The main feature of California's Pinnacles National Park is the remnants of a 23 million-year-old volcano, which today looks like a grouping of colorful rock spires. The Neenatch Volcano once stood 8,000 feet high and was located 195 miles south of the park. The San Andreas Fault slowly ripped the old volcano in half,and over the last 23 million years, the rocks have migrated hundreds of miles to their current location. And, they're still moving today—at about an inch per year, according to the National Park Service. At this rate, the Pinnacles may be neighbors with San Francisco in another 6 million years.
Pinnacles National Park is a scenic spot that's popular with hikers, rock climbers, and animal enthusiasts. It's also frequented by families and San Francisco Bay Area day-trippers wanting to escape the city and revel in dark nighttime skies.
Things to Do
Bay Area visitors flock to Pinnacles National Park mostly to hike and climb the spires while searching for wildlife. The rock formations in the park contain both sport and traditional rock climbing routes, providing lots of opportunities for weekend warriors. And, the park's 30 miles of trails give you an up-close view of the featured pinnacles.
Pinnacles National Park is also a favorite destination of spelunkers, as it contains two tunnel-like caverns created by massive boulders that fell into a narrow ravine. Bear Gulch Cave is located near the east entrance of the park, and the Balconies Cave can be reached by hiking from the west near Chaparral Picnic Area. Check with rangers before heading out, as the caves are sometimes seasonally closed to protect resident bats or due to flooding.
Other programs at the park include full-moon and dark-sky hikes with rangers. And bat viewing and astronomy programs take place on selected Fridays and Saturdays, spring through fall.
Some programs may be canceled in 2021. Please check with the park's rangers before making plans.
Best Hikes & Trails
Pinnacles National Park has two entrances, one on the west and one on the east. Yet, due to its remarkable landscape, you can't drive across the park in your car. The only way to get from one side to the other is by foot, which preserves the backcountry as a serene and sacred space for hikers. However, keep in mind that, due to rugged terrain, many of the hikes are strenuous. Pack along ample water and food for your journey.
- Pinnacles Visitor Center to Bear Gulch Day Use Area: This 2.3-mile trail starts at the visitor's center and follows Chalone and Bear Creeks. It offers a way to easily get your legs moving after a long car ride. Portions of the trail can be accessed by those in a wheelchair, and the overall elevation gain of this out-and-back hike is 300 feet, making it one of the easiest trails in the park.
- Moses Spring to Rim Trail Loop: If you're on a mission to view the spiring towers of rock, check out a cave, and take a dip in the water, you can do it all on this 2.2-mile moderate loop. The trail gains 500 feet of elevation and goes past Bear Gulch Reservoir. Bear Gulch Cave is open seasonally and a flashlight is required for entering.
- Condor Gulch Trail to High Peaks Trail Loop: This 5.3-mile strenuous trail gains 1300 feet of elevation and puts you right smack dab in the middle of Pinnacles' rock formations. This popular hike starts out at Bear Gulch Visitor's Center and the High Peaks portion of the trail takes you over ladders and winds through multiple tight squeezes in a geological maze.
- Balconies Trail: This 9.1-mile moderate loop combines fields of wildflowers with knife-edge traverses of rock pinnacles. The trail gains 2,001 feet of elevation and sections of the trail offer handrails and footholds for safely navigating the rock.
California condors are the "rock stars" at Pinnacles National Park, offering a spectacle for birdwatchers as they soar overhead with their 9.5-foot-wide wingspan. Many other birds of prey make their homes among the rocks as well, including owls, prairie falcons, golden eagles, and red-tailed hawks,
Townsend's big-eared bats and Western Mastiff Bats are among the 14 species of residents in the caves at Pinnacles National Parks. They are seasonal residents, however, only hanging around in the spring and late summer. To protect the females and their pups, rangers may close the caves from mid-May through mid-July, so plan accordingly if you want to spelunk.
