View from High Peaks

A Journey into Pinnacles National Park

“It’s not a hole-in-the-ground toilet; it’s a National Park toilet,” proclaimed a young girl who couldn’t have been more than eight as we sat atop Scout Peak gazing at the expanse of trees, valleys, and pinnacles at Pinnacles National Park.

This was my second trip to Pinnacles National Park, but it was my first time exploring the park. I was starting to think that perhaps this was a National Park that didn’t want me to see it. My first attempt to see the park ended with only seeing the campground due to horrible traffic in the Bay Area, and it took me longer to get there than expected. As I prepared to leave my hotel room this trip, I saw warnings for thunderstorms and was afraid I again may not be able to explore the park, but I’m so glad I decided to go and try anyway.

I explored the park on a day trip from San Francisco, but you could easily spend at least two days there. Keep reading to learn more about the park and get tips for visiting.

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Where is Pinnacles National Park?

The park is in central California, about two hours south of San Francisco, four and a half hours from Los Angeles, or two hours from Big Sur. One important thing to note is that the park has an East and a West Entrance, and no road connects them. Knowing what you want to see will be important in trip planning. If you want to see both sides, you must drive about two hours to the opposite entrance.

Pinnacles National Park Map
Pinnacles National Park Map

Which Pinnacles National Park Entrance should you choose?

I recommend the East Entrance. It is a little more developed with the visitor center, a very small general store/ gift shop, and the only campground in the park. Depending on what you plan to see, you could choose the West Entrance, which is closer to the Balconies Cave trail.

Entrance Fees

The entrance fee is 30$ per car. If you are reading this, you are likely interested in seeing National Parks and National Park sites. I strongly recommend getting an America the Beautiful pass, which covers National Park entrance fees for a year; it costs 80$. My pass paid for itself in one weekend by also doing National Parks near San Francisco.

Entrance Sign
East Entrance Sign

Pinnacles National Park Hours

  • East Side: 24-hour access to trails. There is no overnight parking outside of the campground area.
  • West Side: The entry gate is open from 7:30 am to 8:00 pm. Day-use only.

Visitor Centers and Passport Stamps

The park has three visitor centers: the Pinnacles Visitor Center, the Bear Gulch Nature Center, and the West Pinnacles Visitor Contact Station. On the day I was there, neither of the centers were open on the East side; however, they had the passport stamps set up outside the center to get my book stamped.

Learn more about National Park Passports in this article

What is Pinnacles National Park known for?

The park is known for its unique geological formations, rock spires, and Talus caves.

Formations from the High Peaks Trail

What kinds of activities can you do at Pinnacles National Park?

I think the park is best explored on foot; go for a hike. If you’re a rock climber, this is the park for you, with many opportunities for climbing. Have a picnic and take in the scenery. Learn about the geology, plants, and animals within the area.

History of the park

Pinnacles is one of the newer National Parks, only reaching its designation in 2013 to become the 59th National Park. The park has been a National Monument since 1908, though.

The park was born with volcanic origins but has not always been where it is today. Layers of volcanic rock formed around 23 million years ago through fiery eruptions. As the tectonic plates kept moving underground, the Pinnacles volcanic mass traveled 200 miles north from its birthplace, near Los Angeles. Due to the San Andreas Fault line, it continues to move at approximately one inch per year.

Rock Formations seen from the trail at Pinnacles National Park

When is the best time to visit Pinnacles National Park?

To best enjoy the park, go during the winter, early spring, and fall. Summertime can be scorching, making it difficult to enjoy the trails safely. Pinnacles has a Mediterranean Climate with hot, dry summers and milder winters.


I visited the park the first weekend in March; it was perfect hiking weather. It did pour rain for a few minutes while I was hiking, but I could easily find shelter and wait it out. The park’s average annual rainfall is 16 inches, most of which occurs between January and March.

Planning your visit and parking

On the east side of the park, there are three parking options: the Old Pinnacles parking lot, Moses Spring parking lot, and Bear Gulch parking lot. Due to its national park status, the park is gaining popularity. Plan to arrive early to avoid spending your day sitting in a long line. You should arrive before 8 am to get a parking spot.

Long lines and delays are typical between 10 AM and 3 PM, on weekends, holidays, and in springtime, especially with favorable weather.

Flowers blooming on the trail in early spring.

One Day in Pinnacles National Park

I made a day trip to the park, this time from the Bay Area. Arriving early on a day the weather was forecasted to be potentially raining helped ensure a low-crowd experience. Even if you’re choosing to camp, you should plan to start your day early.

Choose your hike ahead of time to start your day on the trail early!

While more than one day would allow more exploration, I was able to hit the highlights in a day.

Hiking in Pinnacles National Park

Hiking is the best way to see the park’s formations, flora, and fauna. For me, a trip to a National Park isn’t complete without a hike! Take your day pack and 10 essentials out on the trail.

Bear Gulch Cave to High Peaks Trail

This entire loop is 6.5 miles and 1800 feet of elevation. Offshoots from the High Peaks Trail allow you to extend your trip.

To get on this trail, start from the Bear Gulch Visitor Center parking lot or the Moses Spring Parking lot. Be sure to use the restroom here before you start hiking, as the next one I found on the trail was about three hours away, although I do hike slowly. I chose to go through the Bear Gulch Cave, as it is one of the things the park is known for besides its pinnacles. Turn off the Moses Spring Trail and go to the Bear Gulch Cave Trail on the left.

