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The Ultimate Guide to Pinnacles National Park — Best Things To Do, See & Enjoy!

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Amar Hussain
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Amar Hussain

Senior Content Contributor

Countries Visited: 63U.S. States Visited: 9

Amar is an avid traveler and tester of products. He has spent the last 13 years traveling all 7 continents and has put the products to the test on each of them. He has contributed to publications incl...
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Nick Ellis

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Pinnacles National Park was formed by numerous volcanic eruptions that took place nearly 23 million years ago. What was left after these explosions is the remarkable landscape that now makes up the park.

This park is filled with immense monoliths, canyons, spires, scrublands, and prairies that stretch over 26,000 acres in San Benito and Monterey Counties in Central California.

Pinnacles National Park is one of the newest national parks in the system and attracts nearly 350,000 adventurers each year who want to explore this incredible land formed by volcanic activity, erosion, and tectonic plate movement.

How To Get to Pinnacles National Park

Where Is Pinnacles National Park?

Pinnacles National Park rises from the Gabilan Mountains, east of the Salinas Valley. This park is 130 miles southeast of San Francisco and 270 miles north of Los Angeles. Pinnacles National Park is one of the nation’s smallest and newest national parks and has lots to see and explore.

Nearest Airports to Pinnacles National Park

There are several airports within a few hours of Pinnacles National Park. The most used airports are San Jose International Airport (SJC) and San Francisco International Airport (SFO).

Let’s review what these airports have to offer travelers.

San Francisco International Airport

San Francisco International Airport is located 2 hours from the park by car. This airport offers nonstop flights to over 40 international and 75 U.S. cities. This airport is a major hub for United and also serves dozens of other national and international airlines, including American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, and Southwest.

San Jose International Airport

San Jose International Airport is just 1.5 hours from Pinnacles National Park by car. This airport offers nonstop flights to dozens of national and international destinations around the globe. San Jose International Airport is served by popular airlines such as Air Canada, American, Delta, Southwest, United, and Volaris.

Driving to Pinnacles National Park

Driving to Pinnacles National Park
Image Credit: Sarah Stierch via Wikimedia Commons (license)

Road trips are always exciting adventures — one to Pinnacles National Park will stand out from the rest. There are several routes to this national park; it just depends on where you’re coming from.

Below are the routes from 2 major areas near the park. It is important to note that there are 2 entrances to this national park. Unlike most parks with multiple entries, these 2 parts of the park do not connect. Be sure to plan for arriving at the correct entrance so you don’t lose any time rerouting.

From the San Francisco Bay Area to the East Entrance

Travelers arriving at the east entrance from the San Francisco Bay Area will take Highway 101 through Gilroy to Highway 25 South through the town of Hollister and then onto Highway 146 from which they’ll turn into the Pinnacles Campground. The Bear Gulch Area and the park’s east entrance are just 3.5 miles from the campground.

The east entrance is the most popular gateway to Pinnacles National Park.

From the San Francisco Bay Area to the West Entrance

The west entrance is less popular than the east entrance. Travelers entering the west entrance from the San Francisco Bay Area will take Highway 101 South to Soledad, then drive along Highway 146 East for 14 miles, and then reach Pinnacles National Park. This route turns into a 1-lane road, and drivers must proceed with caution.

From the South to the East Entrance

Visitors from the south will use Highway 101 North and exit at 1st Street. This street intersects with Highway 25, which will be taken for roughly 15 miles before entering the park. Once checking in at the Pinnacles Visitor Center, there are just 3.5 miles to go until arriving at the Bear Gulch area east entrance. This entry will bring you to the Pinnacles Campground.

From the South to the West Entrance

Travelers from the south heading to the west entrance will take Highway 101 North to Soledad and 146 East. From Highway 146 to Pinnacles National Park is only 14 miles. Accessing the park via the west entrance will bring visitors to the Balconies Cave area.

Amtrak to Pinnacles National Park

A vacation by train is a great way to sit back and enjoy the sights of a journey without having to worry about the stresses of the road. Amtrak offers rail and bus options for those who prefer to let someone else take over the majority of their journey.

