Things to do on a visit to Pinnacles National Park, California
We finally had a chance to hike in Pinnacles National Park on our recent Central California road trip. Located about 90 miles south of San Jose in Paicines, California, this 26,000-acre park is the 59th and newest designated national park in the United States.
We really wanted to hike among the park’s volcanic formations, through talus caves and rock spires that make this national park distinctive. We also hoped to see a California Condor, since the park co-manages 86 wild condors in the Condor Recovery Project.
Pinnacles National Park has two systems of talus caves formed by big boulders wedged into ravines carved by years of water and erosion. Some 23 million years ago, a bunch of volcanoes erupted, and then the San Andreas Fault split the area in half, creating the current landscape.
Don’t expect the park to be a flattened wasteland, though. The elevation in the park ranges from 824 feet along the creek to 3,304 feet at the highest peak. The land here is still moving, says the National Park Service, if only about an inch each year.
When you enter the park you’re walking into a lively landscape of spectacular sights, with craggy cliffs and the iconic High Peaks, which are massive orange-ochre rock formations rising straight up out of the tree-dotted foothills. This place is also teaming with wildlife and wildflowers.
East Entrance or West?
We entered the park from the west side, off Highway 101, because it was closer to the California coastal towns on our road trip itinerary. But you can also enter Pinnacles National Park from the east entrance, which is where you’ll find the campgrounds tucked into the foothills (more on that below).
The entrances are not close together, and you can’t drive but only hike from one side to the other within the park. So make sure you know which side works best for your visit.
If you’re up for a drive, you can get from one entrance to the other outside the park through the town of King City on Highway 101. It will take you about an hour and a half, but it’s a beautiful drive that winds through farmland, pastures, and vineyards.
SAVVY TIP: If you’re planning to camp over a weekend at the east entrance, check out one of the park’s awesome night programs that take place in the amphitheater. Or on a day trip from the west side, you can join a Star Party. Local astronomers have telescopes set up that you can use.
Things to Do at Pinnacles National Park
The park has more than 30 miles of trails ranging from easy to strenuous. Many trails loop around and are connected, so you can switch trails as you go. Allow for at least an hour for a short loop, or opt for an all-day hike.
The park’s two caves are a popular choice from either entrance. If you’re not sure which trail to take, you can ask one of the park rangers at the Pinnacles Visitor Center, the Bear Gulch Nature Center, or the West Pinnacles Visitor Contact Station.
The trails we selected took us through the Balconies Cave (reached by hiking from the west entrance). If you’re hiking from the east entrance, the Bear Gulch Cave is closer.
We were happy to be there in the Spring. The weather was warm (but not too warm), and dry, so we were able to enjoy a hike through one of the caves. During the rainy season, the caves are often closed to the public, so check ahead.
One of my favorite things about visiting Pinnacles National Park is the variety of flora and fauna.
Depending on when you go, you’ll see any of a hundred varieties of wildflowers in bloom somewhere in the park, along with Chaparral, Oak, and Buckeye trees. In late spring, you’ll see bees hard at work among the 100 varieties of wildflowers, including California poppies, bush lupine, and mariposa lilies.
Pinnacles National Park is home to many varieties of wildlife. You might see the endangered California Condor. Pinnacles National Park is the only NPS unit that manages a release site for captive bred California condors.
Young condors come to Pinnacles from captive breeding facilities when they’re 1.5 years old. They’re placed into a flight pen with an adult mentor bird to help them acclimate to their new environment for a couple of months.
When they’re behaving normally, they’re outfitted with radio transmitters and ID tags, and released from the pen one at a time to take their first flights in the wild.
We didn’t see the condors this time, but we caught a glimpse of a Peregrine falcon and a Golden eagle. That really made our day, but we were also thrilled to see this less lofty lizard lounging in the sun on a tree stump.
Also, keep an eye out for Townsend big-eared bats in the caves, black-tailed deer in the meadow, and red-legged frogs along the creek.
We were hoping to not get too close and personal with the bobcats, coyotes, snakes, tarantulas, and mountain lions, but we know they are there as well.
The park is also a popular place for rock climbing on several of Pinnacles National Park’s rock formations. You can rock climb from either entrance.
