Even though it is one of the smallest parks in America’s national parks system, Pinnacles National Park is renown for its breathtaking landscapes and relatively large population of California Condors. Located in central California, roughly 125-miles south of San Francisco and just west of the beautiful Big Sur coastline, Pinnacles National Park may be one of the most underrated national parks in the United States because of its location. Being in such close proximity to so many other larger and equally gorgeous parks, Pinnacles National Park is often overlooked by visitors to California looking to get out and explore the state’s beauty. However, in my Pinnacles National Park guide, I am going to show you why overlooking this amazing park the next time you visit the Golden State would be a mistake.
The San Andreas Fault, which sits just east of the park, was responsible for creating the brilliant rock pinnacles that the park is famous for. Millions of years ago, the Pacific Plate and the North American plate collided. With the subduction of these plates, the now-extinct Neenach volcano had room for its lava to flow to the surface, which formed the magnificent pinnacles that we all explore within the park today.
What is even more mind-blowing is that the parkland that you know as Pinnacles National Park today is actually located roughly 195-miles from where it was formed. In fact, roughly one-third of the land still resides in its original location, just outside of the Los Angeles area. When the plates shifted and the park was formed, most of the land slowly moved to the location we all visit now. These are just some of the facts that make Pinnacles National Park one of the most interesting and underrated parks in the US National Parks System.
In this Pinnacles National Park guide, I am going to give you all of the information you need to plan a successful trip to to see the park. I cover the best times to visit and the best ways to get there so that you can maximize what you are able to see and do on your trip. In addition, I outline the top things to see and do while you are there and where the best places to stay and eat are. With this information in hand, you can be confident that your trip to Pinnacles National Park will be one that you remember for the rest of your life.
How to Get There
Pinnacles National Park is located in Central California, roughly 125-miles south of San Francisco and 268-miles north of Los Angeles. San Francisco is the closest major city with an airport, but the city of Santa Barbara to the south is also relatively close to the park and has a major airport you can fly into as well. If you are planning a larger trip to California or the American Southwest and would like to include a stop at Pinnacles National Park on your itinerary, I have included a table below with the distances to the park from the major cities in the area for you to review in my Pinnacles National Park Guide below.
|Monterey, CA||52 miles||1hr|
|San Francisco, CA||123 miles||2hrs|
|Sacramento, CA||180 miles||3hrs|
|Santa Barbara, CA||199 miles||3hrs 20min|
|Los Angeles, CA||268 miles||4hrs 30min|
|Las Vegas, NV||454 miles||7hrs 15min|
|St. George, UT||571 miles||9hrs|
|Phoenix, AZ||639 miles||10hrs|
|Flagstaff, AZ||649 miles||10hrs 15min|
|Page, AZ||724 miles||11hrs 30min|
Pinnacles National Park is hardly the only attraction in central and southern California and the larger area. In fact, there are quite a few amazing things to see in this part of California and neighboring Arizona, Nevada, and Utah. If you are flying into San Francisco or Los Angles, I would suggest driving along the coastline on your way to the park. This part of California has some of the most amazing coastline you will see in the United States. Most notably, the drive from Los Angeles to Pinnacles National Park takes you thru the Big Sur area, which is world-renown for its beauty. If you would like an idea of what other attractions are in the area around the park, I have included a map in my Pinnacles National Park Guide for you to review below.
Before you head to the park, I would suggest taking a look at the park map so that you can plan your time while at the park. For your convenience, I have included a park map that you can download in my Pinnacles National Park Guide below. Before visiting the park, it is important to note that the park has entrances in both the East and the West, and that these entrances are not connected by road. If you are limited in your time at the park, this means that you are going to want to choose which entrance to use when visiting the park. By reviewing the park map I have included, as well as my list of the top things to see and do inside Pinnacles National Park, it will be easier for you to decide which entrance to use to see what you want to see.