The train station in Bakersfield can get travelers within a 3.5-hour drive to the entrance of Pinnacles National Park.

Hot Tip: Another option is to utilize one of Amtrak’s buses. Its closest bus stop is in King’s City, only 40 minutes from the park’s entrance.

Getting Around Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park has 2 entrances that lead to different areas of the park. These entrances are not connected, so planning and mapping out your daily itinerary is crucial if you hope to make the most of your time. The National Park Service offers printable and online maps to help you plan your visit to Pinnacles National Park.

The best way to get around this park is by using a personal vehicle. The park has a seasonal shuttle service that serves the east entrance only, so this is an option during some parts of the year.

What To See and Do in Pinnacles National Park

Visitors have an abundance of sights and attractions to explore, and there’s almost unlimited adventure and solitude to be found here. Let’s explore the variety of activities available in this park.

Bear Gulch Nature Center

The Bear Gulch Nature Center is near the Bear Gulch Day Use area. It teaches about the history of the area and how it has developed over the years. Park rangers are stationed to answer questions about the park and help plan out an itinerary of things to see and do while visiting.

Bear Gulch Reservoir

Bear Gulch Reservoir
Image Credit: NPS

Bear Gulch Reservoir is one of Pinnacle National Park’s most famous sites. The Civilian Conservation Corps built a dam in 1939 to prevent flooding, and today it’s given the park a magnificent sight to behold. This reservoir and the stunning rock formations surrounding it have become a major draw for visitors.

Bear Gulch Reservoir is perfect for a picnic lunch or watching the sunset. This reservoir is accessed by hiking 1 mile up the Moses Spring Trail from the Moses Spring Trailhead.

At some points during the year, the Bear Gulch Caves can be traveled through on the way to the reservoir. This site is the home to the red-legged frog, a threatened species in California.

Birdwatching

Many kinds of birds make their home in Pinnacles National Park. Birdwatching is a popular activity for those who spend time at the park.

The most sought-after bird found in Pinnacles National Park is the endangered California condor. These birds are easily spotted in the High Peaks area and the Pinnacles Campground at dusk and dawn.

Other types of birds that can be seen in this park include the greater roadrunner, the California thrasher, the canyon wren, and the golden eagle.

Hot Tip: Popular birdwatching areas include the Pinnacles Visitor Center and campground, the Bear Gulch Nature Center and Reservoir, the Balconies Trail, the High Peaks Trail, and the Moses Spring Trail.

Camping

Pinnacles National Park has 1 campground with 134 campsites. This campground has a swimming pool, restrooms with showers and flushing toilets, and a well-stocked camp store.

Camping and sleeping under the night sky provides is ideal for stargazing and catching a glimpse of the wildlife that makes its home in the park. Deer, raccoons, foxes, coyotes, and an abundance of birds are often seen by campers. Spring and fall are busy seasons, so planning and reserving a spot in advance is advised.

Hiking

Hiking Pinnacles National Park
Image Credit: Ben Guernsey via Unsplash

There are various hiking trails available at Pinnacles National Park — over 30 miles in total. Hikes range from easy, flat walks to strenuous treks that take an entire day. Some popular hikes through the park include the Bear Gulch Cave Trail, The Old Pinnacles Trail, the Balconies Trail, and the High Peaks Trail.

Visitors can speak to park rangers in the visitor center to learn about the trails and get recommendations for different abilities and experience levels. Rangers are stationed at the Pinnacles Visitor Center, the West Pinnacles Visitor Contact Station, and the Bear Gulch Nature Center.

Nighttime Activities

There’s a whole host of activities to participate in at night. On most Saturday nights, park rangers lead a 1-hour, 1-mile hike through various places in the park under the stars. These ranger-led walks begin at the Peaks View parking lot, continue toward South Wilderness Trailhead, and end by looping back to the starting point.

You’ll also find nighttime hikes and organized activities on other nights that have full moons. From spring to fall, park rangers host nighttime cave explorations and excursions where part guests can search for Townsend’s big-eared bat. These events are free, but space is limited, so reserve a spot at the Pinnacles Visitor Center.

