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Best Things To Do In Pinnacles National Park: Caves, Camping & Condors!

Is Pinnacles National Park on your radar? If so, you may be wondering what are the best things to do in Pinnacles National Park, how to spend your time whilst in the park, and when the best time to visit is.

This article aims to answer any questions you may have about visiting this off-the-beaten-path destination which I highly recommend adding to your national park bucket list!

Like most national parks, hiking, climbing, and camping are the most popular activities at the park. But Pinnacles has something other national parks don’t have which is what draws most visitors here. Talus Caves!

The Talus Caves here were formed during the last ice age and are the star attraction at this national park. But they are not the only reason to visit the park. California Condors are also a major attraction luring bird and wildlife enthusiasts from all over the country. At the center of Pinnacles National Park are dramatic rock formations that tower above a landscape filled with oak trees.

Best Things To Do In Pinnacles National Park

Formed by volcanic activity 23 million years ago, the rocks of Pinnacles were actually formed 200 miles from where they lie today but have since migrated thanks to the San Andreas Fault and numerous earthquakes.

Added in 2003, Pinnacles National Park is one of newest members of the national park system but it has long been protected as a national monument having gained the status in 1908 by president Theodore Roosevelt.

It is also one of the least visited national parks. The reason for historically low visitation numbers could be because Pinnacles designation as a national park is still fairly new so the destination is still not on the radar for most national park bucket list type of travelers. Or maybe it’s due to the park’s location in an under-appreciated part of California.

But the number of visitors to Pinnacles National Park are on the rise. If you look at the park’s visitor statistics it is obvious visitation numbers are going up. The year 2020 saw 165,740 visitors (okay, there was a pandemic), but in 2021 that number shot up to 348,857 people!

What’s going on with the huge increase in numbers? Well, that’s hard to determine. It could be due to positive reviews about the park via word of mouth from social media or websites like this, or because more people are moving into nearby areas like Paso Robles and Monterrey. The fact that Yosemite National Park has put a cap on visitors is probably a contributing factor too.

Whatever the reason is for the huge increase in visitor numbers, the takeaway from this is that you should plan a trip soon before Pinnacles National Park becomes the next victim of the lottery system and turns into a difficult place to visit.

Here is everything you need to know about visiting Pinnacles National Park!

Overview Of Pinnacles National Park

Where Is Pinnacles National Park?

Pinnacles National Park is located in Central California 128 miles south of San Francisco and 270 miles north of Los Angeles. The largest town closest to Pinnacles is Hollister which is thirty miles away from the east entrance and is your best bet for accommodation if you aren’t planning on camping.

Distances To Pinnacles National Park:

  • San Francisco – 128 miles (3hr)
  • San Jose – 76 miles (2hr)
  • Santa Cruz – 71 miles (2hr)
  • Monterrey – 53 miles (1hr 22min)
  • Paso Robles – 77 miles (1hr 22min)
  • Los Angeles – 270 miles (5hr)

There are two entrances to Pinnacles National Park, an east entrance and a west entrance. Both entrances are situated on highway 147, however the road is not connected through the park so you will have to choose one side of the park to visit or the other.

You can drive around to both sides of the park but keep in mind that it is a one hour drive between both entrances. I do not recommend driving to both sides of the park on a day trip.

How To Get To Pinnacles National Park

The majority of visitors to Pinnacles National Park are California residents, however if you are from out of state and flying in for the sole purpose of visiting this park, the best option would be to fly into San Jose. San Jose Airport is well connected, usually has cheaper flights, and is much closer to Pinnacles National Park than San Francisco.

You could also fly into SFO if you’ve never been to San Francisco, explore the city for a few days then visit Pinnacles National Park as a side trip.

If you have time, I recommend visiting Pinnacles as part of a longer road trip so you can cover both inland and coastal Central California on a loop drive along highway 101 and highway 1 (Big Sur).

Best Things To Do In Pinnacles National Park

Use Enterprise for car rentals from San Jose or San Francisco who I believe always have the best rates and great customer service. You can also compare car rental prices with other companies here.

