East of California’s fertile Salinas Valley, the distinctive spires of the Pinnacles rise incongruously from the smooth foothills of the Gabilan Mountains. Condors ride updrafts along the cliffs, deer munch grass beside creek beds, and visitors explore canyons and talus caves.
Today, this peaceful scene is one of America’s newest National Parks, promoted from national monument status in 2013. It’s easy to forget that 23 million years ago it was formed by great geologic turmoil as molten rock spewed up between the shifting tectonic plates of the San Andreas fault zone.
The land was originally settled by Native Americans of the Chalon and Mutsun tribes, many of whom were victims of colonization and disease inflicted by Spanish missionaries in the 1700s. In 1908 the area was designated a national monument, and in the 1930s additional trails and recreation spaces were built. In 2013 President Obama designated it as a national park, a space to be protected, cherished, and enjoyed.
Pinnacles National Park is just a couple hours from where I grew up, yet surprisingly I had never been! So this November, in the spirit of exploring closer to home, I treated myself to a camping and hiking trip. I spent two full days hiking most of the trails in the park, punctuated by one peaceful night at the campground, to research this post. It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it!
Honestly I wasn’t expecting too much from this small national park, but I came away pleasantly surprised. It may be small, but it’s uniquely scenic, and refreshingly easy to navigate. I definitely recommend a visit to Pinnacles National Park, and this guide will tell you all about how to plan and enjoy it.
Driving to Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles National Park is located in Central California, about 5 miles east of Soledad or 50 miles southeast of Gilroy. See the park service website for up-to-date information on fees and park status.
There are two entrances to Pinnacles National Park: one on the west side, and one on the east. Note that you cannot drive through the park from one entrance to the other, even though both entrance roads are technically the same highway (146). So choose your entrance based on what you want to do once you arrive.
To reach the west entrance, take Highway 101 to the town of Soledad and turn east on Highway 146. Thirteen miles later you’ll arrive at the Chaparral Parking Area, a few miles after passing an entrance gate where fees are collected.
This section of highway 146 is curvy and less than 2 lanes wide, so take your time. Large RVs and those towing trailers should use the east entrance instead.
The west entrance is open for day use only, so don’t enter here if you intend to camp. It’s the closest entrance to Balconies Cave and Jawbone Trail, farthest from Bear Gulch Cave and Chalone Peak Trail, and about as convenient as the east entrance for reaching the iconic High Peaks Trail.
To reach the east entrance, take Highway 25 to about thirty miles south of Hollister, then turn westward on the short eastern section of highway 146. You’ll soon arrive at the park gate and then the Visitor Center and campground. From here it’s just a few miles to any of the trailheads accessible from this side of the park.
The east entrance is closest to Bear Gulch Cave and Chalone Peak Trail, a bit farther from Balconies Cave (though still reachable), and about as convenient as the west entrance for reaching the High Peaks Trail. For those who want to camp within the park, the east entrance is your only option.
Think twice before being tempted by other roads in the area. La Gloria Road, the only public road crossing the Gabilan Mountains, is a single-lane dirt road that should only driven by those experienced in off-pavement driving. Other roads in the area are likely private and gated, even if shown on Google Maps.
Biking To and Within the Park
I love to explore on my bicycle, as you’ll see if you look around the rest of this website. Though I know most visitors will drive to Pinnacles NP, I include these quick notes about biking for my fellow pedal-powered people.
Biking within Pinnacles National Park: All trails within the park are closed to bicycles. You can bike on the paved and slightly hilly roads; for example, park at the visitor’s center and then bike to the trailhead (most have bike racks). The road has no shoulder, but the light traffic and 25mph speed limit make for fairly safe riding.
Biking to Pinnacles National Park: You can bike into the park from either side by following the driving directions above. Highway 25 to the east entrance is a bit busy for my taste, given the lack of shoulder and number of curves, but seasoned road riders may not mind. Highway 146 to the west entrance is narrow and curvy, but traffic is light and slower.
There is no way to bike (or drive) through the park from one entrance to the other. If you want to bike camp at Pinnacles National Park you’ll need to enter and leave via the east entrance.