Rock Climbing

Pinnacles National Park is a rock climber’s paradise. This park has a variety of climbing routes ranging from easy top ropes to multi-pitch climbs along the Machete Ridge. There are over 300 climbs in total.

The rock in Pinnacles National Park — volcanic breccia — is unlike the typical granite rock that is climbed in most places. Extra caution is advised if this is the first time climbing this type of rock, as it’s a weaker stone than what most climbers are used to.

Some popular places to climb in Pinnacles National Park include Tourist Trap and Discovery Wall. For those who enjoy top roping, this is available in a few areas on the east side: Top Rope Wall, Back Door, and Upper Crust. For those who prefer bouldering, there isn’t aren’t a whole lot of opportunities, but it is permitted at Bouldering Rock and Long’s Folly.

Talus Caves

Talus caves are formed between boulders that are piled on top of mountain slopes. Pinnacles National Park is home to 2 examples: Bear Gulch Cave and Balconies Cave. Bear Gulch is located near the east entrance, and Balconies Cave is close to the west entrance.

Bear Gulch Cave

Bear Gulch Cave
Image Credit: Gavin Emmons via NPS

Bear Gulch Cave is partially open throughout the year. It has 2 different sections that operate independently of each other at different times.

The main part of this cave is the lower section, which remains open for most of the year. The upper section only opens a few weeks yearly to protect the area’s bats. Visitors can still explore the lower section of the upper area is closed.

Bear Gulch Cave is home to a colony of Townsend’s big-eared bats. These bats rest in this cave and raise their young in the later spring and summer months. Townsend’s big-eared bats are classified as a sensitive species by California and require protection. This colony is the largest maternity colony between San Francisco and Mexico. A gate allows the public to view the colony while keeping the bats protected.

The park strives to keep over half of Bear Gulch Cave open for most of the year. Mid-July through mid-May is the typical time when the entire cave is closed for nesting and pupping season.

Balconies Cave

Exploring Balconies Cave is a perfect option for those who like adventure and a challenge. Balconies Cave is much smaller than Bear Gulch Cave and quite a bit more strenuous to hike through. This cave has boulders that must be crawled under, narrow passages to squeeze through, and rushing water to walk around.

Wildflower Viewing

A remarkable thing to see in Pinnacles National Park is the wildflowers blooming around the park.

January and February have manzanita, shooting stars, Indian warriors, and milkmaids that bloom. Bush poppies and buckbrush are the flowering shrubs that pop up by March. Other beautiful flowers in the park include California poppies, peppergrass, baby blue-eyes, monkeyflower, fiesta flowers, and fiddleneck.

Pinnacles National Park is bursting with vibrant shades of yellows, oranges, reds, and purples. The peak season for blooming is from March to May. During these months, 80% of the plants in the park are blooming. Incredible places to see these wildflowers in bloom include Balconies Trail, Juniper Canyon Trail, and High Peaks Loop.

These bright, blooming plants play a vital role in the park as they attract pollinators to help catalyze new plant life.

Best Times To Visit Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park is a fantastic park to visit, no matter which time of year you plan a trip. Some times are better than others if you wish to participate in a specific activity or see a sight that is time-sensitive.

Below are the best times to visit Pinnacles National Park for specific activities.

Best Time To Visit Pinnacles National Park for Cave Exploration

Bear Gulch Cave Pinnacles National Park
Image Credit: Ken Lund via Wikimedia Commons (license)

Many times during the year, the caves are closed or only partially open due to the resident colony of Townsend’s big-eared bats. If you’re hoping to explore the caves at Pinnacles National Park and catch a glimpse of the famous bats, the best time to visit is late March, when the cave is typically fully open.

Best Time To Visit Pinnacles National Park To Avoid the Crowds

Crowds are much smaller in the off-season, which at Pinnacles National Park is during the summer months of July, August, and September. And in September, temperatures have started to moderate and crowds are still sparse.

Cheapest Time To Visit Pinnacles National Park

The cheapest time to visit national Pinnacles National Park is during the summer, from June to September, when the summer heat may deter many tourists from visiting. As a result, the cost of flights and lodging is usually cheaper. Early June is a great time to visit the park because temperatures haven’t reached their summer peaks yet and costs tend to be lower.

