2 Perfect Days in Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park is small but its two entrances make planning a trip there more difficult than it should be. While the east and west roads do not meet in the middle, a lot of trails do. Therefore, it’s possible to see both sides of the park without driving yourself all the way around, which takes about 90 minutes. There are a lot of trails that intersect and loop with each other, creating a number of ways to get to the park’s three main features. All of this can make planning a trip to this park quite confusing. This guide will help make the most of 2 full days in Pinnacles.

How to Get There

Pinnacles is in California’s Central Valley. It’s about 4.5 hrs north of Los Angeles and about 3 hrs south of San Francisco.

Where to Stay

A park ranger told me that the west side of the park is prettier, so I recommend staying there. The absolute closest you can get to the west entrance is the Inn at the Pinnacles on Brosseau Vineyard. The next closest is the town of Soledad but it offers only very basic accommodations. I stayed in Salinas, which is about 30 minutes away. I chose it because I found a really great AirBnB there. On the east side of the park, the closest town is Hollister, CA.

What to see

Most people come to Pinnacles to see three things: the High Peaks (and condors), the Balconies Cave and the Bear Gulch caves. The first two are more easily accessed from the west side of the park, so I suggest doing those on day 1. On Day 2, you can either drive to the east side of the park or hike in from the west side to visit the Bear Gulch Caves. Be sure to check the cave status on the official Pinnacles site before planning your trips.

Day 1 – Pinnacles West Side

Start your day with Balconies Cave loop, which I recommend you do counter-clockwise. It’s 2.4 miles round-trip and it should take about 90 minutes.

The trail into the Balconies cave gets tighter and tighter

Next, visit the High Peaks by taking the Juniper Canyon trail. It shares a trailhead with the Balconies cave loop! It’s about 4.3 miles with 1,400 ft of elevation gain. The top section of this hike is narrow and steep with exposed drop-offs.

Tunnel on Juniper Canyon trail

I recommend doing the cave first because it will be a better experience without crowds. We did early in the morning and were the only ones in the cave.

Day 2: Pinnacles East Side

To do the east side, you can either drive there or do a longer hike from the west side. Regardless, your goal will be the Bear Gulch Caves.

Option 1: Drive

Plan on at least 90 minutes for the drive from the west to the east side of the park. The Lower and Upper caves are accessible from the Bear Gulch day use area. The trail length is only 1.9 miles roundtrip with 1,300 ft elevation gain. If you have time and stamina, add on the Condor Gulch to High Peaks trail for another 5.1 miles and 1,300 ft of elevation gain. Condor Gulch trail also begins at the Bear Gulch day use area. This way you would have done the 4 best hikes in the park.

Lower Bear Gulch Cave, photo by Gavin Emmons

Option 2: Hike from the west side

You will be combining several trails to make this trip. I’ve done my best to note the junctions but be sure to have a park map! This will be a strenuous hike at around 9 miles roundtrip with close to 2,600 ft of elevation gain since you will be going up to the high peaks and then back down on both sides of the park.

Take the Juniper Canyon Trail again from the Chaparral picnic area. At the junction with Tunnel Trail, bear right (Hollister side). At the junction with Rim Trail/reservoir, bear left and continue downhill. The High Peaks trail then merges with Moses Trail on the east side of the park. Continue downhill on Moses trail. Just before you get to the Bear Gulch trailhead, you will see a spur to the Bear Gulch Caves.

Other Sights in the Vicinity

The Soledad and Juan Bautista missions are close to the west and east entrances of the park, respectively. You can also drive over to Monterey, CA on the coast.

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