We actually rented a car from Enterprise for this road trip for a whole month, and get this – the total price was only $1200!!!

We usually take our campervan but didn’t want the hassle of a big, slow, gas guzzling vehicle while we were visiting Los Angeles.

Also, it wasn’t meant to be a month long road trip, it was only supposed to be one week away but we spent a little more time in Central California and L.A. than planned, plus added an unexpected side trip to Big Sur for Christmas. Oops!

The folks at Enterprise weren’t too worried though and only checked on us once a week. We fell in love with our car rental (a luxury mini cooper) and were set on making an offer for it when we got back home but the renters before us had the same thoughts and alas it was sold by the time we got back!!! Oh well.

If you would prefer a campervan or RV rental for your trip, check out Outdoorsy or RV Share for availability in San Jose, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

You can also read this guide to the best campervan rentals in the USA for a road trip for more information.

Which Entrance Should You Visit? East Or West?

As mentioned previously, Pinnacles National Park has two entrances, an east entrance and a west entrance. I’ll give you a quick run down on the differences between the two sections of the park and you can decide for yourself which is best.

The east entrance of Pinnacles National Park is where the official Visitor Center is located. There is also a large campground here and a small grocery store with camping supplies, so if you are planning to camp or need to pick up food, this is the best side of the park to visit.

The east entrance can handle a lot more visitors as there is more parking availability so if you plan to visit during peak season (summer) you’ll probably have more luck getting a parking spot here.

There used to be a shuttle bus in operation from the Visitor Center to the trailheads but since the pandemic, operation has ceased and it is unknown when or if it will be started back up again.

*Update: Pinnacles NPS state that shuttle buses may begin operating in November 2022.

As for hiking trails, both sides are equally as great and no matter which side you choose to visit, you’ll be able to access all of the trails within the park. In saying that, some of the trails will be further away depending on which side of the park you are on.

For example, the hike to Balconies Cave is closer to the west entrance and Bear Gulch Cave is closer to the east entrance. Either way, you’ll easily be able to visit one of the caves in under a mile.

The west entrance parking lot is rather small so you can expect the road into the park to be backed up during peak season unless you get there early in the morning.

If you have no desire to hike, and only plan to visit Pinnacles National Park briefly, the west entrance is a good choice because it offers views that can be seen from the parking lot or along the easy Prewett Trail.

Be aware that RVs and large vehicles are not recommended at the west entrance due to the steep and narrow road from Soledad.

When Is The Best Time Of Year To Visit Pinnacles National Park?

Central California has year-round perfect weather so technically any time is a good time to visit Pinnacles National Park.

Summer is the most popular time of year to visit and when the park is its busiest. This means possible long lines to enter the park (especially on the west side) and trailhead parking lots that fill up quickly.

Longer daylight hours are a benefit of visiting in summer. Plus, if you plan to camp at the park you’ll be able to take advantage of the campground swimming pool which is a huge plus in my opinion!

The downside about visiting in summer is that temperatures can easily reach over one hundred degrees meaning hiking can become an unpleasant and dangerous activity.

Spring and Autumn in the park offers pleasant weather that is more suitable for hiking. Keep in mind spring time can be busy too when visitors come to see wildflowers in bloom.

Early Winter is a surprisingly great time of year to visit. We visited in December and the weather was perfect during the day. It was sunny and warm, and not too cool in the evenings. Not great camping weather, but not bad either. Late January and February can sometimes bring light rain and fog to the park but nothing that should deter you from visiting.

Can You Camp At Pinnacles National Park?

Yes, you can camp at Pinnacles National Park! There is one large campground located at the east side of the park. This campground has 134 sites that can accommodate both tents and RVs.

Amenities at the campground include picnic tables, firepits, BBQs, electrical hookups, wifi, coin operated showers, and a dump station.

The most unique feature about this campground is that there is an onsite swimming pool which is unheard of at national parks!

The reason there is a pool here is because the campground was previously a private business. Whatever the reason, it is a great excuse to plan a camping trip to Pinnacles National Park, and a nice relief for when temperatures become scorching! The pool is seasonal and open from April to the end of September.

Tent and RV sites can be reserved up to six months in advance here. Unfortunately there are no first come first served campsites available. You will need to book online.

A well-stocked campground store is open every day of the week from 9:30 am until 5:00 pm. 

Glamping At Pinnacles National Park

If you want to stay inside Pinnacles National Park but don’t like the idea of camping (or maybe you don’t want the hassle of bringing camping gear), there are several rustic tents available to rent so you don’t have to completely rough it. You can book glamping tents here.

Are There Any Hotels Near Pinnacles National Park?

If you are not camping and need a hotel room, the closest accommodations to the east entrance are in Hollister where there are several hotels to choose from. But keep in mind Hollister is a good thirty minutes drive away.

We based ourselves in Hollister during our trip to Pinnacles National Park as we didn’t bring any camping gear. The drive was a little far but at least it was a beautiful drive through wine country. It also gave us a reason to explore Hollister and the surrounding area.

Having such a wide selection of restaurants to choose from in Hollister after a long day of hiking was nice too.

If you are thinking about staying in Hollister, I recommend the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott and the SureStay Hotel by Best Western.

Accommodation on the west side of the park is limited and the only two options are Inn At The Pinnacles and the Motel 6 in Soledad. Soledad is only twenty minutes from the west entrance, but the road is narrow and windy so the drive takes a little longer than you might think it would.

Best Things To Do At Pinnacles National Park

Explore Talus Caves

Hiking To Bear Gulch Cave In Pinnacles National Park

One of the most unique features at Pinnacles National Park are the talus caves. Unlike other caves which are created by lava or erosion, talus caves are formed by boulders and large rocks falling into canyons and narrow chasms which create underground spaces.

There are in fact two talus caves at Pinnacles National Park, the Bear Gulch Cave and Balconies Cave. Visitors are allowed to hike through both of these caves and this is the most popular activity here.

The hike to the caves is fairly easy and suitable for all fitness levels including children. Inside the caves is another story. While they are not too difficult to navigate, they do require some squeezing and crawling through so as long as you are comfortable with that you will be okay.

Bear Gulch Cave In Pinnacles National Park

However, the caves are very dark so if this makes you uncomfortable you may not enjoy the experience as much. It is possible though to just go as far as you are comfortable with and then turn back so you can see some parts of the cave as they are both really cool to go inside!

Here is a trail guide to hiking Bear Gulch Cave which was our favorite cave in the park.

Be sure to bring a flashlight with you if you plan to hike through the caves. Headlamps are even better so you can keep your hands free to help with your balance.

It is possible to use your phone as your flashlight but I would hate for you to drop it. There are puddles in the cave and you really don’t want to risk damaging your expensive phone.

Hike The High Peaks Trail

High Peaks Hiking Trail In Pinnacles National Park

The High Peaks Trail is another popular hike at Pinnacles National Park and was the highlight of our trip. This unique hike features a section on the trail known as the ‘Steep and Narrow Section’. The steep and narrow section travels through the heart of the Pinnacles’ rock formations and requires some climbing and scrambling which is a lot of fun!

Along this stretch of the trail you’ll encounter steep steps that have been carved into the rocks, and metal railings you will need to hang onto as you traverse the ladder-like steps.

Hiking High Peaks Trail At Pinnacles National Park

If you are afraid of heights you may feel a little uneasy hiking this steep section of the trail but I encourage you to push past your fears because this part of the trail is where you will witness spectacular views of the entire park, Salinas Valley and Central California.

The High Peaks Trail was not only challenging but extremely rewarding too! It is now on my list of favorite hikes in California. Do not miss this hidden gem of a hike!

Sightings of the endangered California Condor are a common occurrence on the High Peaks Trail so be sure to look up during your hike.

