Pinnacles National Park is one of California’s best-kept secrets. With a great mix of breathtaking views, easy hikes, and fascinating wildlife, it makes for a perfect family-friendly day trip. If you live in the Bay Area or are visiting from out of town, make sure to add Pinnacles to your itinerary!
In this post we’ll explore what makes Pinnacles National Park such a great day trip option. We’ll cover everything you need to know about visiting Pinnacles National Park, including what to bring (and what not to bring). I’ll also add some bonus information, like how your kids can earn a Pinnacles Junior Ranger Badge!
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PINNACLES NATIONAL PARK OVERVIEW
At just 26,600 acres, Pinnacles is California’s newest and smallest National Park. Just two hours from the Bay Area and one hour east of Monterey, this fascinating park centers around a cluster of red rocks that mark the remnants of a 23,000,000-year-old volcano that once stood 8,000 feet high.
With only 30 miles of trails within the park, hiking options are limited in quantity but not in quality. We didn’t know what to expect when we arrived and were wowed by the park’s beauty and variety. Though we started with one day for exploring, we knew that it wouldn’t be our last.
While hiking is the top reason people visit Pinnacles National Park, rock climbing is another popular activity and you’re likely to encounter views of climbers at every level. For those spending the night, families also enjoy ranger-led programs in the evening at the park campground.
The park’s pair of talus caves are among its top highlights. They were created when earthquakes caused huge boulders to become lodged between rock walls. The cave passages are fun for people to explore, and are also an important home for several species of bats.
Bear Gulch Cave is a year-round home for Townsend’s big-eared bats. They hibernate here in the winter and have their offspring in the spring and summer. Balconies Cave is home to the park’s Western Mastiff bats. See below for cave accessibility throughout the year.
If you have a family of climbers, you’ll find the best climbing opportunities on the east side. Marked routes range from beginner to advanced, but be aware that the rock is volcanic breccia and prone to weakness.
For more information on climbing in the park, Friends of Pinnacles is an organization dedicated to climbing at Pinnacles.
Which Pinnacles Entrance to Choose?
There are two entrances for Pinnacles National Park: the East Entrance and the West Entrance. It’s important to know that you cannot drive through the park from one entrance to the other. When planning your Pinnacles day trip, make sure to choose the entrance based on what you want to do once you arrive.
Pinnacles East Entrance Highlights
The Park’s East Entrance is the most accessible for visitors coming from the Bay Area. It’s the easiest way to access the Bear Gulch Cave, Reservoir, and Rim Trail Loop.
If you plan to stay more than one day, the campground in the East Entrance is the only lodging option in the park. The park’s main visitor center, gift shop, and a small market area near the campground area near the entrance.
Pinnacles West Entrance Highlights
The Park’s West Entrance is the most accessible for visitors from Monterey. This entrance is open for day use only, so don’t come this way if you’re looking for the campground.
You’ll want to use the West Entrance to access the Balconies Cave and Jawbone Trail. It has a new visitor contact station, but overall you’ll find fewer amenities near this park entrance.
Pinnacles Trails Accessible from Either Entrance
Trails such as the High Peaks Loop and Balconies Cave are accessible from either entrance, though mileage will be different depending on where you start.
Many of the Park’s most popular trails connect to other trails so that you can create a range of loops and routes that work for multiple skill levels and interests.
Best Pinnacles Hiking Trails for a Family Day Trip
If you’re heading to Pinnacles for a day trip, hiking is sure to be at the top of your list of things to do. Any of the following three trails make a wonderful day hike. With options that range from easy to strenuous, you’re sure to find the perfect hike for your family.
Moses Spring Trail to Rim Trail (Bear Gulch Cave) – 2.2 miles
From the Bear Gulch Day Use Area accessed through the East Entrance, the Moses Spring to Rim Trail loop is 2.2 miles long. There is another parking lot at the Moses Spring Trailhead as well, which makes for a slightly shorter hike. With an elevation of about 500 feet, this trail is rated as Moderate.
This was the trail the Ranger recommended to us when we arrived at the East Entrance Visitor Center with our 3 and 5-year boys, and it did not disappoint! I brought the carrier for Bug who was still struggling with hikes, but he was so distracted by the rocks and other natural features, that we never had to use it.
We saw deer near the parking lot before we even got out of the car. The dramatic red rocks and viewpoints, had us snapping photos all along the Rim Trail. This first half of the hike was the perfect length for the boys to have fun before stopping at the Reservoir for a lunch break.
Some of Bear Gulch Cave was closed due to COVID, but we were fascinated by the portion of the trail that we could still access. The cave’s high rocky walls slope inward as you wander beneath massive Talus boulders along Bear Creek. This portion of the trail turned our little hike into a true adventure. All of the boys were inspired to rock scramble a bit on the way back to the car.
If you have to choose one Pinnacles Trail for your day trip, I highly recommend this one!
Note that the upper portion of the cave is closed from mid-May to mid-July to protect the hibernating Townsend bat colony. Check cave status here.
