Planning a Pinnacles National Park day trip takes a little forethought, especially if you’re visiting in spring or autumn – the high season for this northern California national park. This is not the day trip you head off on, on a whim after waking up at 10am in San Francisco. You won’t find parking, and you’ll probably be stopped at the entrance and turned back. If you’re anything like me, you definitely do not want to embark on this two hour drive, only to be turned back at the last hurdle.
So do yourself a favour and plan your Pinnacles National Park day trip in advance, to give you enough time for exploring the park, it’s caves and views. You’ll find everything you need to know right here, to ensure you don’t get turned away and have to go home disappointed.
PINNACLES NATIONAL PARK DAY TRIP
If you’re travelling from San Francisco, Pinnacles is an easy day trip that will get you well away from the city and suburban surrounds out into nature. With the added joy of not having to find overnight accommodation. It’s about a two hour drive south of San Francisco, or an hour and 25 minutes from San Jose, which is the perfect length of driving time so that you’re not too tired on the way there or driving home.
Should I use the east or west entrance to Pinnacles National Park?
You’ll need to make a decision between exploring Pinnacles National Park from the east or west side. Both have paved road entrances, but never the twain shall meet (thank you Kipling). The most popular entrance is to the east (as show on on the map above), probably because of its access to Bear Gulch Cave and the Reservoir – both big draw cards for hikers and nature lovers. It is regularly packed though, so for those making a pit stop on a California road trip on Highway 1, or wanting a less-crowded option, the west entrance is your best bet.
Related: California Coast Road Trip Itinerary
Both sides of the park are beautiful, it just depends where you are and what you want to see. The east entrance begins off Highway 25, about 30 miles away from Hollister. If you’re running short on petrol (gas), be sure to stop at Hollister on your way through, because there aren’t any gas stations after that, or any in the park itself. The visitor’s center, Bear Gulch nature center, campground and park headquarters are all situated on the east side.
If you’re arriving from the west, you’ll come off highway 101 at Soledad, which is your last stop for petrol and groceries.There is a visitor contact station on the west side of the park. The road from the west side is especially winding and narrow, and is not suitable for large RV’s and buses to traverse safely. Keep this in mind when planning your road trip.
I visited the east side of Pinnacles, because I’d heard good things about Bear Gulch and the Reservoir, so this post will encompass that point of view.
Why is it called Pinnacles National Park?
The area occupied by Pinnacles National Park is an ancient volcanic field, which led to the creation of rugged red rocks and the jutted landscape you’ll see at the Northern Californian site today. It is the result of millions of years of volcanic activity, combined with the tectonic plate movement that California is famous for. You can read more about the faults and volcanic activity here. The volcanic formations are thought to be around 23 million years old and sit atop a “granitic basement” of Santa Lucia Granite and Granodiorite, which were formed when molten lava slowly cooled while rising through the earth’s crust.
Related: 5 great San Francisco hikes
When is the best time to visit Pinnacles National Park?
You’ll experience the park in all of its beauty during the months of March, April and May. Especially if those months have been preceded by a good, rainy winter. Wildflowers spring up all over the park and you’ll see pops of purple, yellow, and red sway in the light spring breeze during these months. Keep in mind, though that these are also the most popular months for exploring Pinnacles National Park. Those who enjoy a little more solitude might enjoy an autumn visit more.
Summertime visits to Pinnacles National Park are usually discouraged, as the hiking trails can be quite strenuous and temperatures average 34°C (93°f) during the summer months. Not comfortable hiking weather at all. While there are parts of the trails that have sufficient tree cover as to block out a fair bit of sun, there is also a good portion of trail that is open-to-the-sky.
What should I bring on a Pinnacles National Park day trip?
Regardless of whether you’re visiting in spring or autumn, you need to bring plenty of water with you. As mentioned previously, the hikes can get a little strenuous and even in spring, the mercury is known to soar. Do not be caught without water while you’re out on the trail. Obviously a hat and sunscreen are big must-haves. It’s also advisable to bring the correct change for your entry fee. If you have hiking boots, it’s a good idea to use them, since parts of the trails (especially through Bear Gulch Cave) can be under water and slippery. Otherwise bring sturdy shoes with good grip. If you plan on hiking through Bear Gulch Cave you will need a torch or headlamp as it is very dark in some spots, and there are quite a few narrow spaces to squeeze through. Don’t forget a snack or picnic lunch, a map and your sense of adventure!
TL;DR list of things to bring:
- Torch (flashlight) or headlamp
- Sturdy shoes or hiking boots
- Spare pair of socks
- Correct change (in cash) for entry fee
- Ample water supply
- Snacks or lunch
Related: Muir Woods National Monument tour
When is the best time to arrive at Pinnacles National Park?
The National Park website for Pinnacles advises visitors to arrive before 10am if they want to find a parking space close to Bear Gulch trail head, or any parking space at all. I thought leaving home at 7am and arriving just before 9am would give me plenty of time to stop at the visitor’s center, pay for parking, and head over to Bear Gulch for a parking space in early April. I was so wrong. By the time I arrived, all the spaces were taken, but I managed to nab a spot about 1.6km (one mile) away in an overflow parking lot. From there it was about a mile hike to the Bear Gulch nature center – the trail doesn’t follow the road so it’s a little longer (and yes it is steep).
If you don’t make it in time for prime parking, there are spaces behind the visitor’s center that you can take advantage of. A shuttle runs to take people from the visitor’s center to the trailheads that you can also take advantage of. However, I would not arrive any later than 9am if you would like to guarantee that you won’t be turned away.