>>Read: How To Hike The High Peaks Trail

Hike To Chalone Peak

Chalone Peak Hiking Trail In Pinnacles National Park

The trail to Chalone Peak is the longest and hardest hike at Pinnacles National Park. This trail takes hikers to the park’s highest peak, North Chalone Peak which offers panoramic views of the park and surrounding valleys.

Start this hike at the Moses Spring Trailhead and take the trail through Bear Gulch Cave to Bear Gulch Reservoir. From here you will see a post with a sign to start the official trail to Chalone Peak. Follow the somewhat maintained trail until you reach Chalone Peak.

It takes a little over two hours to reach the summit and a little less to hike back down. Be sure to pack some snacks and plenty of water if you choose to take on this hike.

Read: 6 Best Hikes At Pinnacles National Park

Photograph Bear Gulch Reservoir At Sunrise Or Sunset

Bear Gulch Reservoir Hiking Trail In Pinnacles National Park

Bear Gulch Reservoir is an iconic landmark in Pinnacles National Park and a must see on your visit.

The reservoir was created by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935 mainly for aesthetic value although it does help with preventing downstream flooding.

Getting to the reservoir is not all that difficult and can be reached either via the Bear Gulch Cave Trail, or along the Rim Trail. Both trails are short (one mile each way) and have little elevation gain.

Once you reach the reservoir you can take a short stroll around the man-made lake or take a seat and observe the odd-shaped boulders that surround the ‘lake’.

I highly recommend visiting at sunrise or sunset for the best experience, especially if you are a photographer.

The reservoir is also a good place to spot wildlife as many species including hawks, eagles, and even snakes use it as a drinking hole.

If you’re lucky, you may even spot a California Red-Legged Frog, a threatened species that was once harvested annually for human consumption.

Rock Climbing At Pinnacles National Park

Climbers In Pinnacles National Park

Rock climbing is a popular activity in Pinnacles National Park and there are a variety of climbing routes on both the east and west side of the park.

Unlike the granite and basalt found at other parks, the rocks at Pinnacles are mostly made up of volcanic breccia which is much weaker, therefore it is recommended by the national park service that only experienced climbers attempt to climb in the park.

I am not a rock climber and can’t really comment too much on this topic other than that we did see several rock climbers in the park during our visit who looked like they were enjoying their time.

We had a great time scrambling up the rock walls and large boulders scattered throughout the park which was definitely a highlight of being here.

Bring Binoculars And Spot California Condors

California Condor In Pinnacles National Park

With a wingspan of 9 ½ feet and weighing in at around twenty pounds, the California Condor is the largest bird in North America!

That’s not the only remarkable thing about these huge birds. They can also fly as high as 15,000 feet altitude at speeds of up to 55 miles per hour. Pretty impressive huh?

California Condors have been around since the Pleistocene and inhabited areas from the Pacific Northwest to the Southwest including Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Texas, however populations started to decline during the late 19th century.

The dramatic decline of the species coincided with the arrival of Europeans to North America and the introduction of agricultural chemicals, lead poisoning, poaching, and habitat destruction.

Sadly, by 1987 there were only 22 individuals remaining in the wild which were all captured and placed into zoo breeding programs.

These surviving birds were bred at San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo where captive bred birds were eventually reintroduced into the wild beginning in 1991.

Pinnacles National Park was chosen as a release site in 2003 and is now one of only a few places where you can observe one of the world’s rarest bird species. I think this is reason alone to visit Pinnacles National Park.

There are a few dozen birds in the park and you can spot them soaring high in the skies or perched on rocks and cliffs. The California Condor is easily mistaken for the smaller Turkey Vulture so to help distinguish between the two species look out for numbered tags on the condor’s wings.

I recommend bringing binoculars if you are interested in spotting these majestic birds during your visit. We usually travel with two binoculars that we keep under our car seats in case we get the opportunity to go wildlife watching, but unfortunately forgot to bring them on this trip.