Itineraries for Pinnacles National Park
Since the park is relatively small, it’s easy to experience all the highlights in just a couple days. Even a day trip would be rewarding, especially if you make time for some hiking on the park’s fun and scenic trails. Here are two itineraries to help you plan your Pinnacles NP visit.
Two Day Pinnacles NP Itinerary
If you like camping and hiking, two days / one night is the perfect length of time to enjoy all the park’s highlights. Since the campground is on the east side of the park, you’ll be coming in through the east entrance; keep this in mind as you choose your hiking routes.
Day 1: Choose a moderate or long hike from the highlights below, followed by dinner and camping. I recommend the High Peaks and Balconies Cave Loop, if you’re up for the full 9 miles, or take the shorter variation through Bear Gulch.
Day 2: Choose a short or moderate hike from the highlights listed below, followed by a picnic and visit to the nature center. I recommend the Bear Gulch Cave and Reservoir Loop, with the option to extend to Chalone Peak if you’d like more.
A long weekend would be even more leisurely, allowing plenty of time to relax at the campground (maybe even enjoy the pool in the summer!).
One Day Pinnacles NP Itinerary
If you only have one day to visit Pinnacles National Park, I suggest you choose one of the best hikes highlighted below based on how far you want to go and which entrance you’re coming in. If you have the stamina, I highly recommend one of the hikes involving the High Peaks Trail and ideally one of the caves as well.
Relax after your hike with a picnic lunch, and check out the nature center on the way out.
Weather and When to Visit
Pinnacles National Park has a Mediterranean climate with dry, hot summers and cooler, moderately wet winters. The park is open year-round, but there are some considerations for visiting in each season.
Spring: March through May is arguably the best time to visit Pinnacles National Park. Rain is rare, daytime temperatures are comfortable, and overnight lows (if you’re camping) are a bit less chilly than winter. This is also the best season for appreciating the park’s many species of colorful wildflowers. Unfortunately it’s also the most crowded time to visit, especially on weekends.
Summer: June through September can be a good time to visit, but high daytime temperatures (easily in the 90’s F) make hiking less comfortable. You’ll need to carry plenty of water and take it easy on the unshaded trails.
Fall: October and November are a great time to visit, with temperatures similar to spring but fewer wildflowers in bloom, and also fewer crowds.
Winter: From December to March temperatures are cooler with highs in the 60’s and lows in the 30’s F. The park sees rain an average of 7 days per month during the winter, so your odds of a dry day are good, but it’s still smart to pack a rain jacket for your hike.
Does it snow at Pinnacles National Park?
Not much, since the highest elevation in the park is only around 3300 feet. December and January sometimes bring a light dusting of snow at higher elevations, which could make rocky trails like the High Peaks hike a bit slippery. Roads and lower trails within the park generally aren’t impacted.
March through mid-June is the most crowded time to visit, and the popular trails can be quite busy on weekends and holidays. If you dislike crowds and have the flexibility, weekdays are the best time to visit. If you must visit on a weekend during the busy season, try to start early before most people arrive.
Visitor Center and Store
The main Visitor Center is just inside the east entrance. The left door leads to a bookstore selling souvenirs, books, and toys related to the park’s geology and wildlife. The right side is a general store selling basic camping supplies and limited food.
Camping in Pinnacles National Park
There’s one campground in Pinnacles National Park, near the Visitor Center at the east entrance. It’s well appointed with a small general store, coin operated showers, flush toilets, drinking water, fire pits and grills, RV hookups and dump station, and even a pool (open seasonally April – September).
The campground has:
- 32 RV sites ($45 per night)
- 77 standard tent sites ($35 per night)
- 14 group sites (20 person max, $75 – $12- per night)
- 10 tent cabins ($119 – $129 per night)
Sites can be reserved up to 6 months in advance (12 months for group sites) at recreation.gov.
Tent campers will appreciate that the RV sites occupy their own separate loop. I recommend tent site #18 if you can snag it. Its position at the far northeastern end of the tent camping area is much more secluded than most other sites, though you’ll have a bit of a walk to reach the restrooms. During my evening there I watched deer, bunnies, and wild turkeys making their way past my campsite.
