Postcards & Passports

Pinnacles National Park in a Day

Pinnacles National Park is a beautiful and unique park located in central California. The park is home to a variety of landscapes, including towering spires, lush forests, grasslands, and winding canyons. Pinnacles also hosts a variety of wildlife, including California condors, coyotes, and black bears.Pinnacles National Park entrance The smallest national park in California is still very impressive. However, because of its size, it is easier to visit Pinnacles National Park in a day.

My husband and I recently visited Pinnacles. We wanted to see its towering rock spires, enjoy the spring wildflower season, and spot a California Condor. We planned to hike as well — to have better views of the park and be surrounded by nature. While we did not have enough time in our schedule to make an extensive visit, we found that one day was sufficient to do everything we wanted to. Pinnacles National Park certainly did not disappoint!

I’d love to share with you what we liked about Pinnacles, how we got there, some tips for visiting (and saving money), and why we suggest you go, too!

What’s So Special About Pinnacles?

Some of the highlights of Pinnacles National Park include:

  • High Peaks: The High Peaks are the most iconic feature of Pinnacles National Park. These towering spires are made of volcanic rock and offer stunning views of the surrounding landscape. The High Peaks Trail, although quite strenuous, is the most popular trail in the park.
  • Talus Caves: Pinnacles is home to a number of talus caves, formed when rocks fall from the cliffs and create a jumble of boulders. Talus caves are a great place to explore and can be home to a variety of wildlife, including bats and rodents.
  • Wildlife: Here you’ll find a variety of wildlife, including California condors, coyotes, and black bears. The condors are an endangered species and are a major draw for visitors.  We personally saw deer, rabbits, lizards, squirrels, and the turkey vultures and condors at Condor Ridge.
  • Hiking: There are a variety of trails for all levels of experience, ranging from easy walks to challenging climbs.
  • Wildflowers: In the spring, there are over 100 species of wildflowers that bloom. We visited in April, and I was amazed at the beauty and variety of wildflowers.
  • Stargazing: Because Pinnacles is isolated from city lights, it is a designated dark sky location and is a wonderful place for viewing the stars.
  • Camping: Pinnacles National Park has a number of campgrounds that offer a variety of amenities, including showers, restrooms, and picnic tables. This variety of campgrounds is not offered in many other national parks. There’s even has a refreshing swimming pool and general store.

Getting to Pinnacles National Park

Our trip to Pinnacles lasted only 30 hours. Coming from San Diego, we flew to San Jose on a Friday afternoon, using Southwest miles and a companion fare. We rented a car from the airport and drove to the east entrance of the park (2.5 hours). We chose the east entrance because of the trails we could access from there. You’d have to drive all the way around to the other side of the park if you wanted to use the west entrance because there’s no road between them.

The sun was setting, but we drove to the Old Pinnacles parking lot and got out to explore a little and take a photo.. We felt like we had the park to ourselves, but a park volunteer came along and helped us figure out what we wanted to do when we returned the next morning. That first glimpse of the park introduced us to some beautiful wildflowers, the croaking of frogs along the stream, and the last golden colors of the sunset.

Dinner and a Motel

We then drove back to our hotel in Hollister, CA (45 minutes), checked in, and went to find some dinner. We found a surprising treat — a cafe at the Hollister Municipal Airport called Seabrisa’s Eatery. The food was delicious and the staff very friendly. After dinner, we found a grocery store and stocked up on lunch and snacks for our day at Pinnacles.

Our motel, Hollister Inn, was average, but the price was very good. We booked it through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal to use our annual $50 hotel credit. Hollister Inn was comfortable and had all the amenities we needed. We had to be patient with a group playing loud music and talking in the parking lot, but when we called the front desk, the manager was good to quiet them down.

Back to the Park

One of the tips we learned from the park volunteer the night before is that we should arrive early. We just happened to have planned our trip on Earth Day as it turned out. And that is a free admission day for Pinnacles. Besides the popularity of a free day, there are a limited number of parking spaces inside the park if you are not camping there.

So we got up early and arrived at 7:30 am. We parked at the Old Pinnacles parking lot again and took the Old Pinnacles trail which followed the stream for awhile. When we got to the Blue Oak Trail, we took that and headed up the hill. This is where we were told we would see a lot of wildflowers. And we did!

Hiking in Pinnacles

As we hiked further up the mountain, it got warmer and warmer. We were very glad we got an early start! Plus, I’m a 61-yr old grandma who doesn’t do a lot of hiking. I would call this uphill stretch with lots of switchbacks a strenuous hike. I was grateful to get to what I thought was the top. Just look at this view!