Balconies Cave and Cliffs Trail – 2.4 miles
From the Chaparral parking lot accessed through the West Entrance, the Balconies Cave – Cliff Trail loop is a moderate 2.4 miles. This sunny hike only has an elevation of about 100 feet and is rated as Easy to Moderate.
Though the hike is fairly short and flat, it packs in a lot of adventure as hikers scramble through talus passages of the Cave. Expect a more tactile and hands-on experience than Bear Gulch. Hikers should come prepared to get their feet wet, as rains may create some flooding.
After the cave, hikers loop around a higher route along the Balcony Cliffs Trail for a unique combination of rock scrambling through caves and elevated views.
Make sure to bring a flashlight or headlamp for this one, and check to see whether or not the caves are open before you go.
The loop can also be accessed from the Old Pinnacles Trail reached by the East Entrance with a 5.3-mile moderate round trip hike.
The High Peaks Trail – 6.7 miles
Known as the gem of the park, the High Peaks Trail climbs to the peaks at the center of the park. When accessed by the Bear Gulch Trail, it is 6.7 miles round trip. With an elevation gain of 1,425 feet, the hike is strenuous but rewarding. The average hiker should plan for it to take 4-5 hours to complete.
Though it’s a tough trek to the top, hikers will be rewarded with views across multiple counties. One 0.7 mile portion of the trail famously climbs across the ridgeline via steps carved into the rock with handrails for support.
This is trail offers one of the best chances to spot a soaring California condor in the park.
RECOMMENDED ITINERARY FOR A PINNACLES FAMILY DAY TRIP
Traveling as a family, I’d suggest entering via the park’s East Entrance. We visited in the fall and arrived around 9 am as the Visitor Center was opening. During the busier seasons, plan to arrive by 8 am to get a parking spot at Bear Gulch or Moses Springs.
Stop by the Visitor Center
Start at the park Visitor Center to get your bearings and pick up a park map and Junior Ranger booklet. Rangers will give you the latest information on trail status and whether the caves are open or closed.
Park at Bear Gulch Day Use Area
If the Bear Gulch Nature Center is open when you arrive, make time to stop in the little Nature Center. Volunteers will be happy to share information about the park’s flora and fauna and will tell you what to look out for on the trail.
Set Out on the Moses Spring to Rim Trail Loop
As mentioned above, this short hike is one of the most highly recommended in the park, especially when traveling with children. It’s varied and fun, taking you through gorgeous red rocks, awe-inspiring visits, and – of course – rock scrambling around or through the Bear Gulch Cave.
Take your time as you wander along the trail. We enjoyed turning west onto the Rim Trail from Bear Gulch first. This got us to the Bear Gulch Reservoir at the perfect time for a snack (which turned into an early lunch for us).
The reservoir is small, but fun to explore. Keep your eyes open for red-legged frogs. Listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, efforts have been made to re-establish the population near the reservoir.
Head back toward the Moses Spring Trail through the Bear Gulch Cave Trail, accessed from the reservoir via a long stairway that leads to Bear Gulch Creek. You’ll go under a talus that reminded me of Indiana Jones along the way!
Picnic at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area
Enjoy a picnic when you arrive back at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area. This is a great time to stop and complete the Junior Ranger Booklet activities.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
On your way back toward the main entrance, make another stop by the main visitor center to get your Junior Ranger Badge. Don’t worry, you can mail yours in for a badge if you still need more time.
The gift shop is small but carries some fun items and souvenirs for all ages. The boys got stuffies that reminded them of the animals we looked for in the park, and I picked up a t-shirt and a copy of Stella Luna to remind them of their “bat cave” adventure.
The campground marketplace next door has some additional items and snacks for the drive home.
The Campground Pool
The Pinnacles Campground has a pool that’s open seasonally for campers. This might be a bit wacky, but it occurred to me that it might be worth it to pay $37 for a campsite to gain pool access if visiting during one of the warmer months. A dip in the pool could be the perfect refreshing conclusion to an adventurous day trip at Pinnacles National Park. Just make sure the facilities are open before you go!
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Pinnacles National Park Map
It’s always helpful to review the park map before visiting. Pick up a copy at the Visitor Center when you arrive.
When to Visit Pinnacles National Park
Bear Gulch and Balconies caves are among the top attractions in the park, but they close seasonally to provide protected areas for the resident bat populations. Check the cave status before you visit if you plan to go through the caves.
From December to March temperatures are cooler with highs in the 60’s and lows in the 30’s F. The park doesn’t see a lot of winter rain, but it’s good to pack waterproof layers just in case.
March through May is the most popular time to visit Pinnacles National Park. Rain is rare and daytime temperatures are comfortable. Spring visitors enjoy witnessing the park’s many types of wildflowers. Because this is a peak visitation season, plan to arrive early to get a parking spot near your preferred trailhead.
June through September is HOT with daytime temperatures reaching into the 90’s F. Plan to hike in the early morning and carry more water than you think you’ll need.
