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The Ultimate Guide to Pinnacles National Park

Looking to plan a Pinnacles National Park camping trip? Great choice! Pinnacles National Park is California’s smallest and newest national park. What it lacks in size though, it makes up for in scenery and solitude! This national park gets its name from the interesting spire rock formations caused by volcanic activity. It’s awesome. What’s also awesome is that you can expect most of the hikes in Pinnacles National Park to be completely uncrowded, especially compared to other national parks in California! Keep reading to plan your adventure.

pinnacles national park camping

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Pinnacles National Park Camping Trip Overview

  • PTO/Vacation Days Needed: 0-1
  • Nights: 1-2
  • Cost: $

How to Get to Pinnacles National Park

things to do in pinnacles national park

Pinnacles National Park is located in Central California, just east of Big Sur. It’s about 4.5 hours north of Los Angeles, or 2 hours south of San Francisco. One important thing to note about Pinnacles National Park is that there are two entrances – the West Entrance and the East Entrance – however the two entrances are not connected by road. You’ll need to decide before your trip which entrance you want to go to – it’s about an hour drive between the two entrances.

Which Pinnacles National Park Entrance Should You Choose?

If you plan to go camping at Pinnacles National Park, you’ll want to head to the East Entrance. The only campground in the park is here.

If you are only going for the day, or you don’t plan on camping, decide which hikes in Pinnacles National Park are at the top of your list and then map them out to figure out which entrance is best for you.

  • West Entrance: Close to Balconies Cave and Jawbone Trail, High Peaks Trail
  • East Entrance (most popular): Close to Bear Gulch Cave, Chalone Peak Trail, High Peaks Trail

Camping at Pinnacles National Park

There’s only one campground at Pinnacles National Park, near the East entrance. There are tent-only sites as well as RV hook-up sites. Each campsite has a fire pit with a grill, and a picnic table. There’s a general store on site, as well as flush toilets and coin-operated showers. Also – this is one of the only national park campgrounds that has a pool on-site! It’s only open from April-September.

The campground also has these cute little tent cabins you can rent if you want more of a glamping-style of camping trip! You can reserve your Pinnacles National Park campsite up to 6 months ahead of time at recreation.gov.

Lodging at Pinnacles National Park

There are no lodges at Pinnacles National Park, and very few hotels nearby. The closest hotel I could find is called Valley Harvest Inn located in the town of Soledad, about 20 minutes away from the West entrance.

If you don’t like camping or don’t have gear, your best bet is to rent one of the “glamping” style tent cabins at the Pinnacles National Park campground! Note that you will need to bring your own bedding for these. You can book at recreation.gov.

Best Time to Visit Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park is open year-round, however it is most popular to visit in the winter months when temperatures are cooler. Winter, early Spring or Fall are great times to visit. I recommend avoiding Pinnacles National Park in the summer, as it gets unbearably hot!

How Much Time Should you Spend at Pinnacles National Park?

Ideally, you would want to spend 2 days in the park if you have the time. This way you can do hikes from both the East and West park entrances. However, I feel like one day in Pinnacles National Park is enough time to get a feel for the area and check out the awesome scenery.

Recommended One-Day Pinnacles National Park Itinerary

For my trip, I did a one-night camping trip in Pinnacles National Park, then headed around to the West Entrance and then kept going to Big Sur for the next night. See below for my itinerary overview to help you plan a similar trip:

  • Arrive at Pinnacles Campground the night before
  • Wake up early and hike the Bear Gulch Cave – High Peaks Trail (6.5 miles)
  • Drive to the West Entrance for wine tasting at Chalone Vineyard
  • Cruise west to Big Sur for the night

Check out my Big Sur itinerary for tips for continuing your trip!

What to Pack for Camping at Pinnacles National Park

See below for a few things to not leave home without if you decide to camp at Pinnacles National Park!

Best Things to Do in Pinnacles National Park

1. Hike

One of the best things to do in Pinnacles National Park is to go for a hike! There are only 30 miles of hiking trails in Pinnacles National Park, being that it is California’s smallest park! However, don’t let the small size of the park deter you. The hikes in Pinnacles National Park are super unique and take you to impressive view points! Here are a few of the best hikes in Pinnacles National Park:

Bear Gulch Cave

  • Miles: 1.5
  • Type: Out & Back
  • Elevation Gain: 275 feet
  • Trailhead: Bear Gulch Day Use Area
  • Entrance: East Entrance

The Bear Gulch Cave Trail is one of the most popular hikes in Pinnacles National Park. This short hike takes you through the epic Bear Gulch Cave (bring a headlamp!) where you climb up and out to the iconic Bear Gulch Reservoir. Sometimes, the cave is closed to protect the bat population. If that happens, you can simply hike around the cave via Moses Spring Trail to reach the Bear Gulch Reservoir. You can check the cave status here.