Pro Tip: If you are not planning to do a lot of hiking within the park, but would like to see the rock formations and perhaps spot a California Condor, then I would recommend using the East entrance to the park. Using this entrance, it will be easy for you to access the trailhead for the Condor Gulch Trail, which is a relatively short and easy hike that has some great views of the pinnacles and gives you a great chance of spotting Condors.
If you are planning to do a fair amount of hiking within the park, then the West entrance might be the best choice for you. By using the West entrance, you can use the Chaparral parking area, which gives you close access to trails to both the Balconies and the High Peaks areas of the park. If you are really adventurous, the park is small enough where it is possible to hike from the Eastern section of the park to the Western section of the park in one day. Please reference the “Top Things to See and Do” section of my Pinnacles National Park Guide below for more information on the top hikes I recommend within the park.
Top Things to See and Do
Pinnacles National Park may be small, but that doesn’t mean it is short on amazing things to see and do. In addition to being one of the best places in California to spot the rare and incredible California Condors, the park is also an excellent place for hiking, climbing, and nature watching. Pinnacles National Park has a wide variety of hiking trails of various difficulties, making it a great place for hikers of all abilities to come to explore. In addition, its amazing rock pinnacles provide some of the best climbing routes in Central California. If you are looking for some ideas on what to do while visiting the park, I have included a list of my top things to see and do for you to review in my Pinnacles National Park Guide below.
Spot a California Condor
One of the biggest attractions for visitors coming to Pinnacles National Park is the opportunity to see one of the endangered California Condors that live within the park. With a wingspan that can reach up to 10-feet (or 3-meters), it is one of the largest birds in the world. Pinnacles National Park is one of the best places in the world to spot these incredible birds, who like to nest in the rocky outcroppings within the rock pinnacles and soar above the valleys looking for food. When visiting the park, the best way to spot the condors up-close is to hike to the higher altitude sections of the park. The High Peaks Trail is a great trail to take if you have a lot of hiking experience and are in relatively good shape. For those who may not have as much hiking experience, I would recommend the shorter and less technical Condor Gulch Trail.
In addition to the California Condors, there is a variety of other predatory birds who frequent Pinnacles National Park. The list includes prairie falcons, golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, and American kestrels, Cooper’s hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, red-shouldered hawks, and turkey vultures. So, it is important to know what to look for when trying to spot a California Condor, especially from a distance. The California Condor can easily be distinguished from other soaring birds of prey by the large, triangular patches of white feathers underneath its wings (as seen in the image above).
Hike the High Peaks Trail
If you are up for a hiking challenge, one of the best ways to see the park and to spot California Condors during your stay in Pinnacles National Park is to hike the High Peaks Trail. It is a difficult hike with technical components, so it should only be attempted by hikers who are in relatively good shape, have adequate hiking boots or shoes, and experience hiking on steep trails at high altitude. While the trail is challenging, the rewards are typically great. From the top of the high peaks, you have some of the best views of the pinnacles that the park is famous for. You also have a great chance of seeing a California Condor up close as they like to nest in the rocky outcroppings within the pinnacles at high altitude. If you would like to learn more about this challenging hike, I have included a map with the trail stats in my Pinnacles National Park Guide below for you to review.
Visit the Condor Gulch Overlook
If you would like to do a little hiking and have a good chance of spotting a California Condor up close, but don’t feel up to hiking the difficult High Peaks Trail, there is a good trail option I can recommend for less experienced hikers. The Condor Gulch Trail is a relatively easy trail that takes you up to the foot of the high pinnacles, but stops short of the steep accent along the High Peaks Trail. The out-and-back hike from the Bear Gulch Day Use Area to the Condor Gulch Lookout is a great way for visitors of all hiking abilities to see California Condors within the park. If you would like to learn more about this popular hike, I have included a map with the trail stats in my Pinnacles National Park Guide below for you to review.
