Visiting Pinnacles National Park Guide

Visiting Pinnacles National Park
The view of the rocky high peaks in Pinnacles National Park.

With nine national parks, California has more than any other state in the union. Yosemite was a state park before Yellowstone was deemed the world’s first National Park, so in a way Yosemite holds claim to a similar title. Here in a state with so much beauty, one national park almost seems forgotten—Pinnacles National Park. However, visiting Pinnacles National Park is truly an amazing adventure and one that everyone who enjoys nature, wildlife, and/or geology should seek out.

History/Geology

Bear Gulch Cave
The steps descending into the Bear Gulch Cave.

The history of Pinnacles National Park is less of a human endeavor and more of astonishing geologic history and our understanding of it. The reigning theory of how this unique eroded landscape rose up in the otherwise rolling hills of California’s farmland is amazing. The story is that a volcanic field through several eruptions created the original superstructure of the Pinnacles. This volcanic region was created when the North American tectonic plate rose over the ancient Farallon Plate. Like many ancient volcanoes, weather and time have worn the volcanic mass down creating the jagged Pinnacles we see today. 

A Geologic Mystery

Cloudy when Visiting Pinnacles National Park
A face in the rock emerges from the fog at Pinnacles National Park.

The real mystery has been where did this volcanic activity originate? While the grinding of the North American Plate against the Farallon Plate released the magma that created the Pinnacles, the movement of the Pacific Plate along the San Andres Fault line has displaced the Pinnacles. It is now believed that the Pinnacles we know today rode the San Andreas Fault 195 miles from their birthplace north of present-day Los Angeles. It is believed that a 1/3rd of the pinnacles mass remains near LA in a place called Neenach where scientists have compared the geology of the now weathered low rolling hills to the Pinnacles’ geology and believe the rock formations were once joined. For more information on the geology, visit Pinnacles National Park’s visitor center or check out their website.

The Best Time to Visit Pinnacles National Park

Arroyo Lupine Flowers
Flowers bloom in the park nearly year-round but Spring has the most abundance.

All the seasons bring unique beauty and wonder to Pinnacles National Park. However, the best time to visit Pinnacles National Park and to see the wildlife is in late Winter and early Spring. Autumn is also a cooler time and an enjoyable season to visit the park when the changing leaves paint the park in color. Summers are typically very hot making this the least enjoyable season in the park.

Activities

Pinnacles National Park is only 42 square miles. For comparison, Yosemite is 1,169 square miles. There is, however, a lot to see and do when visiting Pinnacles National Park. There are several amazing hiking trails. Wildlife is abundant in the park, especially birds. The unique talus caves are home to several species of bats and are fun to explore by nearly all skill levels. The park also has some interesting displays and a movie about the history and geology of the park at the Bear Gulch visitor center. The campground is a great spot to unplug, relax, and listen to the sound of birds chirping in the day and frogs croaking at night.

Caving

Talus Cave
Massive boulders wedged into cracks in the earth create the ceiling of talus caves.

The word “caving” invokes images like Carlsbad’s art gallery-like formations or the monstrous caverns and labyrinth-like superstructure of Mammoth Cave. The caves at Pinnacles National Park don’t resemble either of these. The Pinnacle caves are considered talus caves. They were formed when massive boulders broke away from the cliffs above and fell into crevices, lodging in place and creating caves beneath. The structure of a talus cave is very porous allowing for light to penetrate deep into the spaces but still dark enough that many cave species like bats call them home. There are two talus caves that are open to the public at Pinnacles National Park. The Bear Gulch Cave and Balconies Caves. Explore the Bear Gulch Cave as part of the Moses Spring-Rim Trail (Small Loop). The Balconies caves are an option on the much longer High Peaks – Balconies Cave Loop (Long Loop).

Rock Climbing

Pinnacles National Park is a very popular rock climbing destination. There are many routes found throughout the park ranging from 5.2 to 5.12. The geology of the park makes this a unique climbing experience. The park service has many regulations about where you can climb and best practices for staying safe. Before visiting Pinnacles National Park check out the website to get more information on climbing.

Birding

California Condor
All the California Condors are numbered and tracked to ensure they are thriving in Pinnacles National Park.

Pinnacles National Park is a great place to spot many forms of wildlife including coyotes, bats, and deer but birds are the true wildlife draw of the park. Hawks, falcons, turkey vultures, quail, and many other small birds call the national park home for at least some part of the year but the California Condor is the real reason birders flock here. The rocky crags at the very top of the Pinnacles formation is one of the few places where the endangered Condor has been reintroduced and is thriving.

Hiking

The High Peaks
Jennifer traverses the half mile narrow section of the High Peaks Trail. The shallow steeps are carved into the rock face.

Hiking is a must-do when visiting Pinnacles National Park. It is the only way to fully experience the wonders hidden within the park. The park’s official hiking map lists 13 trails but most overlap one another. I would say the real number of hiking trails totals about five and even those overlap one another to a certain degree.

Pinnacles Campground

Campsite - Visiting Pinnacles National Park
Our campsite in the tent area of the Pinnacles Campground.

The Pinnacles National Park campground is an amazing large campground that fills up surprisingly fast. It is overpriced like most of California’s campgrounds, but it is nice to stay inside the park. The campground isn’t close to any of the main trailheads, but there is a park shuttle bus that accesses the east side trailheads. This is very convenient as many of the parking lots in the park are small. Once settled into the campground there is no need to move your vehicle during your visit to Pinnacle National Park.

Animals

Turkey Vultures
A tree just across from the Pinnacles Campground was full of turkey vultures.

The Pinnacles’ campground is beautiful with all kinds of creatures passing through. We had deer, turkey, and quail to name a few. My favorite was falling asleep to the sound of frogs singing.

Facilities

The sites are spaced fairly well especially the “tent” sites. The buildings with toilets and sinks dot the campground. There is a shower house near the entrance although it is very small with only two showers for men and two for women. They are also coin-operated so make sure you bring some quarters. The showers are temperature controlled but not well. My wife’s shower was scalding hot while mine was frigid cold. There is no cell service of any kind at the campground so unplug and enjoy nature.

Visiting Pinnacles National Park

Visiting Pinnacles National Park
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While Pinnacles National Park is a small park that is seemingly out of the way of the typical California tourist loop, its geology, wildlife and amazing hiking trails make it a worthy National Park. The smaller nature of the park and its remote location make it one of the least visited parks in California. Only 222,000 people visited in 2018 while nearby Yosemite had over 4 million. In an age when our most popular National Parks are over-crowded, it is nice that such a unique place like Pinnacles is still relatively hidden. Visiting Pinnacles National Park should be on your list when vacationing in California.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Bridget says:

    Interesting! I thought I knew all the National Parks, but have never heard of Pinnacles. Looks like it would be a great park to get away from the crowds. Looks like a beautiful park.
    Bridget recently posted…Wounded Warrior Project Carry Forward 5K – I Carry For…..My Profile

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