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Pinnacles National Park

Visiting Pinnacles National Park


Pinnacles National Park

View in West Pinnacles

©2010 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.
  • Hours: Open daily, but west entrance parking lot closes nightly. After that, you can exit but can't get in until the following morning.
  • Reservations: Not required (except for the campground and some night programs)
  • Cost: Small per-vehicle fee - exceptions below1
  • Location: South of San Jose and Gilroy, directions below
  • How Long: Allow at least an hour, longer depending on where you plan to hike
  • Best Time to Visit: Spring, fall, and winter are the most popular times to visit Pinnacles National Park. Summers are hot (over 100°F) and dry. Very busy during spring weekends.

Pinnacles National Park's rugged red rocks are all that's left of 23,000,000-year-old Neenach Volcano. It once stood 8,000 feet high near what is now Lancaster, 195 miles south. The San Andreas Fault ripped the old volcano in half and it took the rocks a few million years to get here. According to the National Park Service, they're still moving - about an inch per year. At that rate, they'll be near where San Francisco is now in another 6 million years.

Meanwhile, Pinnacles National Park is popular with hikers, rock climbers and animal watchers. Campers enjoy its dark nighttime skies. It's also popular with families.

What Is there to Do at Pinnacles National Park?

Pinnacles National Park has two entrances, unconnected except by hiking trails. Both have similar terrain and scenery, but there are some differences:

The west entrance offers spectacular views of the rock formations from the parking lot and the easiest hike: a 2.4-mile round-trip loop. Spend just 5 to 10 minutes on this trail and you'll be glad you did.

The east entrance near Hollister is best if you plan to camp overnight or visit Bear Gulch Cave. There's a small nature center near the parking area.

  • Hiking: More than 30 miles of trails from easy, flat walks to difficult climbs. Park rangers can help you choose the best one for you.
  • Rock Climbing: Climbers enjoy the Pinnacles' rugged formations. Get more information from Friends of Pinnacles.
  • Caves: Pinnacles has two talus caves, tunnel-like caverns created when massive boulders fell into a narrow ravine. They're a feature some children especially love. Bear Gulch Cave is near the east entrance and the Balconies Cave is reached by hiking from the west. Caves are sometimes closed to protect resident bats or because of floods. Check their status.
  • Wildflowers: Some years, wildflowers put on an enthusiastic display at Pinnacles. It's the only time the park gets crowded.
  • Evening Programs: Full moon and dark sky hikes, bat viewings and astronomy programs happen on selected Fridays or Saturdays spring through fall. You may need to make reservations, in person or call 831-389-4486 ext. 243.

Wildlife at Pinnacles National Park

  • California Condors are the "rock star" animals at Pinnacles National Park, often seen soaring on their 9 1/2-foot wide wings, looking for food.
  • Townsend's Big-eared Bats live in the Bear Gulch Cave and Western Mastiff Bats are in residence around the Balconies Cave in spring and late summer. To protect females and pups, the caves may close from mid-May through Mid-July. Check their status.
  • Bees: Of all the animals found at Pinnacles, bees may be the most interesting. Some 400 species arrive in late spring to feed on the blooming wildflowers, ranging from the size of a mosquito to the size of a peanut shell - and you could see more than 200 in 2.3-miles on Old Pinnacles Trail.

Pinnacles National Park Tips

  • Bring a flashlight - you can't go into the caves without one. And after a rain, the caves get wet and muddy inside.
  • Bring binoculars, just in case the condors are around.
  • Bring all the food and water you need. In case you forget, visitor centers sell bottled water and flashlights.
  • Bring sunscreen, even in winter.
  • Dress in layers - sun, shade and wind combine to produce big temperature swings, even in a short distance.
  • The spiky chaparral covering the landscape is the reason early cowboys invented chaps - and your legs will thank you if you wear long trousers.
  • Wear sturdy shoes to hike or go into the caves.
  • Leave Bowser at home. Pets aren't allowed on the trails.
  • Watch out for poison oak and stinging nettle along the trails.

Where to Stay at Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles is an easy day trip from the Bay Area, but there are a few overnight options.

The only campground is near the east entrance, with RV, tent and group camping sites, convenience store, swimming pool and hot showers. Reserve through recreation.gov - well in advance - or call 877-444-6777.

Inn at the Pinnacles bed and breakfast is near the west entrance and you'll find a few places to stay in Hollister.

Where is Pinnacles National Park Located?

Pinnacles National Park
5000 Highway 146
Paicines, CA
Pinnacles National Park website

Pinnacles National Park is located about 90 miles south of San Jose. The two entrances are connected only by hiking trails. Read the descriptions above to decide which one you want to visit.

East Entrance: Exit US Hwy 101 south of Gilroy onto CA Hwy 25 south, go through Hollister about 30 miles then turn right onto CA Hwy 146.

West Entrance: Take US Hwy 101 to Soledad, then follow the signs and CA Hwy 146 east for 14 miles. This winding, sometimes one-lane road is not suitable for big RVs.

If you're going from one entrance to the other, the shortest route between them is through the town of King City on US Hwy 101 and takes about 1.5 hours. From the west entrance, follow Metz Rd or US Hwy 101 to King City, take County Road G13 east and CA Hwy 146 north.

The Rest of Pinnacles

The fault carried the most scenic part of the Neenach Volcano southward, but the Neenach Formation near Gorman, Just beyond Three Points on the Oakdale Canyon Road, on private property (according to the book Magnitude 8), it is the only other place where the same kind of rocks are found.

1During the annual National Parks Week, held in April entry fees are waived in more than 100 parks nationwide, including Pinnacles National Park. Get more information at the National Parks Week website. Entry is also free on selected other days that vary by year. You'll find the current year's list here.

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