Explore the Bear Gulch Cave
While the condors and the pinnacles may get all of the headlines within Pinnacles National Park, there are other wonderful things to see inside the park during your visit. One of my favorite landscapes to see are the interesting talus caves that have formed within the rock pinnacles. Unlike your traditional cave structure that is characterized by giant caverns and pointed formations hanging from the ceiling, these talus caves were formed when large boulders from the high elevation pinnacles crumbled and covered the top of narrow canyons. One of the most popular talus caves to explore within Pinnacles National Park because of how easy it is to access is the Bear Gulch Cave. If you are interested in seeing this neat cave during your visit, I have included a map of its location for you to review in my Pinnacles National Park Guide below.
Explore the Balconies Cave
If you enter the park from the West, there is a relatively short hike that will take you to one of the more extraordinary caves located within the park. The Balconies Cave Trail is an easy-to-moderate hike that takes you along some fascinating cliffs in the high altitudes of Pinnacles National Park and thru an amazing talus cave (pictured above). If you are visiting the park from the East, it is still possible to hike to the cave via the High Peaks Trail, but it is a much longer and more difficult hike. If you are interested in seeing this neat cave during your visit, I have included a map of its location for you to review in my Pinnacles National Park Guide below.
Hike the Chalone Peak Trail
It seems the higher you climb in Pinnacles National Park, the more breathtaking the views become. If you would like to see the ultimate view from the top of the park, then I would recommend you consider hiking to the top of the Chalone Peaks. It is not an easy hike, so if you aren’t in good condition and don’t have a lot of hiking experience, you may not want to attempt this hike. However, if you are up to the challenge, the payoff from reaching the peaks is amazing. There are two peaks on this hike, the North Chalone Peak and the South Chalone Peak. The out-and-back trail takes you to both, or you can hike to the north peak (which is the higher of the two peaks) and turn around there. For those interested, I have included a trail map for you to review in my Pinnacles National Park Guide below.
Hike the Moses Spring Trail
If you are up for doing some hiking while visiting Pinnacles National Park, but aren’t interested in some of the more difficult hikes that take you to the park’s higher altitudes, one of the best hikes that I can recommend is the Moses Spring Trail hike. This relatively short and easy hike takes you thru some very interesting rock formations, tunnels, and talus caves on your way to the Bear Gulch Reservoir. You are less likely to see California Condors on this trail, but it isn’t unheard of. More likely, you will see some of the other bird species that frequent the park. If you would like to learn more about this popular hike, I have included a map with the trail stats in my Pinnacles National Park Guide below for you to review.
Go Rock Climbing
Considering the amount of towering rock formations that can be found in the park, it will probably not come as a surprise to you when I say that Pinnacles National Park is one of the best places for rock climbing in Central California. There are numerous mapped climbing routes that can be found throughout the park, many of which are marked by signs to make them easy to locate. If you don’t have a lot of experience rock climbing, but would like to learn, I suggest you check out the tours and excursions section of my Pinnacles National Park Guide below for some recommendations on rock climbing tours that you can take advantage of.
Explore Bear Gulch Reservoir
While the rock formations and the talus caves are breathtaking, one of my favorite spots to photograph within Pinnacles National Park is undoubtedly the Bear Gulch Reservoir. In addition to being breathtakingly beautiful, it is also a great place to spot wildlife. There are a number of hikes that I have outlined in this guide that take you by the reservoir, including the short Moses Spring Trail hike. I would strongly suggest not leaving the park until you have had a chance to stop by the reservoir and take some photographs.
The last trail that I want to outline for you in my Pinnacles National Park Guide may be one of the most interesting trails in the park. There are many trail tunnels that pass thru the rock pinnacles within the park, but some of the most amazing of these tunnels are on a trail that is appropriately named the Tunnel Trail. This trail is located at high elevation and is accessible from the Eastern section of the park via the High Peaks Trail and from the Western section of the park using the Juniper Canyon Trail. Getting to the trail isn’t easy from either side, but if you are looking for the easiest path to this trail, I would recommend approaching from the West. If you would like to learn more about this popular hike, I have included a map with the trail stats in my Pinnacles National Park Guide below for you to review.