Hiking Bear Gulch Cave Reservoir
Without the hike to the trailhead from the overflow parking area, the Bear Gulch Reservoir hike comes out to 4.5km (2.8 miles) but it is a little strenuous and there are parts where you have to channel your inner contortionist to shimmy through tight spaces. This might not be the best trail for claustrophobics to take, but it gives you astounding views of rock formations and the reservoir if you’re brave.
Follow the signs marked Reservoir, Caves, and High Peaks as you trundle off from the trail head. As the trail inclines, look to your right for stunning red rock formations, and you might just catch a glimpse of climbers scaling the formations early in the day. Once you hit a junction you can decide whether to fork right to the Reservoir first, and then come around to the Bear Gulch Caves, or hit the caves first. I went with the later, and I think that it was probably the easier way to do the hike. It felt like I was travelling downhill more than uphill.
On to Bear Gulch Cave
Follow the trail through a few rocky twists and turns, and throw narrow passageways until you hit the ultimate warning sign: “Caution: Flashlights required, low ceilings, slippery when wet”. Whip out that headlamp or torch (flashlight) if you brought them, otherwise I wish you luck using the flashlight option on your smartphone. I don’t recommend using your phone because you’re coming up to a stretch of rock hopping through water, where I’d advise you to put your phone away.
Squeeze through the opening to the left of the caution sign and carry on through a low-ceilinged enclosure formed by rocks that have wedged themselves together over time. You’ll catch glimpses of the sun here and there before happening upon a pathway set out in rocks, surrounded by water. Do your best impression of a rock hopper, and carry on up a flight of stairs. Listen to the water rushing below you if it has been raining lately. There are still more spots to squeeze through until it seems like you’ve hit a dead end, with a locked gate. Don’t panic!
Head back a little and you’ll see a metal-grated walk way under some very low-hanging rocks. You’ll have to crouch low to get out of the cave and into the open air again.
Townsend’s Big-Eared Bats
The reason for that locked gate at what you think is the end of Bear Gulch Cave is because of one of the largest colonies of Townsend’s big-eared bats between San Francisco and Mexico. The cave is completely closed between mid-May and mid-July to allow the endangered species to roost. It’s especially important to give the bats space because they are more likely to hang out on walls and ceilings of the caves’ larger rooms, as opposed to in crevices hidden away from people.
The lower portion of the cave is open during the other parts of the year, when the bats aren’t in the middle of maternity season. For more information about cave closures, see this table. Overall, there are 14 different species of bats throughout Pinnacles National Park, and while most live in cracks in cave walls, some roost in trees. They live on either fruit or insects and spiders.
Hike to Pinnacles National Park Reservoir
The trail seems to fork a little, but it doesn’t seem to matter which you take because from here, they both lead to the reservoir in a round-about way. I veered right instead of left, and ended up seeing a lot more beautiful rock formations, but also squeezing through more tight spots and sliding down two steep inclines. Take from my experience what you will. I did enjoy going this way because I got to hit the hanging rock stairway from an awesome angle.
Hold your breath and walk under this rock if you’re scared…. or if you couldn’t care less, and head up the staircase. You’ll find yourself at the Reservoir in no time. I have no doubt that you’ll want to spend some time here. It’s a perfect spot to sit down and eat your lunch, rest your legs, and just take it all in. The water was as calm as glass when I visited, despite a tiny breeze. And it’s all surrounded by that red, volcanic rock we were talking about earlier. There are trees and shrubs to break up the stark red and green-blue of the water, but the real awe-inspiring sights are the rock formations jutting up all around you.
Hike the Rim Trail for valley views
You’ve made it this far, don’t turn around and go back or be daunted by the uphill climb that leads to the Rim Trail. You’ll be missing out on the stunning views of the valley below if you give up now. You’ll pass the Monolith, a sheer cliff face which is a favourite among rock climbers, more wildflowers, and even more rock climbers on your way back down to that first fork in the trail where you took a left. You’ll take another left to return to the Bear Gulch trail head and car park. If you’re not still smiling right now, I’m very surprised.
How much does it cost to enter Pinnacles National Park?
Vehicle entrance fees are good for seven days, and can be paid at the visitor’s center on the east side of the park, or through the cash envelope system on the west side of the park. Fees are as follows:
- Vehicles: $30 each
- Motorcycle: $25 each
- Walk in or bikes: $15 each
There is also the option to purchase an annual pass if you think you’ll be back within 365 days – it’s well worth the investment at $55.
Where can I stop for food before or after my hike?
I’m glad you asked! On my way to the park, I passed through the little town of Tes Pinos, which reminded me of one of those ye olde western towns with big buildings that line the main street (in this case the Airline Highway). I caught a glimpse of Flapjacks Breakfast & Grill and kicked myself for not stopping for some breakfast. So I didn’t make the same mistake on my way home to San Francisco.
I lucked out because despite getting there at around 12.30pm, they were serving all-day breakfast, which is my favourite meal ever. And it was a tough choice, since they have everything from flapjacks (pancakes), scrambles and omelettes, and an array of Mexican breakfast meals. I couldn’t go past the eggs benedict though. I was obviously post-hike carb loading since I stupidly went out on an empty stomach. The portions are generous to say the very least – I was surrounded by people asking for boxes to take leftovers home. If I lived closer, I’d be at Flapjacks most weekends, and I can’t give it any higher praise than that. The service was great, and it was cheap compared to what I’m used to paying closer to San Francisco.
Address: 6881 Airline Highway, Tres Pinos.
Hours: Daily, 7am-2pm.
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