Annual Events in Pinnacles National Park

Several organizations and the park host several events throughout the year. Let’s take a look at a few of the most popular events.

Steinbeck Festival

The Steinbeck Festival is a 3-day event that celebrates and honors the works of John Steinbeck. The author was a Salinas native and has written prize-winning novels that feature a setting in the nearby Monterey County.

This event commemorates Steinbeck’s accomplishments and features tours, talks, films, and visual and performing arts activities in Salinas and Monterey. This event takes place biannually and brings many Steinbeck fans to the area.

California International Airshow

California International Airshow
Image Credit: California International Airshow

The California International Airshow takes place annually in October. This event features the United States Air Force Thunderbirds and special guests such as the Canadian Forces Snowbirds. This airshow raises money for charity and, over the last 40 years, has donated over $8 million to local charities. This event began in 1981 and continues to draw in visitors each year.

California Rodeo Salinas

The California Rodeo Salinas is the largest rodeo in California. The 4-day event takes place annually in July and features concerts, parades, and a variety of other rodeo events for guests to enjoy.

Where To Stay in Pinnacles National Park

The only option for lodging in Pinnacles National Park is camping. The park has several campsites for tent camping, RV sites, and even canvas tent cabins that are available for rent.

If camping doesn’t sound appealing, several nearby towns offer many types of accommodations. Let’s explore the different options for setting up a home base near Pinnacles National Park.

Towns Near Pinnacles National Park

There are several options for setting up a base camp near Pinnacles National Park. Some nearby cities and towns include King’s City, Soledad, and Salinas. Let’s look at some top-rated lodging options near this national park.

King City

King City, California, is located in the southern Salinas Valley on the California central coast in Monterey County. This city is located 155 miles from San Francisco and 277 miles from Los Angeles. King City has abundant lodging, dining, and entertainment options. Those setting up a home base in King City love the convenience of Pinnacles National Park, the Monterey County wine region, and the quaint, historic downtown area.

There are plenty of places for accommodation in King City. Most of these places are charming inns, motels, and hotels. The town has delicious dining opportunities, from quick bites to fine-dining experiences.

King City has an abundance of entertainment options, including visiting Thornton Bales, a conservation area for nature and wildlife, or visiting the King Township Museum to learn about the history and culture of the area.

Bottom Line: King City is very small and makes a perfect retreat for those seeking relaxation and a break from the daily grind.

Salinas

Salinas California
Image Credit: John Ruddock via Unsplash

Salinas, California, is a stunning area of farms and wineries in Monterey County, California. This city’s claim to fame is that it is the hometown of John Steinbeck. Salinas is about 45 minutes from Pinnacles National Park and has a historic charm that brings visitors back each year.

Many places are available for lodging, consisting mostly of chain hotels. Salinas also has incredible eateries, from historic restaurants to Italian food to family-friendly diners.

Salinas always has a long list of exciting events, such as the Steinbeck Festival and the California Rodeo Salinas. This town is perfect for setting up a home base during your trip to Pinnacles National Park. Guests can reset and relax from their park adventures and explore the quaint town brimming with exciting adventures.

Soledad

Soledad, California, is a small farming town that is a major wine producer and part of the Monterey wine region. This town is about 20 minutes from Pinnacles National Park, making it an ideal location for lodging near the park.

Soledad has a wide variety of hotels, campsites, and resorts, and it’s not hard to find excellent restaurants in Soledad, either.

There’s also plenty to see and do when in town. Wine lovers enjoy going to the vineyards in the surrounding area. Visitors can learn how the local wine is made and taste many of the varieties.

There are also aquariums, hiking trails, and the National Steinbeck Center nearby. For history enthusiasts, seeing Mission Soledad is a great way to learn about the Native Americans who lived in the area and about California’s Spanish missions.

Where To Eat in Pinnacles National Park

There are no restaurants or dining areas in Pinnacles National Park. The only option for dining in the park is to pack a picnic and set up in one of the beautiful areas of the park to enjoy a meal with a view.

There are several restaurants near Pinnacles National Park if you’re looking for something other than a picnic. Whether you’re looking for a traditional home-cooked meal, authentic Mexican food, or something Italian, you can find it all just minutes from this national park. Let’s explore some of the top-rated restaurants close to this national park.

