Visitors Guide to Pinnacles National Park, California

Rebecca Hext

Being the 5th smallest National Park, Pinnacles National Park is often looked over by California residents. It’s pretty hard to compete with the popularity of Redwood, Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks. However, Pinnacles small space has a huge amount to offer. From cave hiking to unique rock formations to climbing, this park will not leave you disappointed at the end of a weekend.


Pinnacles National Park History

Pinnacles National Park was established in 1908 as a National monument. In 2013, former president Barack Obama graduated the area to National Park standing. The park is located just East of Soledad, which makes it a great stop if you are traveling up or down the California Coast.

The unique formation of Pinnacles National Park was created by a volcanic eruption. The eruption caused a piece of the volcano to be broken off by the San Andreas Pacific Plate.


The broken off volcanic piece was forced 195 miles northwest and created the pinnacle structures the park is known for today.


Pinnacles emerging from the ground inside the park
Pinnacles emerging from the ground inside the park


If you like to plan ahead of time you can reserve a campsite online at the Pinnacles National Park website. However, if you are of the spontaneous nature the park also offers walk-up reservations. Unless it is a holiday weekend, you will likely be able to get a spot doing a walk-up reservation. The benefit in doing a walk-up reservation is getting a chance to check out the plots in person before you make a decision. However, you do run the risk of getting stuck with a not ideal location for your personal camping preferences.

The park has a variety of different style campsites. They offer camp camping, tent camping, and even RV hookups. There is also quite a bit of diversity in campsite style. Some are more hidden in the trees and offer privacy. Others are located around the brims of circular grass areas that are perfect for big families. Each plot has one fire pit with grill bars for cooking and a cement picnic table.


Bear Gulch reservoir – image source
Bear Gulch reservoir – image source

An important thing to know when entering the park is that the park has two entrances; one on the East and one on the West. There is no road connecting one side of the park to the other. The campsite is located at the East entrance, so make sure to get yourself to the correct location!

The West entrance has a day parking lot and you can access multiple trails from there.


Unfortunately, if you were planning on backpacking through this National Park, you are out of luck. Since the park is small, backcountry camping is not an option. If you want to spend multiple days here, you will have to reserve a campsite.

Cave Hiking

Now that the logistics are out of the way, let’s get to the fun stuff! Pinnacles’ has over 30 miles of trails despite its small size. One of the benefits of the small park is that a lot of the trails connect with each other. This gives visitors the opportunity to create fun and different trail plans that work for their fitness level and ability.


Cave hiking is a must if you are visiting Pinnacles. Balconies Cliffs-Cave Loop is located at the West entrance. This hike is slightly easier than the Bear Gulch Caves but equally as beautiful. The caves are more horizontal than vertical but do have a short climbing section to exit the caves. Sometimes the floor of this cave is mushy due to flooding, so be sure to wear shoes you don’t mind getting muddy.


The trail leading up the entrance of Bear Gulch Caves
The trail leading up the entrance of Bear Gulch Caves


On the East entrance of the park, hikers can visit the Bear Gulch Caves. These caves were created after years and years of the tall pinnacle structures falling down. This set of caves has a small creek that runs through it and a set of stairs to assist hikers in hiking up and through the dark cave. The trail spits hikers out at the lovely Bear Gulch Reservoir which is a perfect place to hang out and eat a snack.

If you are planning on heading to either set of caves, be sure to bring a headlamp or flashlight. The caves get extremely dark and flashlights are required by the park when entering the caves.

General Hiking

If you are looking for more fun after exiting Bear Gulch Caves, you can keep on hiking to the tallest peak in the park, North Chalone Peak. If you are looking to avoid the crowds, this is the hike for you! Although it is the tallest peak in the park, the trail has a reasonable, steady climb. From the top, you can see the majority of the park and the surrounding areas.


Sunset view from the ‘Steep and Narrow’ section of the High Peaks Trail
Sunset view from the ‘Steep and Narrow’ section of the High Peaks Trail

Lastly, a must do section for adrenaline junkies is the Steep and Narrow section of the High Peaks Trail. This trail takes hikers directly over the main set of pinnacles in the park. With handrails and footloose etched into the rock, this trail is not for the faint of heart. If you are courageous enough to hike up for sunset and head down the steep rocks with headlamps, you will not be disappointed!


The park also offers a couple climbing options for visitors. On the east side of the park, climbers can check out Tourist Trap and Discovery Wall. On the west side, popular areas are Passion Play and Game Show. However, due to the weak rock and poor protection, climbing in the park is not recommended for beginners.

If you are looking for easier routes, head over to Discovery Wall. First Sister, Ordeal Portent, and Wet Kiss are all popular routes for newer climbers. Always be sure to check the difficulty rating on routes and be honest with your ability level.


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rebecca-hext is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival