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AARP’s Guide to Pinnacles National Park

Spot North America’s largest bird in California’s smallest park

spinner image high peaks and balconies cliffs in pinnacles national park
​Rock spires and ribs in High Peaks and Balconies Cliffs are visible in Pinnacles National Park.
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Pinnacles National Park checks all the boxes for nature lovers. Thirty miles of hiking trails from gentle creek-side strolls to stiff cliff-hanging switchbacks. Giant monoliths. Rust-colored rock cloaked in a kaleidoscope of lichen.

spinner image map of where pinnacles national park is located in california
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Facts

Park location: East of Central California’s Salinas Valley

Acres: 26,674

Highest peak: North Chalone Peak, at 3,304 feet above sea level

Lowest valley: South Chalone Creek, at 824 feet above sea level

Miles of trails: 30-plus miles

Main attraction: Balconies and Bear Gulch Caves

Cost: $30 per-vehicle entrance fee, valid for seven straight days; $25 for motorcycles; $15 for bicycles or walk-in entry; $55 for Pinnacles annual passes

Best way to see: On foot by hiking one of its 15 trails

When to go to: Mid-February through mid-May for mild weather and splashy wildflowers

There’s beauty everywhere you look. About 100 varieties of wildflowers bloom throughout the year, and more than 180 bird species, including North America’s largest bird, the critically endangered California condor and its majestic roughly 10-foot wingspan, can be spotted in the park. A concerto of calling quails, gobbling turkeys, drumming woodpeckers and whistling hummingbirds are also present.

Don’t let Pinnacles National Park’s (PNP) status as California’s smallest and least-visited national park fool you. This mesmerizing volcanic wilderness on the southern edge of central California’s Gabilan Mountain Range is a hot spot for ecological diversity and outdoor recreation. It is blanketed by a vast network of chaparral forests, pine and oak woodlands, golden grasslands and 3,000-foot peaks. The park is where Chalon, Mutsun and other Native Americans lived and used bedrock mortars to grind acorns and pine nuts for millennia.

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Long overshadowed by its ever-popular park brethren — YosemiteDeath Valley, and Joshua Tree top the in-state visitor list — Pinnacles holds a unique title of its own: California’s youngest national park. When President Barack Obama promoted the 26,674-acre wonderland in 2013, PNP became America’s 59th national park and the Golden State’s ninth such accreditation, the most of any state. The designation shed the park’s longstanding national monument rank assigned by President Theodore Roosevelt more than a century ago.

A prime illustration of tectonic plate movement, PNP formed about 23 million years ago after numerous eruptions of the Neenach volcanic field near present-day Lancaster, California, 195 miles southeast of the park. In cooperation with the San Andreas Fault, the park traveled north to its current address over millions of years, where wind and water erosion have since shaped its eye-popping matrix of rock-strewn terrain. To this day, scientists estimate that Pinnacles is migrating northwest at a rate of 1.5 to 2 inches per year — or, the same speed that our fingernails grow.

In a state teeming with natural beauty and park options, Pinnacles’ 41 square miles of spellbinding topography flies under the radar and can be explored relatively crowd-free most of the year, especially on weekdays. In 2022, there were 275,023 visitors in the park, an uptick from its historical average of 150,000 to 200,000 people. Still, last year’s figure marked the eighth-lowest head count for national parks in the Lower 48.

For park ranger Richard Moorer, “condors and caves” is what sets Pinnacles apart from the rest of the national park system.

“The California condor, one of the rarest birds in the world, is often seen soaring over Pinnacles,” Moorer says. “And there are two talus caves that are unusual as they are technically above ground.” Moorer’s sagest advice when visiting this moving mountain: “Just find a sunny spot to take in the wonder around you.”

Plan your trip

Just east of the Salinas Valley, Pinnacles’ low-key status stems from its semisecluded location in central California. The park has two entrances — the east and west — with no connecting road between the two. To get from one side to the other, you must exit and drive around the park, which takes about an hour and a half.

To access the west entrance, take Highway 101 either south from San Francisco or north from Los Angeles to Soledad. From there, you’ll take Highway 146 east to the gate. To access the east entrance, travel Highway 101 south to Highway 25 south. If traveling from the north, you’ll access Highway 25 through Hollister; if traveling from the south, you’ll connect to Highway 25 near King City.

By air, depending on your departure city, consider flying into Monterey Regional Airport, about an hour closer to Pinnacles’ west entrance than San Francisco International Airport. The pint-size airport offers nonstop flights from nine U.S. cities, including major hubs such as Dallas, Denver and Phoenix.

A great time to visit PNP is between mid-February and early June, when the weather is moderate, and the wildflowers are showy. Visitation numbers tend to peak at this time, especially on weekends. For solitude, arrive early on a weekday and you’ll have no problem with crowds or parking. As an alternative, Moorer recommends a fall visit.

spinner image a hiker at the lower entrance to bear gulch cave
A hiker is seen at the lower entrance to Bear Gulch Cave, one of Pinnacles’ two talus caves.
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“I would aim for October,” he says. “It has often cooled off by that point, but the evenings have not become cold yet. All of Bear Gulch Cave is open at that point and you may also see male tarantulas on the move looking for a mate.”

If planning a summer trip, brace yourself for hot and dry weather with temperatures soaring above 100 degrees. Park rangers suggest visitors wear a hat and sunscreen, and drink a liter of water per hour of hiking. You’ll need layers come winter (the park’s cool and wet season), but you’ll have the park all to yourself. No matter the season, pack a pair of binoculars for potential California condor sightings.

