Pinnacles National Park: Otherworldly Landscapes in SF's Backyard

Condor Gulch Trail in Pinnacles National Park
Condor Gulch Trail in Pinnacles National Park Miguel Vieira
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Named for the towering rock formations that dominate its landscape, Pinnacles National Park is America’s newest (named in 2013) and one of its smallest (just over 41 square miles) national parks. It's also one of the most undiscovered, as its more well-known neighbors in the Sierra often steal the spotlight in these parts.

But what the park may lack in sheer size and popularity, it more than makes up for in otherworldly topography, created by the eruption and flow of volcanoes some 23 million years ago, the wildlife that makes its home there, and the unique exploration opportunities that come with that. Visitors can hike trails that weave through ancient lava formations, explore the depths of talus caves created by massive boulders suspended overhead, spot rare bats and endangered California condors, and sleep under the stars without needing reservations months in advance.

Pinnacles also is the closest national park to San Francisco, just 125 miles (about two-and-a-half-hours' drive) south. If you want respite from the snow that is burying many of the other parks in the state, it's an easy road drive to Pinnacles for some of the most unforgettable landscapes between the Bay Area and Joshua Tree. The park is at its best in winter and spring, before the Central Valley summer sun scorches the vegetation (and unprepared hikers).

And, if you need further incentive for a visit, 2016 marks the National Park Service's 100th anniversary: Why not celebrate that remarkable centennial with a timely trip to Pinnacles National Park? Here's what you need to know to do it right.

Hiking the Pinnacles

View from the trail on the west entrance of the Pinnacles
View from the trail on the west entrance of the Pinnacles John Fox

The serenity of the namesake spires of rock that crown the park's ridge contrast to the region's fiery, explosive beginnings. Some 23 million years ago, volcanic eruptions formed the base of the Pinnacles—and millions of years of erosive forces and the tectonic activity of the San Andreas Fault shaped the landscape into its current form. The rock formations defy explanation, an otherworldly moonscape rising to heights of 2,700 feet from the surrounding mountains of the Coast Range.

Thanks to more than 30 miles of trails, visitors can essentially travel back in time with every step, seeing the pinnacles up close and taking in sweeping views from high points—every trail offers views of the rock formations and the landscape beyond. Some highlights: The High Peaks Trail climbs perilous staircases and traverses ledges through the heart of the park, and the Old Pinnacles Trail follows Chalone Creek and climbs through chaparral before leading towards the Balconies Formation, the Balconies Caves, and the Machete Ridge.

Exploring Talus Caves

The entrance to Bear Gulch Cave
The entrance to Bear Gulch Cave David Prasad

Trails access two systems of unusual talus caves within the park, providing a thrilling subterranean alternative to exploring the rocky ridgelines above. Talus caves are formed when steep canyons and ravines fill with boulders, leaving passages between the largest rocks that are then widened by water and erosion.

In the most popular areas of many national parks, boardwalks, well-graded trails, and clear signage make the area occasionally feel more like an exhibit at a natural history museum than the wilderness. Though the Balconies and Bear Gulch caves are some of Pinnacles’s top attractions, exploring these caves feels like you are off the beaten path. Giant boulders suspended overhead add to the adrenaline factor: Though highly improbable, they appear to threaten to come unstuck and crash down at any moment.

Upping the adventure ante, the trails also pass through the caves, leaving no option other than to confront any fears you may have of dark, narrow, bat-filled spaces. When you reach the Balconies Caves, the trail seems to disappear completely, until you realize that the hole in the ground marked with a small, painted arrow is where the trail leads. Once you’ve navigated your way down slippery, rough cut steps to the floor of the cave, a damp, dark primal world awaits exploration. Be sure to bring a headlamp and sturdy shoes; a hat (if not a helmet, for less sure-footed types) is also recommended.

Rock Climbing 

Spot the climbers on this feature
Spot the climbers on this feature Mark Doliner

With all of its rocky spires, it’s no wonder that Pinnacles is a popular destination for Bay Area climbers. Routes in Pinnacles range from easy top ropes to multi-pitch ascents of the Machete Ridge, offering something for climbers of most skill levels. Far less well-known than the iconic climbing scene in California’s most famous park, Pinnacles provides a low key and easily accessible alternative to Yosemite’s walls. Though the rocky towers in Pinnacles look ideal from below, the beta on Pinnacles is that the rock can be loose and unreliable; this is not the place to teach yourself how to lead climb, solo anything, or boulder. The Park boasts 186 climbing routes including, 125 sport climbs, 17 top rope routes, and 69 trad climbs. And keep in mind that routes are sometimes closed to protect newly hatched raptor chicks.

Accessible Camping Options

Camping at Pinnacles National Park is best in winter, spring, or fall.
Camping at Pinnacles National Park is best in winter, spring, or fall. Shelly Prevost

Like most parks in California, you can reserve sites up to several months in advance, though the park does reserve some spaces for walk up arrivals. The campground is most pleasant in the winter and spring, as temperatures can climb to well over 100 degrees in the summer. The proximity to San Francisco makes Pinnacles Campground a convenient and peaceful destination for weekend trips exploring the National Park.  

Birds, Bats, and Other Wildlife

Spot rare California Condors in Pinnacles National Park
Spot rare California Condors in Pinnacles National Park USFWS Pacific Southwest Region

The unique and varied landscapes packed into a relatively small area make Pinnacles a great place for up-close encounters with rare wildlife. Of 149 bird species in Pinnacles, the park’s population of endangered California condors—the largest bird in North America—are a visitor favorite. Pinnacles is the only national park that manages a condor reintroduction program, making it an ideal place to spot these impressive birds riding thermals above the rocks. The caves also house 14 of California’s 23 bat species, including a colony of Townsend’s long-eared bats living in Bear Gulch Cave. Visitors to the caves are encouraged to be quiet to avoid disturbing the bats while they sleep. Spring and summer wildflowers nourish more than 400 species of bees.

Pinnacles National Park also is home to its fair share of predators—mountain lions are known to prowl the highlands and lowlands. Large raptors—including the country’s largest nesting population of prairie falcons—make their homes in the cliffs and rock formations, occasionally sharing turf with climbers. 


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