The Pinnacles campground is open year-round. Be prepared for chilly nights any time of year; even on hot summer days in the 90’s F, nights can dip into the 40’s. From November to April it’s common for nights to dip below freezing. Bring a warm sleeping bag and maybe extra blankets!
There are no hotels within the park, but the tent cabins mentioned above are a nice option for those who want to “glamp” without their own tent or RV (you will, however, need to bring your own bedding).
There is limited cellular service within the park. You may have spotty service near the east entrance, but don’t expect it out on the trails. The store provides wifi for a fairly high price ($10 if I recall correctly).
Important note: in order to camp at Pinnacles National Park (or stay in a tent cabin) you must enter through the eastern gate.
Backpacking and Backcountry Camping
Unfortunately, backcountry camping is not allowed anywhere in Pinnacles National Park. Given its small size and high traffic, I can see why. If you’re thinking about parking at the west entrance and hiking across the park to the campground on the east side, know that the west entrance parking lots don’t permit overnight parking.
Hiking in Pinnacles National Park
Hiking is definitely the best way to experience Pinnacles National Park. In contrast to the scenic drives and overlooks you might have experienced in other national parks, views from the road are just not that exciting here. The best views and most interesting scenery can only be enjoyed by those willing to walk.
With only 30 miles of trails within the park, hiking options are limited in quantity but not in quality. I was impressed by the beauty, design, and variety of nearly every trail. Each hike is an experience in itself, whether it’s a short scramble through a cave or a steady climb to an airy vista.
Below is an overview of the best hikes in Pinnacles National Park, including something for every desired length and difficulty level. Here’s a trail map to help you get oriented. Trails are well marked, but I still use and recommend the free Hiking Project app for planning and navigation (it even works offline).
Best Short Hikes
Both of the park’s famous talus caves – passages formed by boulders lodging between the walls of narrow canyons – are accessible as short hikes. They can also be incorporated into moderate and long hikes as described further down. First, the short versions:
Bear Gulch Cave, Reservoir, and Rim Trail Loop
1.6 miles from Moses Spring Parking Area or slightly longer from Bear Gulch, if closer parking is full. (east entrance only)
If you only do one short hike in Pinnacles National Park, this one is my recommendation. It’s extremely varied and really fun, taking hikers through rock tunnels, up stone steps, past a small reservoir, and along a scenic section of cliffs before looping back down to where it started.
Though short in distance, you’ll need some balance and agility to climb steps and navigate rocky tunnels.
Balconies Cave Loop
2.4 miles from Chaparral Parking Area (west entrance) or 3.8 miles from Old Pinnacles Parking area (east entrance)
If you’re looking for an easy hike from the park’s west entrance, Balconies Cave Loop is the best option. A fairly flat trail leads from the parking lot into the jumble of rocks and cliffs. Here a loop allows visitors to pass through the cave and return via a higher route for a combination of fun scrambling and scenic views.
Bear Gulch and Balconies caves are among the top attractions in Pinnacles National Park, but unfortunately they’re not always open. When closed, usually to protect the bat populations breeding inside, you will need to bypass them. Check here for current status.
South Wilderness Trail
As long as you want, up to 6 miles out and back, from service road near Peaks View Parking Area (east side).
This is an “honorable mention” short hike for those who want to escape the crowds. It’s not as interesting or spectacular as the two cave hikes above. But if you’re looking for an uncrowded hike near the campground, it’s a great place to find some peace and observe the flora and fauna.
Best Moderate Hikes
High Peaks Trail is the most iconic trail in Pinnacles National Park, winding along narrow ledges and rock-hewn steps with views along both sides of the ridge. The famous “steep and narrow” section is only 0.7 miles long, but you’ll need to choose your route there from either side of the park. The best moderate hikes in this section all include the High Peaks Trail and one of the two caves mentioned above.