But it wasn’t the top. Luckily the trail leveled out for awhile and then gradually started up another hill. It wasn’t as lush and green, but there were still wildflowers growing.

It was here that more trails converged, and we headed down (key word being DOWN) the Condor Gulch Trail. But it is worth your time to stop and view Condor Ridge from this trail. You will certainly see large birds riding the air currents near the tallest rock pillars. And probably at least one of them will be a California Condor! We mostly saw turkey vultures, but we did see a Condor too.

Here’s a video of the birds we saw:

Along Condor Gulch Trail, we stopped at a very interesting viewpoint. Behind us was Condor Ridge and ahead of us a tumble of water-eroded rocks with a bit of a waterfall — and an incredible view of the valley ahead.

Eventually we made it to the Bear Gulch station, where we could refill our water bottles, use the restrooms, and catch a shuttle. Our hike was 4.2 miles and took us about 4 hours — but that’s because we stopped a lot to take photos!

The Park Shuttle

It’s great that Pinnacles has a shuttle to make it easier to get around the park, at least on the weekends. We took the shuttle from Bear Gulch to the Manzanita Parking Area (as close as it would go to the Old Pinnacles parking lot). After walking a mile to our car to eat lunch, we decided to risk losing our parking space and drive back to Bear Gulch. We found a parking space there and went to see the Bear Gulch Nature Center. Turns out it was closed, but they did have a station where I could stamp my National Parks Passport book. So we got back on the shuttle and rode down to the visitor center at the Pinnacles Campground.

Using the shuttle was a great way to see more of the park in comfort! Up to this point, it was easy to catch one of two shuttles when we wanted to, without much wait at all. That would change later!

Visitor Center

The Visitor Center was really a combination bookstore with a few exhibits and a General Store for the campers, but it was fun to see all the souvenir items and buy some ice cream from the store. Behind the store was a swimming pool that looked very inviting this afternoon, but it was only for the use of registered campers.

We grabbed the shuttle and went back to Bear Gulch to get our car. By now, it was about 2:00 pm and quite warm (in the 70’s). Honestly there wasn’t anything else we wanted to do since we didn’t feel up to another long hike, and we’d already seen so many of the park highlights. We were shocked to see how long the line was to get on the next shuttle. Supposedly they run every fifteen minutes or so, but some of these people were going to end up waiting an hour for a shuttle ride. As we were getting in our car, a young woman ran over and asked if she could ride with us to the east entrance where her car was — and we were happy to help!

The Challenge to Visiting Pinnacles

Parking lots are few and far between at Pinnacles National Park. You can park outside the park and walk in, but it would be about a two-mile walk. Parking would be tricky on the highway. When we left at 2:00 pm, the line of cars waiting to enter the park was very long. They would let one car in for every car that left. Just another case for entering the park as early as you can! Or perhaps much later in the afternoon when all the early morning hikers are leaving.

The other solution is to camp overnight at the park. And really, this is a great idea because the campground is quite beautiful. Apparently it is very popular, especially in the spring and the fall. I would have loved to camp here, and maybe some day we’ll return with grandchildren and do just that.

Things You May Not Know About Pinnacles:

  • Pinnacles National Park is home to the largest concentration of bee species in the world. There are over 400 species of bees that live in Pinnacles National Park, more than any other place on Earth.
  • Pinnacles National Park is a major release site for California condors. California condors are an endangered species, and Pinnacles National Park is one of the few places where they are being released back into the wild.
  • Pinnacles National Park is a great place to rock climb. The park has a number of climbing routes for all levels of experience.

Best Tips for Visiting Pinnacles:

  • Park entrance fees – Vehicles – $30.00, Motorcycles – $25.00, Walk-ins or Bicycles – $15.00.
  • Plan your visit in advance if you’re camping. Make reservations!
  • Arrive as early as you can for cooler temperatures and a parking spot.
  • Be prepared for the weather.  Wear layers of clothing so you can adjust to changing temperatures as needed.
  • Wear good shoes with ankle support and nonslip soles.
  • Spring or fall are the best times of year to visit.
  • Bring plenty of water! The park is located in a dry area, so it is important to bring plenty of water. I brought two water bottles but should have brought my 2-liter Camelback. Bring more than you think you’ll need! (And maybe some chapstick too)
  • Bring a flashlight if you plan to explore the the caves.
  • Binoculars might be nice on the Condor Gulch Trail.
  • There is very little cell phone service within the park.
  • Be aware of your surroundings.  Take precautions to avoid encounters with wildlife, including snakes and bears. Absolutely no feeding of animals in the park. Also, no pets are allowed in the park.
  • Leave no trace. Pinnacles National Park is a beautiful and fragile place. It is important to leave no trace of your visit. Pack out all of your trash and be respectful of the park’s natural resources.