Learn About Townsend’s Big-Eared Bats

Townsend's Big Eared Bats In Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park is a special place because a colony of endangered Townsend’s Big-Eared Bats have chosen Bear Gulch Cave to be their home. These bats surely have to be one of the cutest bat species in the world and are very easy to identify due to their over-sized big ears.

During your visit to the park you’ll have the opportunity to walk through Bear Gulch Cave and be in the same space as this endangered species. Unfortunately you won’t hear them snoring, they are a rather quiet bunch!

They are also kind of hard to spot inside the caves so the best chance of seeing them is inside the Pinnacles National Park Visitor Center where you can learn more about their biology and ecology.

There are in fact 23 species of bats in California and 14 of them are known to inhabit Pinnacles National Park.

Fun Fact: Bats only give birth to one pup per year and these pups are born without the ability to fly.

Things To Know For Your Visit To Pinnacles National Park

Here is some helpful information to help with planning your trip to Pinnacles National Park. If you have any other questions, feel free to ask in the comment section below.

Are The Caves At Pinnacles National Park Open Year Round?

No, the caves at Pinnacles National Park are not open all year. This is because the caves are home to a colony of Townsend’s Big-Eared Bats which are a protected species.

These bats hibernate in the caves during the fall, winter, and spring. In summer, the female bats give birth and raise their young so the caves are kept closed in order not to disturb them.

Bear Gulch Cave is open from October through May and closed from June to September. You can check cave status updates here.

The good news is that Balconies Cave (the cave on the west side of the park) is open year-round so you’ll never miss out on being able to explore this cave. There are still bats that roost inside Balconies Cave however they are a different species that do not require protection.

Do You Need A Permit Or Special Gear To Enter The Caves At Pinnacles National Park?

Unlike Craters Of The Moon National Monument where you need to obtain a permit before entering the park’s lava caves, you do not need a permit to enter any of the caves at Pinnacles National Park. As long as the caves are open you are permitted to go inside.

Be sure to pack a flashlight or headlamp in your day pack for your hike. You may also want to bring a long-sleeve shirt as it is quite cool inside the caves. We visited in December and I did get chilly going through the caves.

How Many Days Do You Need To Visit Pinnacles National Park?

Pinnacles National Park is very small. Actually, it is the seventh smallest national park in the United States. This means you really don’t need to spend a lot of time in the park to cover the highlights. A full day is sufficient to see all of the top attractions and take on the most popular hiking trails.

A visit of two days will allow you to discover the park in depth and cover almost all of the hiking trails here (if that’s what you’re interested in).

Even if you are not a hiker, an overnight stay is still recommended so that you don’t have to feel rushed in the afternoon. You’re also likely to wake up to wildlife wandering near the campground in the morning and evening.

Is It Worth Visiting Pinnacles National Park?

Yes! We really enjoyed Pinnacles National Park and glad we finally got around to ticking it off our national park bucket list. Although it is small, it does offer unique features you won’t find at other parks like the opportunity to explore talus caves and the opportunity to take on challenging hiking trails that involve climbing and scrambling up rocks.

If you’re coming from the Bay area, Pinnacles is totally worth visiting on a day trip or for a weekend getaway. However if you are thinking about visiting from out of state for the sole purpose of visiting this park, I don’t think it is worth it unless you are going to explore other parts of Central California.

We visited the park as part of a longer road trip and spent some time exploring other nearby destinations. Other destinations I recommend adding to your itinerary if you have time include the wineries on Cienega Road, Paso Robles, and San Luis Obispo.

Is There A Fee To Visit Pinnacles National Park?

There is a $30 entrance fee per vehicle which is valid for seven days. If you plan to visit other national parks throughout the year, consider purchasing an America The Beautiful Pass which will get you into all other national parks, monuments, and national forests for only $80. Purchase the annual pass online here or at the park entrance booth upon entry.

Do you have any questions about visiting Pinnacles National Park? Feel free to ask us in the comment section below. If you’ve already been we would love to know your thoughts. Did you love it? What was your favorite thing to do in Pinnacles National Park? Please share with our travel community!

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