Chart House

Chart House is located a little over an hour from Pinnacles National Park in the city of Monterey. This restaurant is a fine-dining experience that offers waterfront views, one-of-a-kind cuisine, and service that goes above and beyond.

Popular dishes at Chart House Restaurant include lobster bisque, clam chowder, crabcakes, a variety of other seafood dishes, top-quality steaks, and scrumptious desserts. Guests can also enjoy signature cocktails, fine wines, and gourmet beers on tap.

Dining at the Chart House Restaurant is an unforgettable experience that will leave your tastebuds more than satisfied. It’s the perfect excursion to break up your vacation to Pinnacles National Park.

Cheezer’s Pizza

Cheezer’s Pizza is located 9 miles from the park and is a great place to stop for those who are craving Italian cuisine. Cheezer’s specializes in gourmet pizzas, sub sandwiches, and fresh salads. This family-friendly restaurant has something irresistible for everyone’s tastebuds.

Cocuyo’s Restaurant

Cocuyo’s Restaurant is located about 9 miles from the park in the town of Soledad. This restaurant serves a menu featuring authentic Mexican dishes. With its outstanding dishes and exceptional service, Cocuyo’s Restaurant is recommended and reviewed as a 5-star restaurant by many park travelers. Favorite dishes include flautas, chiles rellenos, burritos, and freshly made tortilla chips and salsa. Cocuyo’s Restaurant is found in Soledad, near the park.

La Plaza Bakery

La Plaza Bakery is located 9 miles from Pinnacles National Park. It’s a great place to stop for authentic Mexican cuisine and freshly made pastries. With a variety of sweet and savory treats, reasonable prices, and excellent service, La Plaza is a stop you’ll want to make. This restaurant is perfect for those who want to sit and enjoy their selections or for those who need to take it to go.

Taqueria Casa del Palmar

Taqueria Casa del Palmar serves a traditional Mexican menu. This restaurant is located 9 miles from Pinnacles National Park and is a favorite of locals and travelers alike. Taqueria Casa del Palmar features homestyle dishes with fresh, homemade tortillas, fresh chips and salsa, and popular Mexican dishes like enchiladas, burritos, and quesadillas.

Bottom Line: With excellent service, great prices, and hearty portions, Taqueria Casa del Palmar will be a stop you’ll want to make at least once while visiting Pinnacles National Park.

Windmill Restaurant

Windmill Restaurant is located in Soledad, just 9 miles from Pinnacles National Park. This restaurant serves a traditional menu of popular American dishes and has vegetarian-friendly options. Popular menu items include chicken wings, breakfast specials, pasta dishes, and nachos.

Windmill Restaurant is open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The fast and friendly service makes this stop an excellent choice for travelers with families or those who may be in a hurry to get back to their park adventures.

Pinnacles National Park Facts

Pinnacles
Image Credit: Cyrus Crossan via Unsplash

1. A Newer National Park

Pinnacles National Monument was established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt. In January 2013, President Barack Obama signed legislation passed by Congress that declared the national monument a national park. Pinnacles National Park is the 59th national park in the U.S.

2. One of the Smallest National Parks

Pinnacles National Park is one of the smallest national parks in the U.S. This park ranks as the fifth-smallest national park and the seventh-smallest when the U.S. territories are counted. Pinnacles National Park covers approximately 42 square miles.

3. The Park Moves

Pinnacles National Park sits on the San Andreas Fault and is a remarkable example of the power of plate tectonics. Since the tectonic plates are constantly moving, the volcanic field of the Pinnacles was split. Two-thirds of the field was carried 195 miles north of where the volcano originated, giving this park a new location.

4. The Park Was Formed by Volcanoes, Earthquakes, and a Fault

Pinnacles National Park was created after an ancient volcanic eruption approximately 23 million years ago. Earthquakes and fault action formed the talus caves in the area. Another factor that has helped develop the magnificent landscapes and geologic structures in the park is wind and water erosion.

