California is a gorgeous state with varied types of scenery to enjoy. We were fortunate enough to visit over a dozen national parks in the Golden State, one of them being Pinnacles National Park near Monterey.
We spent a day hiking the Pinnacles and taking in the views, and while we enjoyed the park very much, I think it's important to know what you're coming to see and do there. If you're used to the larger - and impressive - parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone, you could find Pinnacles a tad underwhelming.
Having said that, I do think this park is well worth visiting - probably more than once. It offers a unique view of lava-formed pinnacles in the San Andreas fault, and a great place to escape the hustle and bustle of the nearby Bay Area. Pinnacles National Park is a great place for
- Rock Climbing
- Ranger-led activities
And you can definitely combine a weekend visit to this park with some fun things to do in nearby Soledad (which we'll cover towards the end of this post). It also works out really well with a longer vacation in the Monterey area. Check out my post about Things to do in the Monterey Bay area to create the perfect itinerary for your own trip.
Visiting Pinnacles National Park - Things To Know Before You Go
Lava formed the Pinnacles, but it was the San Andreas Fault which, eventually, split the west off from the eastern half of the Pinnacles.
If the eastern half is for camping and shuttles, campers favor the western half for hiking and keeping an eye out for the California Condor. The western Pinnacles is one of four places on earth where the birds are released to the wild.
This conservation program helped the California Condor grow from a population of merely 22 birds left in the wild to over 400 in the wild. If your eyes are sharp, you just might snap that elusive photo of the California Condor.
Two entrances - without a road between them
Before we go into details, let's talk about the fact that Pinnacles National Park has two entrances which are not connected by a road. You can't enter the park on through one entrance with your car and cross over, to leave on the other. You can, however, hike across. The trail is a bit steep and long, though fit hikers can cross over and back within a day.
The Eastern entrance is the busiest of the two. This is where you can camp and enjoy ranger-led activities. The Western entrance is staffed by a ranger but that station has limited opening hours. We found that out when we returned to get our junior ranger badges and no one was there to issue them.
There's a shuttle in the eastern side. Avoid Delays for the Free East Shuttle. Although the busy time for the shuttle occurs from 10 am to 3 pm, the shuttle runs until 5 pm. Catch the shuttle past three pm and, possibly, you may avoid a wait time of one hour. The shuttle stops at the Pinnacles Visitor Center and Bear Gulch Center. This center has displays about the area and it stays open from 10 am to 4 pm on weekends, from January 1 to May 30.
Activities in Pinnacles National Park
Now that we've covered the basics, let's talk about all the awesome things you can do while visiting the park.
1. Camping in the East Pinnacles
Camping at the Pinnacles is available for tent, RV, and group campsites. Reservations can be made at www.recreation.gov.
Tent and group sites feature picnic tables and fire rings. Most RV sites, likewise, share barbecue pits and tables. Most RV sites have full electrical hookups with water available throughout the park. For a quarter, a camper can take a shower, and a pool stays open from mid-April until September's end depending on the weather.
Spelunking means exploring caves. And there are quite a few caves to explore in this park. The caves at Pinnacles National Park did not actually start out as caves at all. Water erosion cut deep swaths and the tops of boulders fell, but came to a rest on top of other boulders, forming tunnel-like formations called talus caves.
Pinnacles NP has two caves where you can actually hike through - as part of a trail. These are the Balconies Cave and the Bear Gulch Cave. We tried to hike through the Balconies Cave but we're not very good spelunkers, I'm afraid. While I did manage to make it across the boulders, once inside we just couldn't find the path that goes across the other side.
Check the park's website before you go. Caves are not as safe as trails and park authorities may shut down these cave areas due to rock fall, high water levels etc.
The park has a system of trails, including three that take you across the park from east to west. As always, talk to a ranger before embarking on a long hike to make sure trail conditions are good, take plenty of water with you and stay safe. If you plan on hiking through one of the caves, bring a torchlight too.
Here are some popular trails, in various difficulty levels.
Pinnacles Visitor Center to South Wilderness Trail
At 6 and 1/2 miles round trip, this hike may take up to 3 or 4 hours. This trail falls into the moderate category. Hike this trail to the park edge, or enjoy walking through the lovely grove of oaks. Start at the campground and go along the Bench trail to the South Wilderness post. Be sure to take a camera as this is an excellent area to spot wildlife.
Condor Gulch to High Peaks Loop (from Bear Gulch Day Use Area)
This trail is 5.3 miles round trip at about 4 hours Elevation: 1,300 feet and is described as strenuous. Walk through the middle of the Pinnacles rock formations, particularly along the narrow section of the High Peaks trail.
Prewett Point Trail (from West Pinnacles Contact Station)
At 0.9 miles round trip, it may take 1/2 to 1 hour to travel. Elevation: 70 feet Easy A comfortable hike with awesome views of the Hain Wilderness. Between the largest overlook and the trail junction (counterclockwise), it is about 2 and 3/4 feet wide for a fourth of a mile. With little shade, the sun can be strong late morning and afternoon.