Out of all the animals at Pinnacles National Park, the bees are the most interesting. Around 400 species of honeybees arrive late spring to feed on the blooming wildflowers. The varieties come in all shapes and sizes, some resembling a mosquito, while others are as big as a large peanut shell. If you time it right, you could see more than 200 kinds of buzzing insects just by hiking along the Old Pinnacles Trail.
Where to Camp
Pinnacles Campground, which can only be accessed through the east entrance of the park, provides the only place to sleep within park boundaries. Both backcountry and dispersed camping are prohibited throughout the park. The campground offers tent, group, and RV camping, and each site comes complete with a picnic table and fire ring. Some sites have electrical hookups, and a restroom, coin-operated showers, and a seasonal swimming pool are all located on-site. You can camp with your pet, too, but they must be on a leash at all times and are not allowed on trails.
Where to Stay Nearby
Pinnacles National Park makes an easy day trip from the Bay Area, but many choose to stay overnight or through the weekend. The nearby town of Soledad, conveniently located along the River Road Wine Trail, offers many lodging options, as well as a peek at the history of the Wild West. You can also find a few places to stay in nearby Hollister.
- Inn at the Pinnacles: Situated in close proximity to local vineyards, this bed and breakfast offers six luxury suites in a tranquil setting. All of the rooms are double occupancy and many come with soaking tubs for relaxing after a long day of hiking. The property boasts an on-site pool, bocce courts, and a horseshoe pit.
- Bar SZ Ranch: Life moves pretty slow at the Bar SZ Ranch on the eastern edge of Pinnacles National Park. Not only can you bed down in one of the rental houses, cabins, or glamping tents on the property, but you can also engage in farm activities like horse grooming, animal feedings, and evening barbecues.
- Valley Harvest Inn: The Valley Harvest Inn provides a comfortable night's sleep in a hotel-like environment. The hotel offers queen rooms, double queen rooms, king rooms, and a mini-suite. There is an on-site pool and restaurant, as well.
How to Get There
Pinnacles National Park is located at5000 Highway 146 in Paicines, California, about 90 miles south of San Jose and 123 miles south of San Francisco. The two entrances need to be accessed separately, as they are connected only by trails in the park's backcountry.To reach theeast entrance,go through the town of Hollister, then head 29 miles south on CA-25. To get to the west entrance, take CA-101 south of the Bay Area to Soledad, and then follow CA-146 E for 10 miles to the park's entrance. This winding, sometimes one-lane road is not suitable for big RVs. If you're driving from one entrance to the other, the shortest route between the two goes through the town of King City and takes about 1.5 hours.
The visitor centers on both the east and west entrance of the park, as well as the restrooms at the West Pinnacles Contact Station,are accessible and ADA-compliant. Most of the park consists of steep, rocky terrain, but two trails (one accessible from the west entrance and one from the east) offer graded paths suitable for wheelchair access. The Bench Trail gives you views of the High Peaks rock formation and the Prewett Point Trail delivers a panoramic look at High Peaks, and the Balconies Cliffs.
Tips for Your Visit
- The park is open daily, but the parking lot at the west entrance closes each night. You can exit at any point, but you can't back get in until the following morning after it closes.
- A small per-vehicle entrance fee is collected at the entrances. However, park visits are free during the annual National Parks Week in April and on other days that vary by year.
- Spring, fall, and winter are the most popular times to visit Pinnacles National Park. In the summer, it gets hot (with temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit), making it hard to enjoy hikes during the day.
- Bring a flashlight, as you can't venture into the caves without one. Also, pack boots and a rain jacket in case the caves get wet and muddy after a storm.
- There is no food concession in the park, so pack along plenty of food and water. The visitor centers only sell bottled water and flashlights.
- Dress in layers, as the sun, shade, and wind combine to produce big temperature swings throughout the day and in different areas of the park.
- The spiky chaparral plants that cover the landscape are one of the reasons cowboys invented chaps. Wear long pants and hiking boots if you choose to venture into the backcountry.
- Watch out for poison oak and stinging nettle along the trails. An allergic encounter can turn a fun day of hiking into an unpleasant trip to the doctor's office. Research the plants' properties before you go.