After a few hour’s drive through the endlessly rolling farmlands of central California’s Salinas Valley, the towering landscape of Pinnacles National Park seems out of place. And it literally is.
The steep canyons, rock spires, monumental monoliths and boulder-covered caves of the youngest of America’s national parks—its status was changed from national monument to national park in 2013—are the remains of a twenty-million-year-old volcano. The park encompasses two-thirds of this ancient volcanic field, while the other third lies 195 miles (more than 300 kilometers) to the southeast.
Like I said, this landscape literally doesn’t belong where it is. Due to its location on the San Andreas Fault, the volcanic field was split in two as the Pacific plate crawled its way northward. Tectonic activity carried the Pinnacles volcanic field north and it continues to do so today—at a rate of one inch (2.5 centimeters) every year.
Remarkable Landscapes, Outdoor Fun
Although this is by no means the most famous or the most spectacular of the national parks in America, its unique location and remarkable landscape make it totally worth visiting. Just like Channel Islands National Park, this is a much quieter park than the other, superstar national parks in California and the rest of the southwestern United States, most notably Yosemite, Death Valley and Grand Canyon. Additionally, it lies conveniently in between Los Angeles and San Francisco, a short meandering drive inland from the Pacific coast.
A visit, in other words, is mandatory if you’re spending some time in the area and are looking for a quieter alternative to California’s most famous and busiest destinations.
The park is also of interest to wildlife-watchers because it’s one of only a few places in California where captive-bred California condors, the largest bird in North America, are released into the wild. If you’re lucky enough, you might see them making circles high up in the sky during your day hike in Pinnacles National Park.
The High Peaks Trail
The only way to really explore and experience Pinnacles National Park is on foot, although rock climbing is a popular activity as well. With more than 30 miles (50 kilometers) of trails, there’s a number of great day hikes in Pinnacles National Park. Most trails intersect at some point, making it possible to piece together a hike that suits your physical ability perfectly.
The one trail that you should use as the base for a day hike in Pinnacles National Park is the High Peaks Trail.
This is a one-way trail that can be made into a couple of loops of various lengths by combining it with other trails.
- The High Peaks-Bear Gulch Loop is a 6.7-mile (10.8-kilometer) loop and is arguably the most difficult hike in the East Side of the park.
- The High Peaks-Condor Gulch Loop, a challenging 5.3-mile (8.5-kilometers) ascent to the park’s characteristic rock spires and boulder fields, also is in the East Side.
- The difficult High Peaks-Balconies Cave Loop is 8.4 miles (13.5 kilometers) long and begins in the West Side of the park.
I personally recommend hiking the High Peaks-Condor Gulch Loop. It’s short enough to remain fun and pleasant all the way, yet there are some serious challenges as well. And the views are out of this world. It’s the perfect day hike in Pinnacles National Park.
High Peaks-Condor Gulch Loop
This essential hike takes you into the High Peaks, deep in the heart of Pinnacles National Park. It’s classified as strenuous because of its occasionally very steep grade, not because of its daunting length. The trail’s “steep and narrow section” involves climbing ladders and steep rock-carved steps, aided by railings.
It’s a super-fun hike if you don’t mind some adventure, but people who have a serious fear of heights might want to think twice about doing this. (That said, I have a fear of heights, too, but I had a blast on this trail. I just felt like I should mention it.)
The High Peaks-Condor Gulch Loop is the perfect introduction to and arguably the best day hike in Pinnacles National Park.
Once you get to the High Peaks area, the views are nothing but sensational in all directions. With its countless stacked boulders and protruding pinnacles, it’s perfect for adventure-style photos.
When to Hike the High Peaks Trail?
Pinnacles National Park’s most popular time of the year is from mid-February to late-May. Spring sees the most comfortable temperatures while abundant wildflowers cover the slopes. Make sure to book a campsite way in advance if you’re planning on visiting the park in the busy season. The campground is typically full, especially on weekends.
I strongly recommend visiting Pinnacles National Park on a weekday in, say, March or April. Those days tend to be relatively quiet compared with Saturdays and Sundays. Visiting in the off-season is, of course, even better if you’re looking for solitude.
Pinnacles National Park’s Two Different Areas
There are two separate entrances to Pinnacles National Park, one in the east and one in the west. There’s no road that connects them. The East Entrance is where you want to go, especially if you’re just spending one day in Pinnacles National Park. This is where you’ll find the visitor center, the park’s only campground, exhibits, a small store, picnic areas, drinking water and restrooms.
The East Entrance lies off of Route 25 between the towns of Hollister and King City, both located about 30 miles (50 kilometers) in either direction. These towns are the only places to get gas and groceries in the area, so you might want to fuel and stock up before heading to the park.
High Peaks Trail Map and Details
In the map below, the red line indicates the High Peaks Trail. The Bear Gulch Trail is yellow, the Condor Gulch Trail orange. Note that the loop trails in the West Side of the park aren’t outlined in this map. The reason is simple: the most complete day visit to Pinnacles National Park should objectively be in the East Side.
High Peaks Loop via Bear Gulch Trail (Red and Yellow)
- Distance: 6.7 miles (10.8 kilometers)
- Duration: 4 to 5 hours
- Difficulty: strenuous
- Trailhead: parking lot at the end of Bear Gulch road
High Peaks Loop via Condor Gulch Trail (Red and Orange)
- Distance: 5.3 miles (8.5 kilometers)
- Duration: 3 to 5 hours
- Difficulty: strenuous
- Trailhead: parking lot at the end of the Bear Gulch road