Jawbone Trail (from West Pinnacles Contact Station)
1.2 miles one way, 1/2 to 1 hour Elevation: -560 feet Easy to Moderate The Jawbone Trail goes north to northeast, descending to the Jawbone Parking Area. From there it connects to the Chaparral Parking Area (1/3 mile)
Juniper Canyon Loop (from Chaparral, West Pinnacles)
Pace yourself on this 4.3 miles round trip, 2 to 3 hours Elevation: 1,215 feet Strenuous This challenging trail goes up along sharp turns to the middle of the High Peaks. At the summit, go around through the rocks in the Steep and Narrow section of the High Peaks Trail and begin the path downward on the Tunnel Trail.
For more information on trails at Pinnacles National Park, check out this page.
4. Rock Climbing
Adventurous rock climbing offers challenges in both the eastern and western sides of Pinnacles National Park. Both entrances provide levels for beginners and for those more experienced. Some routes close certain times of the year to protect peregrine falcons and eagles while nesting.
Classes offered by private companies can build on your climbing skills. Perhaps, you would choose a multi-day climbing camp.
Use Caution With Volcanic Rock
However, made up of volcanic rock instead of the usual granite, these rocks do tend to crumble more. Rock on the eastern side of the park crumbles less and more routes for top roping can be found. If this is your first time, do look for a guided tour and stay safe.
For more information on rock climbing at the Pinnacles National Park, take a look at this page.
5. Ranger-led activities
We love joining langer-led activities when visiting National Parks. Pinnacles NP offers a nice selection, including guided-walks, evening talks and more. They even have nighttime guided walks. These activities are all free and you can see them here in the park's calendar.
If you're traveling with kids, encourage them to do the junior ranger program. These are always awesome, and the kids get cool badges to keep as souvenirs. My boys have over 60 of these!
What to do near Pinnacles National Park
If you're looking to do some things outside the park, you can enjoy nearby Soledad, a town that's easily accessible from the eastern entrance of Pinnacles NP.
Fun Water Activities in Soledad
Soledad offers a change of pace if you're wanting to cool off. While Pinnacles National Park offers no river for outdoor sporting, Soledad can boast of the Arroyo Seco, the main tributary of the Salinas River, forty miles in length.
The Arroyo Seco offers a variety of fun things to do, whether it be relaxing on inner tubes in the water or getting your adrenaline up by going cliff diving. All activities at the Arroyo Seco is at the beginner level so you can relax and enjoy the fun if you've never tried cliff diving. There are lovely shallow areas for the children to wade in.
Get a taste of the history of Soledad
If you're a history bug, don't miss the Soledad Mission, a Spanish mission founded by the Franciscan order in 1791. With the cool, white building, the Franciscans desired to convert Native Americans to Catholicism.
Visitors can tour the mission, now a museum, seven days a week. Occasionally, other than being closed on some holidays, the mission remains open from 10 am to 4 pm. Visitors should call ahead at (831) 678-2586 for holiday hours.
If you're up for a little scare, try visiting the Los Coches Adobe. Visitors report the historical building seems haunted with thrills ranging from goosebumps driving by to hearing screams with no screamers present.
Enjoy Hot Springs in the North
You could travel about an hour north of Pinnacles and visit the Mercey Hot Springs. Mercey Springs offers a small resort for day visits or overnights, in addition, as desired.
The Resort offers 19 therapeutic hot tubs, dry sauna, geo-thermally heated mineral water swimming pool as well as lodgings.
The luxuries are not the only draw to Mercey Hot Springs Resort. Often, Bird watchers come from around the world to attempt to catch a quick look at their favorite birds. Managing to snap a quick photo would be even better.
Long-eared Owls, Great-horned Owls, Hawks, Eagles, Finches, Phoebe’s, Hummingbirds, King Birds, in addition to Orioles, Mountain Blue Birds, Ravens, Vultures and more can be found in the environment.
Explore the Monterey Peninsula
Pinnacles National Park is about an hour away from Monterey - where you can find so many things to see and do. Here's a link to my post about things to do in Monterey Bay where you can find lots of ideas that will keep you busy for days on end.
When's the best time to visit Pinnacles National Park?
The Pinnacles area is not far from the coast where it's usually cool throughout the year. However, it's far enough inland to be much hotter during summertime. If you plan on hiking, it's best to avoid the hot summer months, as this is what temperatures are like by month -
In terms of visitors density, season peaks for Pinnacles National Park during March and April. Other busy times for the park occur during holidays and weekends. The busiest time of day takes place between 10 am and 2 pm.
Places to Stay when visiting Pinnacles National Park
If you're not camping in the park, you can find accommodation in nearby Soledad. For example, the Valley Harvest Inn, just nine miles away. Alternatively, you can enjoy a day trip to Pinnacles National Park while staying for longer in the Monterey Bay area. There's no shortage of great places to stay there, such as the Butterfly Grove Inn for about $224 per night.
Great Places to Eat when visiting Pinnacles National Park
The park itself is perfect for a picnic but if you want, you can get some grub at nearby Soledad.
The Corner House
In nearby Soledad, on Kidder Street, is a practical little place that offers everything from breakfast to comfort food. In addition, they also feature a happy hour.
The Teriyaki Express is an inexpensive but delicious Japanese restaurant. Often, visitors rate it highly for a quick bite of comfort food.
If you have a craving for Mexican, stop at the Taqueria Pacheco for an appealing menu to choose from. The small town of Soledad is big on good food that's also inexpensive. Visitors' difficulty will be choosing which restaurant.
Enjoy your time at Pinnacles National Park! And if you have more tips or ideas on what to do when visiting, do leave me a comment here!