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 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.
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.
Best of Pinnacles National Park
The best, if not only, way to explore the remarkable landscapes of Pinnacles National Park is on foot. There are about 30 miles (50 kilometers) of trails in the park, which makes it possible to cover every feet of them in two or three days. If you only have one day, however, I recommend hiking the High Peaks Trail, undoubtedly the park’s best trail.
You still have a few different options, as the High Peaks Trail is a one-way trail that can be made into various loops by linking other trails. These are the most popular options for a great day hike in Pinnacles National Park:
- 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.
When to Visit Pinnacles National Park?
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.
A day and a night is enough time to hike the High Peaks Trail and some of the shorter trails in the park.
Pinnacles National Park Map (East Side)
This map points out the main attractions and facilities in Pinnacles National Park and outlines the two High Peaks Trail loops, the best hikes in the park. The High Peaks Trail itself is depicted in red. The orange line is the Condor Gulch Trail, the yellow the Bear Gulch Trail.
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
Location: Central California, United States
Nearest Towns: Hollister, King City and Soledad
Area: 41 square miles (107 square kilometers)
Features: Boulder fields, caves, rock spires and other rock formations, wildlife
Main Attractions: Bear Gulch Cave and Reservoir, High Peaks Trail, California condors
Main Activities: Hiking, rock climbing, bird watching, camping
Suggested Stay: 1 day / 1 night
More Information: National Park Service
Nearby National Parks
Other Mountain Parks
Pinnacles National Park Photos
Visit my national parks photography portfolio for a bunch of awesome photos of Pinnacles National Park.