If heights just aren’t your thing, or perhaps you’re hiking with young kids, the “steep and narrow” section of High Peaks can be bypassed via Juniper Canyon and Tunnel trails. I’m not a big fan of exposed heights myself, but I thought the rock steps and handrails were quite secure. Give it a try, and if you need to turn around, it’s not that far to backtrack.
Here are a few pictures of the steps and handrails on the High Peaks Trail:
High Peaks Trail via Juniper Canyon and Tunnel Trail
4.3 miles from Chaparral Parking Area (west entrance)
This is the shortest and most direct route to the “steep and narrow” part of the High Peaks Trail. Starting from the Chaparral parking area, follow Juniper Canyon Trail to Tunnel Trail to the iconic “steep and narrow” section of High Peaks, then back down Juniper Canyon.
High Peaks Trail and Bear Gulch Cave Loop
5 miles from Bear Gulch or Moses Spring Parking Areas (east entrance) or 6.4 miles via Juniper Canyon from Chaparral Parking Area (west entrance)
This is the shortest route that includes the full High Peaks Trail from the east entrance, and also includes the scenic Bear Gulch Reservoir and a fun scramble through Bear Gulch Cave. Link together Condor Gulch Trail, High Peaks Trail, Rim Trail, Bear Gulch Cave Trail, and a short walk on Moses Spring Trail for a moderate Pinnacles hike that packs in an impressive amount of variety.
Best Long Hikes
High Peaks and Balconies Cave Loop
9 miles from either Chaparral Parking Area (west entrance) or Old Pinnacles Parking Area (east entrance). Hiking Project GPS track here.
This loop hits two of the park’s biggest highlights and is accessible from either entrance. String together Old Pinnacles Trail / Balconies Cave with Blue Oak Trail and High Peaks Trail for a challenging linkup with plenty of rock scrambling and scenic views. The climb up to High Peaks Trail is the most challenging section, so decide whether you want to save it for the end or tackle it early on fresh legs.
High Peaks and North Wilderness Trail Loop
12.5 miles from either Chaparral Parking Area (west entrance) or Old Pinnacles Parking Area (east entrance).
If you like to avoid crowds, this combination of the peaceful North Wilderness Trail with the views and excitement of the High Peaks Trail is, in my opinion, the best hike in Pinnacles National Park.
The beautiful North Wilderness Trail is perfect for those who seek solitude and a more wild-feeling hiking experience. Though the map warns that the trail is “unmaintained,” it looked periodically maintained to me and was easy to follow. There were a handful of fallen trees to climb over, and the trail is narrower and sometimes steeper than the more popular trails, but nothing too crazy. Long pants are a good idea to protect from scratches and ticks where the brush encroaches slightly.
For the ultimate long Pinnacles NP hike, add the 2.5 mile out-and-back from Chaparral Parking Area to Balconies Cave for an incredibly varied route through most of the park’s highlights. Or, substitute the Balconies Cave Trail for High Peaks to cut off about three miles and skip the “steep and narrow” section of rock steps and handrails.
Chalone Peak via Bear Gulch Cave
8-12 miles from Moses Spring Parking Area, or slightly farther if parking is full (east entrance)
This out-and-back hike to the highest point in Pinnacles National Park is a great way to enjoy some miles while escaping the crowds. On the way out you’ll pass popular Bear Gulch Cave and reservoir, a taste of the park’s iconic trails, and then enjoy several miles of gradual uphill and sweeping views of the surrounding hills on much quieter trail.
The lookout tower at the summit is a great place for a snack break, and there’s even a pit toilet up there if you’re in need. A clear but less well maintained trail continues steeply down and up again to South Chalone Peak 1.6 miles away, if you haven’t had enough.
Essential Hiking Gear List
Hiking in Pinnacles National Park requires the same gear you’d want nearly anywhere for a day hike, with a few notable extras. Here’s a basic checklist:
Water: Summer days are hot! Once you leave the trailheads, there is no drinking water available unless you carry your own filter. Carry at least 1 liter for every 3-4 miles you plan to hike, and more on hot days.
Headlamp: Scrambling through the dark caves requires a good light source, ideally one that can be used hands-free (definitely not your smartphone flashlight, trust me). A simple headlamp like this would be perfect if you don’t have one already. It’s a good idea to bring this on any hike, even if it doesn’t include a cave, in case you get caught out later than expected.