I found the Bear Gulch Reservoir to be absolutely beautiful and very peaceful! There was no one there when we arrived, so we spent a lot of time sitting on the rocks, taking pictures, and enjoying the solitude.

Balconies Cave Trail

  • Miles: 2.4
  • Type: Out & Back (2 miles) or Loop (2.4 miles)
  • Elevation Gain: 200 feet
  • Trailhead: Chaparral Parking Area
  • Entrance: West Entrance

Balconies Cave Trail is the go-to hike from the West entrance. This fairly flat hike leads to another talus cave (similar to Bear Gulch Cave) formed from boulders tumbling into a gorge and creating a cave ceiling. Make sure to check that the cave is open before making the trek over to the West entrance!

High Peaks Trail

best hikes in pinnacles national park

High Peaks Trail is the most iconic trail in Pinnacles National Park. There’s one section of the hike known as the “steep and narrow” section that is especially epic (don’t worry – there’s handrails/steps so it’s not too scary!) I definitely recommend adding this hike to your Pinnacles National Park itinerary. You can access this hike a few different ways:

High Peaks Trail via Juniper Canyon and Tunnel Trail
things to do in pinnacles national park
  • Miles: 4.3
  • Elevation Gain: 1,259 ft
  • Type: Loop
  • Trailhead: Chaparral Parking Area
  • Entrance: West

This is the most direct route to the “steep and narrow” section of the High Peaks Trail, from the West Entrance.

High Peaks Trail via Bear Gulch Cave
best hikes in pinnacles national park
  • Miles: 6.5
  • Elevation Gain: 1,800 ft
  • Type: Loop
  • Trailhead: Bear Gulch Day Use Area
  • Entrance: East

If you only do one hike in Pinnacles National Park, this one should be it! The 6.5-mile High Peaks Trail via Bear Gulch Cave hits all of the iconic landscapes in the park by combining the aforementioned Bear Gulch Trail with the High Peaks Trail. From climbing through caves, chilling at the magical reservoir, and descending down the steep rock steps of the “steep and narrow” section surrounded by towering rock spires, this hike truly has it all.

Park at the Bear Gulch Parking Area and follow the signs to Bear Gulch Cave (or go around it via Moses Spring Trail if the cave is closed). Once you hit the reservoir, keep going up and around to the High Peaks Trail. You’ll reach this cool natural rock tunnel on the trail. After this, you’ll have a few more switchbacks until you reach a lookout-view bench at the top which is a great place for a rest and a snack. (although we found an even better break spot a little bit past the bench on one of the random rock formations!)

pinnacles national park camping

Keep going after the bench and you’ll eventually reach the “steep and narrow” section of the trail, where you’ll climb up and down skinny, seemingly-vertical rock stairs carved into the face of the boulders. There are handrails, so I didn’t find it scary or dangerous (but it was exciting!) but I’m also not scared of heights.

things to do in pinnacles national park

Rock Climbing

Pinnacles National Park is a great spot for rock climbers, with over 200 rock climbing routes. The routes are clearly marked on the hiking trails with a post with a carabiner logo on the sign. Pinnacles isn’t the best spot for inexperienced climbers. Make sure you choose routes that align with your ability level! Check out the NPS site for more info on the climbing routes.

Bird Watching

best hikes in pinnacles national park

Watching the Condors soar in between rock formations is one of the best things to do in Pinnacles National Park. These predatory birds may not be the prettiest sight close-up, but what makes them unique is the way they fly. They stretch their wings out straight and soar through the air, unlike most birds that flap their wings repeatedly. The best place to spot them is along the High Peaks Trail. It’s truly a majestic sight!

Wine Tasting

best things to do in pinnacles national park

I bet you didn’t see that one coming! What better way to cap off your day of exploring than with a wine tasting? Chalone Vineyard is located right next to the West park entrance. It’s one of the only wineries in the country that overlooks a national park! They have a nice balcony or a ground-level patio perfect for sipping on wine after an active day of hiking Pinnacles National Park.

chalone vineyard

Want more? Extend your trip by driving about an hour west to Big Sur for a night or two! It’s one of my favorite places in California. It’s seriously amazing!


This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. andrea

    Being a local resident from soledad ca and a local
    hiker to pinnacles i just wanted to say you have written a very very amazing post! thank you for the great feedback and for being so detailed on how to choose what entrance use when wanting to plan a visit/hike! i will definitely be using your post when friends/family ask me about planning a hike to pinnacles!

    1. Lauren Wilson

      Thank you!! That’s great to hear 🙂

  2. Sherry

    Always enjoy your super “wish lists,” Lauren. Thanks again.

  3. Go Wander Wild

    This guide to Pinnacles National Park is incredibly helpful. You’ve really thought through everything you need to know before planning a trip. Thank you for this helpful resource. Saving this guide for later!

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