If you’ve never heard of Pinnacles National Park, you’re not alone. It’s a lesser known park that could easily get passed over by visitors making their way to nearby Yosemite or Kings Canyon, and while Yosemite is one of America’s oldest parks (1890), Pinnacles is one the newest (2013).
Despite its obscurity, visiting Pinnacles National Park is a must if you’re nearby. This relatively small park is located in the middle of California and is tucked away from much of anything, really. What it lacks in notoriety, it makes up for in awesome beauty. Shaped and chiseled by volcanoes and plate tectonics, Pinnacles is a unique place to explore and has a lot to offer visitors.
It’s about a three-hour drive from either San Francisco or Los Angeles, and we found that it was a nice escape from the city. Come see what you can do in a day at Pinnacles National Park.
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Hiking at Pinnacles National Park
Hiking is front and center at Pinnacles National Park, and a walk among the sheer cliffs and boulders is the easiest way to explore the park. Since the Park is small, it’s pretty easy to find a trailhead and hop on for a hike.
We spent the day hiking from Bear Gulch along the Moses Spring Trail, the Bear Gulch Caves Trail, and up to the High Peaks Trail for a bit. These trails are pretty easy and fun for families to enjoy together.
Kids will love hiking through the caves, overhangs, and around the giant boulders that make up this part of the Park. If all you have is a half day or so, this is a great place to spend it.
If you have more time, there are several miles of trail that you can explore in varying degrees of difficulty around the Park. We would have loved to have spent more time hiking, but had to return to L.A.
As with any hike, make sure you’re prepared and bring water with you on the trail.
Related: If you love National Parks, be sure to check out our National Park resources for more ideas and inspiration.
Camping at Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles National Park camping is available in their campground for both RV and tent campers. A nearby camp store is open for food and sundries inside the Visitor Center. Camp sites can be reserved up to six months in advance by calling (877) 444-6777 or booking at recreation.gov.
Since there is no lodging in the park and the nearest cities are several miles away, camping is a great way to get a head start on the crowds since you’re already there. Pets are allowed and there is even a swimming pool that’s open during the summer months.
Explore the Talus Caves at Pinnacles National Park
Talus caves occur when rocks and boulder pile on top of each other, and the caves at Pinnacles are amazing! Not only can you walk through and explore these caves, they are also home to Townsend’s big-eared bats. Depending on the season, the Park may close parts of the caves to protect their bat colony which is the largest maternity colony between San Francisco and Mexico.
While we didn’t see any bats during our visit, the caves themselves were a lot of fun. Be sure to pack a few headlamps or flashlights before you head into them (a cell phone light will work also). The caves aren’t that long, so you won’t have to navigate the dark for very long, and the kids will love it.
Tip: The entire cave is closed from mid-May to mid-July while the bats are raising their young, so plan accordingly.
Rock Climbing at Pinnacles National Park
As you might expect, climbing is a popular activity at Pinnacles. The sheer rock faces and boulders provide the perfect backdrop for climbers, and there are marked climbing areas throughout the park.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many places in the park for bouldering and rambling around the rocks (which our kids love) – the landscape is just to steep and huge. If you think you might want to give climbing a go during your visit, make sure you check out their climbers advisory here.
Bird Watching at Pinnacles National Park
In addition to bats, Pinnacles National Park is home to some pretty incredible bird species, not the least of which is the massive California Condor. Other species include the Greater Roadrunner, California Thrasher, and wild turkey. In fact, we saw a flock of turkey on our way in to the Park.
If you plan on spotting some of the 181 species of birds in the Park, don’t forget to bring your binoculars (these affordable binoculars from Bushnell would be perfect). Fortunately, one of the best spots to see them is right at the front of the Park at the east entrance near the Visitor Center. The swimming pool and other water sources are popular with the birds as well as the humans.
For more information about birding at Pinnacles and what you may find, check out this page.
Other important information about Pinnacles National Park
Where is Pinnacles National Park?
Pinnacles National Park is located about 3 hours south from San Francisco and about 3 hours north of Los Angeles.
A note about park entrances: Pinnacles has an east and west entrance but there is no road that connects the two through the park. The main visitor center is on the east side of the park which is what we recommend for first-time visitors.
When to visit Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles National Park is open year-round. We visited on Thanksgiving Day, and it wasn’t crowded at all. If you want to hike through the caves, consider visiting during a time when the bats are not raising their babies.
Pinnacles National Park weather
Pinnacles gets hot in the summer and temperatures can reach 100 degrees. If this isn’t appealing to you, consider visiting during the fall and winter like we did. It was an overcast day, but temperatures were in the 50-60 F range which was great. As always, check the weather before heading to the park, as it can be unpredictable in the higher elevations.
Pinnacles National Park Hours
The Visitor Center on the east side of the park is open from 9:30am – 5:00pm (Daily) all year.
Fees at Pinnacles National Park
Entrance fees for vehicles are $30 for the week and are collected all year (you pay inside the Visitor Center).
If you have an Every Kid in the Park pass, families get in free. You can read more about that program here.
America the Beautiful and Pinnacles Annual Passes are both accepted and available for purchase.
Tip – If you are planning on visiting several National Parks in California on this trip, we highly recommend the America the Beautiful Pass. It will typically pay for itself after just a few visits. Use it to visit nearby Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Sequoia, or any of the other California Parks, and save some money in the process!
Don’t forget your Passport Books!
The Visitor Center has stamps and Junior Ranger booklets available if you have kids who are interested, so don’t forget your books. If you need one, you can pick one up at the store inside. Our kids love getting stamps from all the parks they visit.
Ready to visit?
Pinnacles National Park may be out of the way, but it turned out to be a great stop for us during our visit to Southern California. We all loved the beautiful hikes though the caves and up the ridges to find some magnificent views. If you have an extra day either in San Francisco or Los Angeles, consider taking the drive to Pinnacles National Park.
Have you visited Pinnacles National Park? Let us know in the comments about your trip.
If you're planning a trip to California, check out our California Destination Guide.
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