The trail is pretty hard, and I could tell immediately when I entered the cave it was very steep and required a headlamp, which I carry. I could hear the water rushing inside the cave. It was dark, and immediately, as I entered, the ceiling was very low. I chose not to crouch down and crawl through the cave.

path to cave entrance pinnacles national park
Trail to Bear Gulch Cave Entrance

There is a nice loop that is also moderately difficult. It wraps around and takes you through the tail-end part of the cave so you can still experience the cave without making the entire cave trip. I found this worked out well for me. I still got the experience without doing the whole cave. Unless you especially love crawling through caves, consider this option. From there, I connected to the Rim Trail, which brought me to the High Peaks Trail. There is a ton of elevation gain, and it’s uphill for about 2 miles to Scout Peak, about 1500 feet.

From this trail, you look down into the Gulch and many views of the pinnacles the park is famous for. I enjoyed this hike a lot. It was beautiful but very strenuous, especially while continuing to recover from breaking my ankle a few months prior.


View from High Peaks Trail

Once reaching the peak, there is a restroom National Park style, as a young girl who couldn’t have been more than eight proclaimed, “It’s not a hole-in-the-ground toilet. It’s a national park toilet”. At the summit, there is a bench overlooking the valley. I enjoyed sitting here, eating my lunch, and drinking some water.

From this spot, you have a couple of options. The High Peaks Trail continues, but it’s 0.7 miles and a challenging scramble—very steep and narrow—to continue with the loop. The ranger at the base of the trail also told me that some of the railings were out along this section of the trail.

Hiking at Pinnacles National Park
Scout Peak Summit Pinnacles National Park

 I chose to take the downhill back the way I came because I knew what to expect from the trail. I could cut off the cave portion, making it shorter. California condors, which call the park home, can sometimes be seen at the summit.

I recommend this route if you can only do one hike at Pinnacles National Park.

Bear Gulch Cave

This cave can be experienced as a main hike. If you choose this route, it is a mile and a half out and back. The caves are very popular places to hike. Be sure to take a headlamp to see inside the cave and for safety. After you see the inside of the cave, climb the stairs to the Bear Lake Reservoir.

trail pinnacles national park
Talus Cave

I was standing at the Bear Lake Reservoir when the rain started falling hard. I was shocked at how different the landscape looked during and after the rain.

Pinnacles National Park
Bear Lake Reservoir

Balconies Cave

The west entrance may be your best bet for hiking this cave. A 2.4-mile loop with about 200 feet of elevation gain leads to Balconies Cave, the park’s second talus cave.

Talus caves

What is a talus cave? It’s not like what you probably think with underground stalactites and stalagmites. Talus caves are not limestone caves. One of the park’s main attractions is the talus caves, two of which are accessible within the park. Talus means fallen rock.

Given Pinnacles National Park’s constant movement, over many years, large rocks have fallen in canyons, and cracks have formed the talus caves. The good news is that you can still see part of Bear Gulch Cave if you don’t love dark, tight spaces.

Trail exiting Bear Gulch Cave to the Bear Lake Reservoir

Cave Closures

Know before you go, at times, the caves close for Townsend’s big-eared bats breeding and pupping. Bear Gulch has an upper and lower section that can be accessed independently. You can always check the National Park website or with a ranger for the latest information.

Another potential thing to consider is how much water you will encounter in the caves. On the day I went, the Balconies Cave had knee-deep water flowing through it. Knowing your surroundings in nature is always important, and I chose not to attempt this cave due to the high water.

California Condors

California Condors find refuge within the park. The endangered birds have been released into Pinnacles through breeding efforts since 2003. Condors use the park as a nesting place. If you love birds, you might be lucky to see one on your visit.

Good places to try and spot one of the Condors is from the High Peaks Trail or the Condor Gulch Trail. Bring along a pair of binoculars for better viewing.

A tip to tell if you are seeing a condor vs a turkey vulture is that Condors are much larger than turkey vultures and they have white on the underside of their wings.

California Condor
California Condor | Courtesy of Brian Sims

Camping at Pinnacles National Park

The campsite on the park’s east side offers tent camping and RV hookups. The sites have fire pits, picnic tables, flush toilets, and coin-operated showers. Water is available throughout the campground, and a swimming pool is available from April through September.

Tent and RV sites can be reserved up to 6 months in advance and are highly recommended. 

If you are looking for more shelter to sleep in, the park has limited cabins available for rent. Be sure to book in advance.


Given the remoteness of the park, stargazing at night can be spectacular. Step outside your tent to check out the wonders above you once the sun goes down.

Dark Sky at Pinnacles
The dark sky at night is amazing!

Where to Eat

There is a small store on the left-hand side of the campground area. The store is the only access to food and water inside the park. Prepare and take food with you. If you plan on hiking, you will burn a lot of calories.

How close is Pinnacles National Park to other National Parks?

  • Pinnacles National Park to Big Sur: 2 hours
  • San Francisco to Pinnacles NP: 2 1/2 hours
  • Pinnacles National Park to Sequoia NP: 3 1/2 hours
  • Pinnacles National Park to Yosemite: 3 1/2 hours
  • San Francisco to Channel Islands NP: 4 hours
  • San Francisco to Death Valley NP: 6 hours

Final Thoughts

As you plan your visit, remember the practical tips shared in this post, from the best entrance to arriving early and being prepared for your hikes. Embrace the adventure that awaits at Pinnacles National Park, where every trail leads to discovery and every vista tells a story of geological marvels and ecological resilience. Whether it’s your first visit or your planning a return trip Pinnacles promises an enriching experience that connects you deeper with the natural world and leaves you with memories to cherish for a lifetime.

geology at Pinnacles National Park