From the east side, the closest climbs are 10 and 15 minutes up the trail from the Bear Gulch Day Use Area. Look on the map for Tourist Trap and Discovery Wall. Access trails to these areas are also marked.
From the west side, the closest climbs are a 15 minute hike along the Balconies Trail from the Chaparral parking lot. Look for the spots called Passion Play and Game Show.
BANG’ TIP: Here’s a rock climbing link for more info and the Pinnacles National Park rock climber FAQ.
Where to Stay at Or Near Pinnacles National Park
Many people visit Pinnacles as a day trip from the San Francisco Bay Area. Or if you’re like us, you’ll make it part of your California weekend road trip. You won’t find any lodging within the park, only camping (east entrance).
BANG’ TIP: Combine your Pinnacles camping trip with a California Road Trip Less Traveled: Airline Highway
If you want to stay near the west entrance to the park, check out the Inn At The Pinnacles, about two miles away. Inn At The Pinnacles is a beautiful six-room B&B surrounded by vineyards in Monterey County’s Gabilan Mountains.
Inn at the Pinnacles
A stay at The Inn at the Pinnacles puts you in a serene and elegant setting after a day on the rugged trails. The Inn has a salt water pool perfect for a soak after a long day’s hike.
Amenities include: a continental breakfast, gas barbecue private patios, soaker tubs, gas fireplaces, robes and slippers. Wine tasting at nearby wineries are a no brainer for evening activities.
Inn At The Pinnacles (near the west entrance to the park)
Address: 32025 Stonewall Canyon Road, Soledad, California
Camping at Pinnacles National Park
You’ll find a campground inside Pinnacles National Park near the east entrance. There you’ll find RV hookups with 120 volts with 30-amp service, family and group tent sites, hot showers, flush toilets and drinking water.
It also has a swimming pool (open from April through September) and a general store for camping supplies and snacks.
The campground is open year round and has direct access to the park via The Bench Trail.
Pinnacles National Park Campgrounds (inside the park’s east entrance)
Location: East side of Pinnacles National Park off Hwy 25.
Campground info and reservations: 831-389-4538 or www.recreation.gov
Pinnacles National Park: Know Before You Go
When is Pinnacles National Park open?
The park is open daily.
Where is Pinnacles National Park located?
Pinnacles National Park is located 32 miles south of Hollister, CA on Hwy 25 and 29 miles northeast of King City, CA on Hwy 25. That’s about 90 miles south of San Jose.
The Park address: 5000 Highway 146 in Paicines, California.
But that address can be misleading. Make sure you know to which entrance you heading. The two entrances are connected within the park only by hiking trails.
For detailed driving directions to the park, see this page on the park’s website. Or use these GPS map coordinates:
- East Side of Park (Pinnacles Visitor Center): 36.493545, -121.146646
- West Side of Park (Pinnacles Visitor Contact Station): 36.477700, -121.226136
What is the entrance fee?
The entrance fee is $30 per vehicle (at the time this article was written). Check for any updates on entrance info here.
BANG TIP: Park fees are waved during National Parks Week each April. The park may also offer free entry on certain other days.
How long or hard is a hike in Pinnacles National Park?
Pinnacles has more than 30 miles of trails, some easy, others strenuous, taking an hour, half a day, or a full day.
When is the best time to visit Pinnacles National Park?
Spring, fall, and winter are the most popular times to visit Pinnacles National Park (Summers here are hot and dry). The weekends draw the most hikers, especially in the spring. Parking lots are full by 10 am during busy days and may cause delays.
What should we know about hiking through the caves?
You’ll want to bring a flashlight, or a charged smartphone with a flashlight app (that’s what we did). You can buy bottled water and flashlights at the park visitors center (near the parking lot).
Both caves may be closed after wet weather due to flooding. You can check the current cave status before your visit (see official park contact info at the bottom of this page.
Things to bring
Bring your flashlight (or smartphone with flashlight app), binoculars, and bottled water, and wear comfortable hiking boots.
Are dogs allowed in the Park?
Unfortunately no, not on the trails.
Where can I find more info about camping at Pinnacles
Campsites are also available starting at $23. For campground information and reservations: 831-389-4538 or www.recreation.gov
Official Park Contact Info