After a Day at Pinnacles

We had an 8:30 pm flight back to San Diego, so we drove back to San Jose for dinner before going to the airport. The rolling hills and farmland much of the way back are quite beautiful, so take the time to enjoy the views.

There aren’t a lot of things to do in San Jose. I do really like and recommend Kelley Park, but it was closed, and there’s no place to eat unless you bring a picnic. We went to check out Little Italy near Guadalupe River Park, but it is more of a homeless encampment next to the tiniest Little Italy I have ever seen! Finally we discovered San Pedro Square with a wonderful Mexican restaurant called Olla Cocina. The vibe was great here, as well as a range of restaurant choices and a historic adobe home, built in 1797.

Summary: Pinnacles National Park in a Day

Overall, Pinnacles National Park may be one of the lesser known national parks, but it is no less beautiful and worthy of your exploration. We absolutely loved our hiking and sightseeing day! If you have a bucket list that includes visiting some or all of the national parks, consider planning a trip to see it. For us, seeing Pinnacles National Park in a day was very enjoyable and may be for you as well.

Here’s our 5-minute recap of our Pinnacles National Park in a day!

If you’d like to read about more of our national park visits, see the following posts:

White Sands National Park and Saguaro National Park

Zion National Park

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Joshua Tree National Park

Arches and Canyonlands National Parks

Death Valley National Park

Mammoth Cave National Park

Pinnackes National Park in a day

Pinnacles National Park in a day

 

 

13 thoughts on “Pinnacles National Park in a Day

  1. Jill Brueckheimer

    What do you know about the western side of the park? We plan to go there next year. Love your reviews! Thanks so much as we look forward to use many of them for a 15 NP trip next year,

    1. Tami Post author

      I know nothing about the west side except that there is a visitor center there as well. Knowing we had limited time, I researched the best trails for us and my skill level and decided the east side would better meet our needs. But perhaps I’ll return someday and see the other side also! You’ll have to let me know what you decide.

  2. pamela

    Pinnacles National Park looks so beautiful and seems a perfect spot for outdoor activites like hiking, walking and exploring the greenery. Your pictures make it so amazing that I am also planning to visit this park

  3. Linda (LD Holland)

    Pinnacles National Park was one of the spots we missed in California. But I can see we need to plan to visit on a return trip. We would certainly go to see the towering spires and caves. But I would be careful to avoid the black bears! Great to know that there is a shuttle that works on the weekends. But the parking issue would send us there for a very early start. It would be great to stay overnight and really enjoy some star gazing.

  4. Bhushavali

    You got me the moment you said that it’s perfect for stargazing as its so far from the city lights and isolated. Good to know that you planned to go in the right spring wildflower season, and to spot a California Condor. Oh my! It seems to be quite a tricky place to visit by car if the parking available is so poor.

  5. Lisa

    This is a great guide to Pinnacles National Park, especially for someone who has never heard of it before. The views are wonderful and well done you for hiking it, I feel so lazy just reading about it! The lack of parking does seem to be an issue, you can see it from your photos. Good to know that Earth Day is free admission! I’d like to time my visit around this time too.

  6. Joanna

    What a beautiful welcome to the Pinnacles National park, with that stunning sunset, wildflowers and frogs by the stream. The Condor Gulch Trail looks like a great choice for a day trip to the park. I like that the scenery changes, from lush greens to bare vegetation but birds of prey. And those beautiful views from the top! It’s good to know that it’s best to arrive as early as possible, especially on days like Earth Day when the entrance is free. Spending hours in the queue to enter the car park surely isn’t fun.

  7. Ambica Gulati

    I love geological sites. Pinnacles, actually made from volcanic activity, has amazing topography. However, that long of line of cars means you have to be an early riser. It’s interesting to know that this park has the most number of bee species. The condors flying high up, through the rocky ridges, was a beautiful capture. Given a chance, I would like to camp for the night and then enjoy an early hike to see the birds.

  8. Maria Veloso

    Pinnacles National Park offers a wealth of sights; therefore, I can confidently recommend a visit. Those wildflowers are really lovely! Many thanks for the information and travel advice on Pinnacles! If I ever visit this place, I’ll definitely keep this in mind.

  9. The Next Decor

    Exploring Pinnacles National Park in a day is a thrilling adventure!
    The rugged landscapes, towering rock formations, and diverse wildlife offer an immersive experience in the heart of nature.

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