5. California Condors

California condors are the largest land birds in North America, and many can be found in Pinnacles National Park. The park joined the California condor Recovery Program in 2003. This program works diligently to protect and repopulate the California condor species.

6. Townsend’s Big-eared Bats

Pinnacles National Park is home to a large colony of Townsend’s big-eared bats. This colony can be found in the Bear Gulch Cave.

Bear Gulch Cave is where the colony of bats hibernates, nest, and raise their young. Guests can go inside the cave many times throughout the year, but there are several times throughout the year when the caves are closed to visitors. Even if the cave is closed, a special gate allows for viewing from outside the cave.

The colony in Bear Gulch Cave is the largest maternity colony of Townsend big-eared bats from San Francisco to Mexico.

7. Invasive Animals of the Past

Feral pigs were a significant problem in Pinnacles National Park in the 1960s. Boars were brought from Eurasia for hunting, and they hybridized with the area’s domestic pigs, resulting in a feral species of pigs.

These pigs destroyed the vegetation in many areas of the park. A special fence was built to keep the pigs out. The fence began being constructed in 1983 and was completed in 2003. By 2016, the park was declared pig-free.

8. Forest Fires

Pinnacles National Park uses fire as a way to manage the ecosystems present in the park. Controlled burns are periodically set in the park, which help destroy dead plants and give more space and nutrients for new plants to grow.

9. An Impressive Number of Bees

Over 400 bee species live in Pinnacles National Park. This national park has the largest concentration of bee species in the world. The abundance of wildflowers in the park attracts these bees and helps to keep the ecosystem thriving.

10. A Variety of Animals

A diverse range of wildlife species makes their home in Pinnacles National Park. There are 48 mammal species and several sensitive species, including the California condor and the big-eared kangaroo rat.

11. Fish Species in the Park

Streams are not present year-round in Pinnacles National Park. Incredibly, there are native fish that have managed to beat the odds and survive in this park. The three-spined stickleback is the only native fish to Pinnacles National Park and can be found along the Bear Gulch Trail and Southern Wilderness Trail.

12. Highs and Lows of the Park

The lowest point in Pinnacles National Park is 824 feet in elevation. The highest point in the park is found at North Chalone Peak and measures 3,304 feet in height.

 13. A Drastic Increase in Visitors

There was a significant jump in visitors to Pinnacles National Park between 2020 and 2021. In 2020, 165,740 people visited, and in 2021, a whopping 348,857 people went to the park.

While there is no clear answer to this drastic increase in visitors, several factors could contribute to these higher numbers. Many nearby cities are growing, which could contribute. Also, the pandemic may have contributed since outdoor activities became en-vogue in a big way. Finally, word of mouth has helped spread awareness of this national treasure.

Final Thoughts

Pinnacles National Park is one of the smallest, most underrated national parks in the U.S., but it’s definitely worth a visit. This park is filled with stunning geological formations, incredible trails for hiking, fantastic climbing opportunities, caves to explore, and beautiful plants and animals to see.

You won’t want to miss the beauty, excitement, and adventure this park has to offer. Pinnacles National Park is a great choice if you want to explore something new.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does it cost to enter Pinnacles National Park?

It costs $30 per vehicle to visit Pinnacles National Park. This fee purchases a park pass that is valid for 7 days. For those entering the park on foot or by bicycle, the entrance fee is $15.

Which side should I plan to visit in Pinnacles National Park?

The east side of the park is the most popular area to visit in Pinnacles National Park. This entrance provides access to Bear Gulch Cave, Chalone Peak Trail, and High Peaks Trail.

How many days should I plan for a visit to Pinnacles National Park?

An ideal trip to Pinnacles National Park is 2 days. A 2-day trip allows plenty of time for hiking the trails and exploring the sites on both the east and west sides of the park.

What is the best time and place to see the California condors at Pinnacles National Park?

Early morning and evening are the best times to see the California condors in Pinnacles National Park. The High Peaks area is the best viewing area to spot these amazing birds.

Amar Hussain's image

About Amar Hussain

Amar is an avid traveler and tester of products. He has spent the last 13 years traveling all 7 continents and has put the products to the test on each of them. He has contributed to publications including Forbes, the Huffington Post, and more.

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