Warm long-sleeve shirt for chilly mornings and late afternoons, if you’ll be out for a long day.
Lightweight rain jacket if hiking in the winter, also useful for warmth even in dry weather.
Snacks! You’ll burn a lot of calories romping through the fun trails at Pinnacles NP. Make sure you bring some substantial fuel for your body, like trail mix, protein bars, or a sandwich.
Hiking poles: optional. You can read more about when hiking poles are (or aren’t) helpful here. In my opinion they’re not important for the kind of trails you’ll find in Pinnacles NP, unless perhaps you have an injury or balance issue. You’ll want the ability to fold them up and attach them to your pack to leave your hands free on the rocky scrambles of the cave trails and High Peaks.
As always when enjoying the outdoors, it’s important to Leave No Trace when hiking at Pinnacles National Park. The trails see a very high number of visitors, so even small mistakes can really add up. The most important things you can do to preserve the park for future visitors: leave no trash behind, stay on the trails to prevent erosion, and resist the urge to feed animals or carve graffiti into the park’s iconic rocks.
Hiking Tips for Pinnacles NP
Keep an eye out for critters!
On one of my Pinnacles hikes I saw both a tarantula (the size of my hand!) and a rattlesnake within a single hour. Neither one wants to hurt you, but you still definitely don’t want to step on them. Keep an eye on the trail as you walk, don’t disturb any critters you find, and give them a wide berth as you pass, especially rattlesnakes.
Check for ticks.
Especially in the springtime, it’s common to find ticks on your skin or clothing after coming close to brush alongside the trails. They can be brushed off easily before they’ve burrowed in, but if you’re worried about it, throw one of these little things in your pack.
Climbing Access Trails
Pinnacles National Park is popular with rock climbers, and you’ll see a number of side trails marked with a picture of a carabiner. These are access trails leading to the base or top of popular climbing routes. If you’re not planning to climb, it’s best to bypass these and stay on the main hiking trails.
Are pets allowed on trails in Pinnacles NP?
No, they are not, so leave Fido at home (and most definitely not in your hot car). Pets are allowed in the campground and picnic areas.
Picnic Sites at Pinnacles NP
Once you’ve finished your hike, enjoy a meal at one of the several picnic areas in the park. From the east side, picnic areas are available near the Visitor Center, Peaks View parking area, and Bear Gulch. On the west side, Chaparral Parking has a number of tables. All picnic areas have restrooms.
Please don’t leave any food behind or share your picnic with the wildlife; it makes them aggressive and dependent.
Rock Climbing at Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles National Park is a popular rock climbing area with over 200 routes. The majority are single pitch sport climbs, and most of the rest are trad. A handful of multi-pitch routes and top ropes are available.
Rock quality at Pinnacles NP is notoriously chossy and poor, and many routes are runout and/or feature aging bolts in insecure rock. It’s recommended that experienced climbers begin with routes several grades below their normal ability as they get used to the rock. Inexperienced climbers probably shouldn’t climb here at all.
If you’re interested in climbing at Pinnacles NP, see the park service website for more information.
Wildlife and Critters
Pinnacles National Park is surprisingly rich in wildlife. Some, like the deer and bunnies and wild turkeys, may even wander through your campsite. Endangered California condors, with their impressive 9 foot wingspan, nest in and soar over the cliffs in the High Peaks area. Bats breed in the caves, and red-legged frogs – the largest frog species in the western US – can be spotted around Bear Gulch Reservoir.
Some critters, like the hand-sized tarantulas and rattlesnakes, may be quite surprising to meet on the trail! Keep a respectful distance from rattlesnakes in particular; they only bite when they feel threatened.
Enjoy Your Visit
I hope you can see by now that I think Pinnacles National Park is a special place. I can’t believe it took me so long to visit this lovely outdoor playground and preserve near my childhood home. I highly recommend you spend a day or two exploring the trails, scrambling around the rocks, and soaking in the vast views of this Central California gem.
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