Pinnacles: America's Newest National Park


"At America’s Newest National Park, the possibilities for discovery are limitless! Climbing and hiking among the breathtaking spires and rock formations that gave Pinnacles its name is only the beginning of what the park has to offer." -National Park Service

Pinnacles National Park, previously Pinnacles National Monument, was established 2013, making it the national parks system's newest park. Located on the edge of the Salinas Valley, this park features its signature volcanic rock features, a cave system, condor breeding grounds, rock climbing, and panoramic views of San Benito County and the Salinas Valley.  Approximately 26,000 acres, Pinnacles National Park receives around 225,000 visitors a year.

Getting There

Important to know: there is no road going through the park. You must choose either the east or west entrance.

From the San Francisco Bay Area for West Entrance: Take Hwy 101 south to the town of Soledad, and then take Hwy 146 east. Take care as you're driving through town; the highway takes a few turns. Follow Hwy 146 for 14 miles into Pinnacles National Park.

From the San Francisco Bay Area to the East Entrance: Take Hwy 101 south through the city of Gilroy to Hwy 25 south. On Hwy 25, go through the town of Hollister and continue about 30 miles to Hwy 146. Turn right on Hwy 146, then turn left into the Pinnacles Campground to check in at Pinnacles Visitor Center. From the campground, the Bear Gulch Area is 3.5 miles further into the park along Hwy 146.  Take care on the Hwy 146; it can be windy and rough in places.

A view of the unmarked trail to South Chalone Peak.

Places of Interest

I have been to Pinnacles more times than any other national park, but come to think of it, I don't think I've been there since it turned into a national park. What I love about this park are the rock features, caves, and the views. What I don't love about this park is how hot it gets; the sun is relentless in the summer time. Hint: go in the spring, go in the winter, go in the fall; don't go in the summer.  In spite of my numerous  trips, there are places in the park I have never been and others places I would love to see again.

The East Side

The elevation marker at Chalone Peak.

Chalone Peak

North Chalone Peak is the highest point in the park at 3306'. The trail up to the top is not well used, but it is very well maintained. This is definitely not a trail that you would want to do in the summer. There is little tree cover and you gain 2,000 feet in elevation. The trail is around 9 miles from the Bear Gulch Day Use Area. It takes you through Bear Gulch Cave and Bear Gulch Reservoir. At the top you are rewarded with excellent views of the Salinas Valley, as long as the fog hasn't rolled in already.

The fog moving into the Salinas Valley from the top of Chalone Peak.

High Peaks

The High Peaks trail is my favorite in the park. It has the most interesting terrain, including a point where stairs are carved into the mountain. Start from Bear Gulch Day Use Area, take the High Peaks Trail through the High Peaks and descend through meadows of chaparral grasses to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area. This is 6.7 miles and gains 1,475 feet in elevation.

Me hiking the High Peaks Trail in Pinnacles.

Bear Gulch Cave/Reservoir

Bring your flashlight! A short walk will bring you to the Bear Gulch Cave and on the other side is the Bear Gulch Reservoir. These are talus caves (caves created by boulders) and a breeding ground for Townsend's big eared bat. This is the largest colony between San Francisco and Mexico. The cave is completely closed from May-June for pupping season, but other times of year it is either partially or completely open.

The West Side


The west side of the park, while easier to get to, is also less developed than the east side. The best thing to see on this side of the park is the Balconies. The Balconies include a talus cave and  cliffs. I would definitely not try to go through the Balconies Cave when it is raining as we tried to do. We didn't get much further than about ten feet deep in the cave when we realized that we were probably making a poor life choice. Instead, we went up a trail that took us along the cliffs. It was actually quite enjoyable in the light rain. Much better than being in blistering, endless sun.

The balconies at Pinnacles

There are other things you can do in the park, such as climbing or birding. There are apparently condors here but I have never seen one in the five times I've been to the park. I have never rock climbed here, but I've heard the climbing is great and Pacific Edge gym in Santa Cruz regularly organizes outdoor climbing trips there.

This baby of the park system is a wonderful place to visit. Most of its sights can be seen in a day and it's super close to a major highway, making it an ideal family destination. Unlike many of the other national parks, Pinnacles is ideal to visit in winter and has wildflower blooms in the spring.