • Difficulty: Easy/Moderate
  • Park Entrance: East

Condor Gulch Trail is a moderate hike from Bear Gulch Day Use Area. The 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.

Moses Spring to Bear Gulch Cave

  • Distance: 2.4 miles
  • Trail Route: Out-and-back
  • Difficulty: Easy/Moderate
  • Park Entrance: 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.

Moses Spring to Bear Gulch Reservoir

  • Distance: 2 miles
  • Trail Route: Loop
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Park Entrance: East (accessible from West by High Peaks Trail)

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.

Pinnacles National Park Hiking

Sycamore Trail

  • Distance: 2.3 miles one way (4.6 total)
  • Trail Route: Out-and-back
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Park Entrance: 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.

Balconies Cliffs/Cave Loop

  • Distance: 2.4 miles
  • Trail Route: Loop
  • Difficulty: Easy/Moderate
  • Park Entrance: West (accessible from East by Old Pinnacles Trail)

The Balconies section of Pinnacles National Park is well worth exploring if the cave is open during your visit. This 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.

Longer, More Advanced Hikes

If you’re up for a longer hike that may take most or all of your one day in Pinnacles National Park, here are some options.

Condor Gulch/High Peaks Loop

  • Distance: 5.3 miles
  • Trail Route: Loop
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Park Entrance: 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. 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 conquer.

Juniper Canyon Loop

  • Distance: 4.3 miles
  • Trail Route: Loop
  • Difficulty: Strenuous
  • Park Entrance: West

Juniper Canyon is the West entrance equivalent of the Condor Gulch/High Peaks hike, with a mile less distance – but a more strenuous/technical overall hike. It combines Juniper Canyon Trail, High Peaks Trail, and Tunnel Trail into more than four miles of stunning scenery. This one is on my must-do list when we visit the West side of Pinnacles National Park.

I also already mentioned two other hikes that work as longer hikes:

  • You can hike from the West entrance/Chaparral Parking Area to Bear Gulch Cave/Reservior via Juniper Canyon Trail, High Peaks Trail, and the Rim/Moses Spring Trails. This is a strenuous four-mile hike one-way.
  • You can hike from the East entrance/Old Pinnacles Trailhead to Balconies Cliffs/Cave on the Old Pinnacles Trail. This is a 5.3-mile moderate hike with limited shade.

Pro-tip: Trail conditions for these advanced hikes change frequently. Check the NPS website for all alerts when you plan your trip.

Doing any of these trails will take most of the day, so they’re ideal for someone whose main goal for visiting Pinnacles is to do a more advanced hike and not much else.

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!


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JB

Friday 26th of March 2021

Hi, nice work you are doing. Thanks. Would you consider having a small map on your travel articles? When reading your article it would much easier for readers to visualize if they new where the heck your writing about at the beginnings instead of opening google maps to see where & of practical before reading the complete article. Thanks again. JB SLC, UT

Valerie

Saturday 27th of March 2021

Thanks for asking, JB, but the work to create maps is a bit too much. Google Maps is the most useful map out there and I can't compete with that!