When to Visit
Average Temperature (°F)
Pinnacles National Park is located in Central California, so the weather in the park typically doesn’t get too hot or too cold throughout the year. During the winter months of December thru February, you will likely see low temperatures that dip into the 40s. If this is too chilly for you, then you will want to avoid visiting during the winter. High temperatures don’t get too hot during the summer months of June thru August, but it isn’t unheard of to see temperatures reach into the 90s.
Average Precipitation (Inches)
In my opinion, the most important factor that you should consider when planning your trip to Pinnacles National Park is the amount of precipitation. This area of California is prone to mud slides when it rains too much, and it isn’t unusual to have certain roads and trails within the park close when the weather gets too wet. In fact, there have been years where trail bridges have been washed away because of the heavy rains. For this reason, I would strongly suggest avoiding the months of November thru March when planning your visit. These are typically the wettest months in the park and there is a great likelihood that rain will prevent you from enjoying the park during this time of year.
Average Visitors (Visitors Per Day)
Another important factor that you will want to consider when planning your trip to Pinnacles National Park is the number of other visitors at the park. Pinnacles is one of the most underrated parks in America’s National Park System, so the crowds typically don’t get as big as you see in some of the other more popular parks in California. However, there are certain times of the year where the trails will be busier than usual. If you are looking to avoid the crowds as much as possible, I would steer clear of visiting during the months of March thru May. This is typically the busiest time of the year for Pinnacles National Park.
Other Things to See in the Area
The state of California has some of the most beautiful landscapes in North America, and the Central California region where Pinnacles National Park is located is no exception. There is no shortage of amazing things to see and do in the area, that’s for sure. If you are planning an extended trip to Central California and are looking for some additional stops to add to your itinerary after you have visited Pinnacles National Park, I have included links to some guides that you might find interesting below.
|Big Sur Travel Guide|
|Muir Woods National Monument and San Francisco Guide|
|Joshua Tree National Park Visitor Guide|
Where to Stay
When visiting the national parks and monuments of the United States, it is a really neat experience to camp out during your visit. Some of the best campgrounds in America can be found inside the country’s national parks and monuments and the surrounding areas. If you are interested in camping out during your visit, I have included a map and list of some recommended campgrounds for you to review below.
If camping is not your speed, you need not work as there are a variety of good hotels for you to choose from in the area as well. If you are in the process of planning your trip to Pinnacles National Park and are looking for recommendations on hotels in the area, I have included a map and list of recommended hotels and different price points for you to review below.
When planning any trip, you can never have too many resources at your disposal. In addition to the information I have provided you in this guide, I have linked to a number of other official resources from the US National Parks Service below for you to use to plan your trip as well.
- Operating Hours and Seasons
- Fees and Passes
- Permits and Reservations
- Park Map
- Park Campgrounds
- Places to Go
- Park Trails
- Talus Caves
- Park Climbing
- Bird Watching
- Park Plants and Animals
Activities in the Area
Pinnacles National Park is a beautiful place and there are plenty of great things to see and do inside the park. However, it isn’t the only amazing thing to see in this part of California. If you are going to be in the area for a few days and are looking for some activities to add to your agenda, I have included links to some of the more popular tours and excursions in the area for you to review below.
|Food and Drink|
Pinnacles National Park is a very beautiful and picturesque place. If you are interested in seeing more of this beautiful park, I have included some of my favorite photographs that I have taken during my visits in a gallery for you to review below.
Get My Ultimate Travel Guide
Sign-up to receive the latest updates from my travel blog and start receiving premium content that you will not find on this blog, starting with my Ultimate Travel Guide. This comprehensive guide outlines the process that I use to book all of my trips and includes tips and tricks for streamlining the travel planning process and saving you money on travel.