October and November are great months to visit. Temperatures are similar to spring, but there are fewer crowds. Fall in California is always a bit tricky due to the fire season, so check fire status and reports before you go.
Getting to Pinnacles National Park
Depending on which direction you’re coming from and which entrance you plan to use, Pinnacles National Park is 5 miles east of Soledad or 50 miles southeast of Gilroy.
EAST ENTRANCE FROM THE NORTH
Take 101S to Hollister. South of Hollister, follow Highway 25 for about thirty miles, then turn onto a short section of highway 146W.
You’ll soon arrive at the park gate and then the Visitor Center and campground. From here it’s just a few miles to any of the trailheads accessible on this side of the park.
WEST ENTRANCE FROM THE NORTH
Take Hwy 101S to the town of Soledad, and exit onto 146E. This highway is curvy and turns into a one-lane road at points. Drive with caution and note that RVs are not recommended on this road.
Continue to follow 146 for 14 miles until you reach the Pinnacles National Park entrance.
EAST ENTRANCE FROM THE SOUTH
Take 101N to the town of King City and exit at 1st Street. Continue on 1st Street until it turns into Bitterwater Road. From Bitterwater Road, turn left onto 25N for about 15 miles. You’ll turn left onto 146W for a short section until you enter the park.
WEST ENTRANCE FROM THE SOUTH
Take 101N to Soledad. Exit at 146E. As mentioned above, this route goes through a windy road that is one lane at points. RVs are not recommended. Follow 146 for 14 miles into Pinnacles National Park.
Pinnacles Junior Ranger Program
Pick up your free Junior Ranger booklet at the Bear Gulch Nature Center, Pinnacles Visitor Center, or Chaparral Visitor Contact Station. Check hours and opening status before your visit.
Complete the activities in the booklet to earn your Pinnacles Junior Ranger Badge.
If you want to introduce kids to the park before your visit, you can print the online version from home.
What to Bring for a Pinnacles Family Day Trip?
This park is hot and dry. Once you’re on the trail, there is no drinking water unless you carry your own filter. And even then, you might not come across much! A good general rule of thumb is that everyone should bring about a half-liter of water per hour of moderate activity in moderate temperatures. Scale-up from there based on your plans and comfort level.
Flashlights are required for scrambling through the caves, but it’s easier if everyone goes hands-free.
When you’re not in the caves, you’ll be exposed to the sun at higher elevations. Don’t forget to slather on the sunscreen, bring hats that cover your face and neck, sunglasses, and light layers to protect your skin from the hot sun.
Layers, Layers, Layers
Whenever going on a day hike, we usually start in long-sleeve shirts perfect for a chilly morning and then peel off as we go. Though it doesn’t rain often at Pinnacles, having waterproof layers in your pack is always a good idea.
A pair of binoculars will come in handy in a park like Pinnacles where a rare California Condor sighting could happen at any time. Check out our selection of children’s binoculars that are a step above toy level here.
We used to wear running shoes on our hikes, but as soon as we bought decent hiking shoes, we found that we fell much less often! JJ now even wears his Merrell’s to play when he’s not hiking. Click here to check out our roundup of great hiking shoe options for kids.
This one is probably a no-brainer. Everyone’s going to be burning calories, so make sure you have good healthy proteins for when it’s time to refuel. My kids love Z-Bars and cashews.
What Not to Bring for a Pinnacles Family Day Trip?
Sadly, like many National Parks, Pinnacles is not a good place to bring the family dog. Dogs are allowed in campsites, but not on the trails.
Wildlife at Pinnacles National Park
Wondering which animals to look for on your hike? Pinnacles National Park is surprisingly rich in wildlife! We spotted deer and wild turkeys before we even left the parking lot.
Other critters, like the park’s hand-sized tarantulas and rattlesnakes, may not be such a welcome surprise. But Pinnacles is their home, so just keep a respectful distance if you can. Nervous about rattlesnakes? Check out my interview with Genie Moore and Bryan Popper here.
Keep your eyes peeled and binoculars ready for some of the park’s most interesting wild characters:
Bring those binoculars! California condors, with their impressive 9-foot wingspan, soar over the cliffs in the High Peaks area. Pinnacles National Park manages a release location for condors that are bred in captivity. After nearly going extinct in the wild 50 years ago, there are now about 100 of these giant birds soaring around the Central Coast.
Bats at Pinnacles find refuge in the caves, cliffs, and trees. The park is most known for its colony of Townsend’s Big-eared Bats in the Bear Gulch Cave and Western Mastiff bat in the Balconies Cave, but it’s actually home to 14 species. These bats keep insect and spider populations in check, and their nutrient-rich poop plays an important role in the food web.
Keep an eye out for the largest frog species in the western US! The best place to spot them is spotted around Bear Gulch Reservoir.
Pinnacles National Park Campground
If you want to turn your day trip into an overnighter, the only lodging in the park is the campground near the Eastern park entrance. It offers family and group tent sites and RV sites with electric hookups. Don’t feel like packing up the camping equipment? There are also 10 cabin tent sites throughout the campground.