On a recent trip to California, we spent a full day exploring Pinnacles National Park. We love the national park system. We have visited 29 of the 63 national parks, and though we know that we won’t get to all of them, we are so grateful for the parks we can visit. The rangers are engaging, the parks are beautiful, and the mission to save and protect nature is something that we are fully on board with. So it isn’t easy for us to be critical of a national park.
Pinnacles was a bit of a disappointment to us. There are some amazing hikes, and the area is pretty, but this park didn’t seem to be very well managed. We couldn’t find a ranger. Trail maps were hard to come by. The Junior Ranger program was nearly impossible to complete. All of this was due to minimal staffing and closed Visitor Centers. So, though our visit to Pinnacles National Park was nice, we didn’t feel that we got to learn about and explore the park as we often do.
East vs. West Side
Pinnacles National Park is separated into two sides, east and west. Though the sides are not far apart, you cannot drive from one side to the other easily. To go from east to west requires a drive of about 90 minutes. For this reason, many people never visit the remote, or west side of the park. The east side is much more popular and has a camping area and even a swimming pool.
Our favorite thing to do at Pinnacles was hike through the two cave systems. These are short talus caves that are built right into trails, so the only way to complete the hike is to go through the cave. The caves are called talus caves, because they are not natural caverns, but openings formed by fallen boulders. This means that there is some light coming through the crevices between boulders, but you definitely need headlamps or flashlights to navigate through the caves. And don’t rely on your phone, as it won’t give enough light to keep you safe. There are two Talus Caves in Pinnacles and we hiked through both: Bear Gulch Cave (east side) and Balconies Cave (west side).
Pinnacles is also known for the High Peaks area where there are huge towering rock formations. There are many long, strenuous hikes into this area of the park, but we were only able to muster one with our family. We hiked part of the Juniper Canyon Loop until we got to the tunnel. The tunnel was awesome, and out boys were excited about it. It was about miles 2.5 miles roundtrip. Read about our hike here.
Another reason visitors venture to Pinnacles National Park is to find California Condors. These massive birsda love the High Peaks area for soaring around. We were lucky enough to spot two condors along the Tunnel trail on the west side of the park. Don’t get confused by Turkey Vultures because they are very abundant in this area. Here are a few pictures to help you see the difference. The biggest way we can tell the difference is to look for the white underneath when they soar, and for the tags that all condors have.
Pinnacles National Park, though small, is worth a visit. There are a few great hikes, and the Pinnacles are pretty. Just don’t expect a lot of opportunities to speak to a ranger! There is a Visitor center on the west side of the park and a nature center and bookstore on the east side. Only the bookstore was open when we visited.
This park gets very hot in the summer, so plan accordingly. We visited in April and it was still very warm. Also, there is limited parking and this park gets busy on the weekends. Try and visit during the week, or go early in the morning or later in the evening to avoid crowds. For more information about the trails, hours, and the national park, visit the Pinnacles National Park website.