Visit Pinnacles National Park
Tucked in the heart of the Salinas Valley southeast of San Francisco, more than 20 miles in either direction from a town anyone has heard of, is Pinnacles National Park. Pinnacles National Park is surrounded by rolling hills of farmland that seem an unlikely location for this California National Park. This little known national park may still be relatively off the radar since it was only upgraded from a national monument to a national park when President Obama signed it into law in January 2013.
It is no secret California is home to some incredible national parks. In fact, if you love the outdoors, you could even go on a West Coast National Park road trip! Pinnacles National Park is yet to be really discovered by the entire population as a great spot to visit, not only for its nature, but also because it is home to the California condor, a species that has been brought back from the brink of extinction.
The rock formations and landscape at Pinnacles National Park is the result of volcanic eruptions, land slides and lava flows that occurred 23 million years ago. According to the NPS website, a field of lava and fire was created that was split by the San Andreas Fault, and the west side of it traveled north by 3-6 cm per year, reaching its current location.
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Hiking at Pinnacles National Park
Although Pinnacles isn’t the biggest of our national parks, it still offers great hiking options to keep you busy for a couple of days! There are less strenuous hikes located through the grasslands at the base of the pinnacles, or more active hikers can climb the peaks of the pinnacles which also give a much better chance for a California condor sighting.
If you enter from the east entrance (also where the campgrounds are), you’ll most likely start your hikes from the Bear Gulch Day Use Area. Here you can set out on a variety of hikes ranging in difficulty and elevation.
Condor Gulch Trail and High Peaks
On the afternoon we arrived, we took the Condor Gulch Trail to Overlook, and then on to the High Peaks Trail and back down to the Moses Spring Trail for a total of about 5 miles, which took us about 2.5-3 hours (including lots of stopping to take photos). This hike gets a lot of exposure to the sun, and will have you walking uphill, so be sure to bring a hat and some water. Although the climb itself isn’t too strenuous, the heat of the sun can be unbearable if you aren’t prepared.
At the top of the High Peaks Trail you’ll actually cross the High Peaks, which you’ll climb with small steps that have been carved into the rock with an accompanying handrail. It is fairly steep here, but the climb feels really safe since there are so many steps and a big railing to hold on to.
Looking for more inspiring hikes? Click here
Bear Gulch Caves to Bear Gulch Reservoir
If you can believe it, Pinnacles National Park is also home to caves that you can explore! These caves are right on some of the main hiking trails, and provide a great respite from the heat. Technically, these are not real caves, but they are cave-like in that running water has carved out these chasms in the Pinnacles rocks.
The Bear Gulch Caves are one of two cave areas, the other being the Balconies Cave that is more easily reached via the west entrance of the park, or if you do the longer Balconies Hike. The caves are home to a colony of bats which is protected by the park, so your ability to enter into the caves is reliant on their patterns. Typically the lower Bear Gulch Cave is open from mid-July to mid-May, until they raise their young between mid-May to mid-July.
When you hike through the caves, be sure to turn on your cellphone flashlight (or bring an actual flashlight), cause it sure does get dark in the caves.
To explore these caves, just follow the sign from the Bear Gulch Day Use Area, and after you’ve left the caves, continue on to the Bear Gulch Reservoir. From there you can continue up to the High Peaks or pick your own adventure 😉
I would strongly recommend that if you plan on hiking you start either early in the morning or late in the afternoon. The sun is especially strong here, and was even in mid-April when we visited. Be sure to plan your visit accordingly so you don’t end up with a miserable heat stroke.
For more hiking trails, click here
Love hiking? Check out this post on the best hiking gear and gifts for hikers
Pinnacles, the home of the California condors
Before we visited Pinnacles, I knew very little about the California condors who call this park home. California condors are one of the most endangered species in California, and nearly reached extinction in the 20th century when there were only 22 left in the world. In the late 1980s the last condors were taken into captivity in an effort to reintroduce them into the wild and save them from extinction. Today there are 446 condors, 86 of them living within Pinnacles National Park.
California condors are actually the largest land birds in North America, and have a wingspan of about 9 feet! These massive birds most often nest in caves or crevices, which makes Pinnacles the perfect home for them.
We were lucky enough to see condors up close during our hike on the High Peaks Trail. While stopping to take some photos, three landed just 15 feet away from us and put on a show of spreading their wings and seemingly dancing in a circle.
Camping at Pinnacles
Unless you live in the area, I’d strongly suggest camping out at Pinnacles since there aren’t many places to stay in the vicinity, and you’ll probably be pretty tired after hiking all day. The Pinnacles Campground is really large, and offers wide open spaces for you to camp. If you do plan to camp, don’t miss this must have camping gear list.
The campground is located just a short distance from the visitor’s entrance, where you can also find a small store with some food – but I’d recommend stopping well before you reach Pinnacles for groceries, since there aren’t too many options at this small store.
Maybe most importantly, the showers at Pinnacles are clean and aren’t as expensive as some other campground showers! Make sure to bring along quarters or bring some cash to exchange at the store since these showers are coin operated. $1 will get you a 6 minute shower. The only downside is that there are only four showers in the entire campground, two for women and two for men, so if the campground is busy, be sure to plan your visit accordingly.
If you camp out at Pinnacles, be aware that there are a ton of raccoons, so don’t leave any food out unattended! Even after we put all food away and sat at our campfire, raccoons jumped up on our picnic table right behind our backs three times in search of food – these guys are ruthless. Be sure to hide everything away in the bear box or car, not in your tent.
If you’re still hungry for more National Parks, check out the 10 best National Park Vacations
How to reach Pinnacles National Park
There are two entrances to Pinnacles National Park, a west entrance and an east entrance. The west entrance is located off of Highway 101 via Highway 146, closest to Soledad. Note that you cannot drive 146 through the park – to reach the other side you’ll need to drive around the entirety of the park. If you are visiting from Monterey, Salinas or Big Sur, this would be your best entrance into the park.
The east entrance to the park is where you will find the Pinnacles campground, and this is reached via Highway 25, if you are heading south going through Hollister.
What to bring to Pinnacles National Park
If you plan to visit, remember these items to pack besides your typical camping gear:
- Quarters for the shower, or cash to get change for the shower
- Your national parks pass – if you don’t have one and plan to visit more than a few national parks within a year, I’d strongly suggest buying one. This will save you money on entrance fees by getting your car in free at nearly all national parks (note you only need one per car). Get your America the Beautiful pass here
- Plenty of SPF to slather on before your hike
- At least four liters of water while you hike
Looking for more California travel tips? Check out these posts:
- What to do in Mammoth Lakes in summer
- The LA to San Diego roadtrip
- Unique things to do in Sacramento
Did this post help you plan your visit to Pinnacles National Park? Let me know in the comments below!
Gabby is a native (Northern) Californian who spent the majority of her 20’s living the expat life in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, exploring Europe and beyond. 27 countries later, she’s relocated back to her home base in California where she explores her passions for the travel and the outdoors.