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Things to do in Pinnacles National Park- Caves, Hikes & More!

Things to do in Pinnacles National Park- Caves, Hikes & More!

California is home to its fair share of famous national parks. Relatively few know about Pinnacles, which is a shame because there are lots of great things to do in Pinnacles National Park.

What is Pinnacles National Park known for? This special place is famous for its caves, hikes, rock climbing, camping, and condors. 

Things to do in Pinnacles National Park- Your Complete Guide

Where is Pinnacles National Park located?

Pinnacles National Park is located in Central California

Pinnacles National Park is located in southeastern Monterey County, about two hours from the famed Silicon Valley.

The drive to the park can make it seem surprising that there is a a national park nearby. While the rolling agricultural landscape does have some charm, it didn’t have enough “wow factor” to place it on the high pedestal where our national parks reside. Even as you approach the official Pinnacles National Park sign, you might still be questioning what is so special about this place.

That is, until you round a corner and the suddenly the landscape dramatically changes. Volcanic spires tower high above in stark contrast to the rounded edges you will become accustomed to seeing on the way to the park.

Birds soar in the air currents high above the peaks. Could they be the critically endangered California condors that call this park home? The Pinnacles are begging you to explore.

Pinnacles National Park- What to Know Before You Go

Pinnacles is one of our nation’s newest national parks. It is most popular with rock climbers, hikers, and bird watchers looking to catch a glimpse of the prairie falcon or California condor.

In many ways this national park still has the feel of a national monument since services are very limited and concessions are non-existent. Be sure to bring in your own food and water.

There is no cell phone reception in the park unless you are up in the High Peaks area.

The good news is that the remote location and limited services also mean that this park is far less crowded than some of the other popular California national parks, despite its proximity to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Though my family visited during the busy Spring Break period, we encountered few people on the trails which really enhanced our outdoor experience.

There is a Junior Ranger program at Pinnacles National Park. Booklets can be picked up at the visitor center at the East Entrance.

There is a campground at Pinnacles National Park on the east side of the park, but it does fill up early.There are tent and RV sites and most RV sites have electrical hookups and share community tables and barbecue pits.

There are also coin showers as well as a pool that is open during the warmer months.

The campground was full by the time we booked our last-minute trip to Pinnacles, so my family stayed in a motel in King City the night before our visit and spent all day inside the park.

King City is about an hour outside the park along Highway 101. There are no towns or services between King City and the park, so be sure to fill up your gas tank before heading in.

When is the best time to visit Pinnacles National Park?

Things to do in Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles is best visited October through March, when the caves are fully open and the temperatures are mild. During the summer this park can get very hot and daytime highs often soar above 100 degrees. Bear Gulch Cave is also closed mid-May through mid-July to protect the baby bats.

The entire cave is mostly likely to be open in October and March. Check the status of the caves before you go.

East Entrance vs. West Entrance to Pinnacles National Park

There are two entrances to the park, East and West, and the roads do not interconnect.

The West Entrance is near the city of Soledad. It is the quickest to access from the Monterey area. Hwy 146 is narrow and windy. It is not recommended for RVs or large vehicles. The only services on this side of the park are a visitor contact station, restrooms, and water. The gate opens daily at 7:30am.

The East Entrance is accessed either via King City from the south or Hollister from the north. This is the most developed area as it contains the campground, which is the only lodging with the park. The campground does have a swimming pool, showers, and several shaded spots. A visitor center and small camp store are also located at this entrance.

Bear Gulch Cave vs Balconies Cave in Pinnacles National Park

Bear Gulch Cave

Bear Gulch Cave in Pinnacles National Park
Climbing Through Bear Gulch Cave, photo by Sharlene Earnshaw

Located on the east side of the park, the Bear Gulch area is one of the highlights of the park and an ideal home base for families taking day trips to Pinnacles National Park. A large parking lot sits at the bottom of Bear Gulch while a smaller lot is a bit further up the road near the trailhead. 

The trailhead leads to the caves and .3-mile trail connects the two spots. A shaded picnic area close to the parking lot and restrooms makes an ideal lunch spot.

The hike on the Moses Spring Trail to Bear Gulch Cave Trail is easy but does head uphill at a moderate grade. There is quite a bit of shade, boulders to climb, and plenty of great scenery. The trail heads into large talus caves which are formed by the boulders and incredibly fun to wander, climb, and scramble through.

Definitely bring flashlights or headlamps because it can get very dark in some spots. The trail then heads up to Bear Gulch reservoir before heading back down via the Rim Trail, creating a loop. The entire loop is 2.2 miles and gains 500 feet in elevation. It really is a fantastic little hike.

Note: portions of the cave are closed during bat breeding season so that the bats are not disturbed. Check the park website for up to date information before going.

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Balconies Cave

Balconies Cave Trail at Pinnacles National Park
Balconies Cave Trail, photo by Flickr/DocentJoyce

If you are on the west side of the park, the Balconies Cave loop is a good option for families looking to explore some talus caves.

There is 2.4-mile loop trail which takes hikers into these caves. Balconies Cave is darker and longer than Bear Gulch Cave. As with the Bear Gulch Cave, flashlights or headlamps are necessary. Partial cave closures take place during bat breeding season.

So which cave do you choose? Well that depends on which side you enter the park since the two sides do not connect.

The east side is more developed and my choice if you only have time to visit one side of the park. I do encourage you to stay the night and make time to see Balconies Cave on the west side the next day.

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High Peaks Trail

Hiking is one of the best things to do in Pinnacles National Park
Reaching Heights at Pinnacles National Park, photo by Sharlene Earnshaw

Beyond the caves, the other obvious standout at this national park are the otherworldly high peaks which were created by a volcanic activity in Southern California (near Lancaster) many millennia ago.

These tremendous rocky peaks traveled up to Central California via the seismic shifting of the San Andreas Fault, creating a terrific hiking and bird-watching environment for park visitors today.

As one would imagine, the hike to the High Peaks is uphill. My family took the High Peaks Loop Trail from the Bear Gulch/Moses Spring area all the way up to the high point at Scout Peak which is sits 2605 feet above sea level, resulting in a 1425 foot elevation gain in about 2 miles (making this a 4-mile out and back hike).

The trail is considered strenuous but was very doable for my active eight-year-olds. We saw another family with young children enjoying the views from the top as well.

This section of the park is an ideal place to take in sprawling views and catch a glimpse of the massive wingspan of the California Condor as it glides through the sky on an air current. 

Instead of heading back down via the same route, it is also possible to turn this hike into a loop totaling close to six miles. The loop will take you through the High Peaks famed steep and narrow section.

This section does have steep drop-offs and some railings to help with the narrow sections. It is best tackled by older kids and adults with plenty of hiking experience. Scout Peak can also be accessed from the west side via the Juniper Canyon Trail. It is a similar length and steepness as the trek from Bear Gulch.

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Sharlene Earnshaw