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The park’s two talus caves are a top attraction: balconies, best reached through the west entrance, and Bear Gulch, best reached from the east entrance. Home to active bat colonies, be sure to check Pinnacles’ website in alignment with their seasonal openings. When the bat population is hibernating in fall, winter and spring, caves are typically open; if it’s pupping season after bats are born — usually mid-May to mid-July — caves will temporarily close to protect the mammals. Fun fact: Bear Gulch Cave has the largest maternity colony of Townsend’s big-eared bats, a “sensitive species,” between San Francisco and Mexico.

Important note: The caves are not accessible for visitors with mobility issues, and require a bit of rock scrambling. Those prone to claustrophobia should reconsider as well due to the maze — albeit brief — of low ceilings and tight passageways. Park officials ask that you bring a headlamp or flashlight to navigate the momentarily dark crevices (iPhones work as well, but it helps to be hands-free). Of course, talk with your health care provider before you go to see what’s best for you.

If entering from the west entrance, stop at the West Visitor Pinnacles Contact Station for books and trail maps, to speak with a ranger and brush up on the park’s history via the 10-minute park film. The Prewett Point Trail, a new accessible trail delivering panoramas of the High Peaks and Balconies Cliffs, starts at the visitor station. On the park’s east side, a section of the Bench Trail was recently paved for wheelchair access. It, too, provides High Peaks views.

Bear Gulch Nature Center and West Visitor Center are open based on staff availability.

Where to stay and eat

There are no restaurants, gas stations or lodging in Pinnacles. On the east side of the park, Pinnacles Campground offers a combination of 134 tent, RV and group camping sites in a serene setting of blue, valley and coast live oak trees. A camp store sells minimal groceries; you’d be better off packing a picnic lunch prior to your arrival.

The closest hotel is the Inn at Pinnacles, a Mediterranean-style bed and breakfast less than 2 miles from the west entrance. Located on a private vineyard, the hotel has six rooms. Several small gateway towns — Soledad (10 miles), King City (30 miles), Hollister (65 miles) and Salinas (37 miles) — have a variety of restaurants and accommodations.

An hour inland from Big Sur, Pinnacles is a popular day-trip destination for Monterey Peninsula vacationers and Highway 1 road-trippers. Outside the park, fun area pit stops include the charming Soledad Mission, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, a museum and memorial dedicated to the renowned local author. For added fun, download a map of “The Artichoke Trail,” a collection of 40 restaurants, farm stands and markets celebrating Monterey County’s widely grown vegetable.

spinner image a california condor soaring above pinnacles national park
The California condor has a nearly 10-foot wingspan and can be seen soaring above Pinnacles.
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Things to do

Spot a California condor. Seasoned birders and avian newbies alike travel to Pinnacles each year for one reason: the chance to spot a California condor, one of North America’s rarest birds. In the 1980s, Pinnacles’ year-round banner bird was on the brink of extinction due to habitat loss, hunters, and poisoning from lead ammunition in carrion or animal remains, a condor’s main food source. To save the endangered species, conservationists captured 22 birds remaining in the wild and placed them in a breeding program. Considered an ideal habitat for the high-flying vulture, Pinnacles was chosen as a release site in 2003 and two captive-bred birds were set free inside the park. Today, the population has rebounded to 89 condors in the central California flock, many of which fly through the park.

With a nearly 10-foot wingspan, the ability to ride thermal updrafts to 15,000 feet, a top-end flight speed of 55 mph — covering some 200 miles in a single day — the massive scavenger (which can weigh up to 20 pounds) is a spectacle to witness as it drifts above the park’s surplus of volcanic peaks.  “One of the best spots to look for condors is in the High Peaks before 11 a.m.,” Moorer advises. “If you sit and wait while looking up at the sky, you will find them.” In the park’s east section, condors frequently cruise thermal winds southeast of the campground.

Pro tip for spotting your first condor: Learn the difference between a condor and a turkey vulture. They look similar in the sky. However, a condor’s airplane-esque wingspan is about 4 feet wider than its ever-abundant park relative.

From underwing, condor feathers form a striking white triangle on their leading edge, whereas a turkey vulture has a silver-gray plumage on its trailing edge. Flight patterns differ in that a condor has a flat and steady aerial style; a turkey vulture’s pattern is V-shaped and rocking. Binoculars will help you detect the disparity in head color, too, both of which are bald. Adult condors have a yellowish-orange or pinkish head and appear as if they’re wearing a black feather boa; adult turkey vultures have bright red heads.

The biggest identifier between the two birds is man-made: All California condors (save for wild-born juveniles) don at least one numbered wing tag — and many sport two — to track health, behavior and nesting sites in and around the park.

spinner image a trail leading through the balconies cliffs to the balconies caves
A trail leads through the Balconies Cliffs to the Balconies Cave.
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Hike to a cave. There’s no better place to appreciate the geologic wonder of Pinnacles than by visiting one of its two main talus caves: Balconies Cave and Bear Gulch Cave. They were formed when a medley of jumbled rockfall — thousand-ton boulders and other volcanic leftovers from the cliffs above — roofed in the steep and narrow fracture-and-fault-made canyons below. Legend has it that Tiburcio Vásquez, the infamous California bandito, hid in the sometimes-pitch-black caves while evading the law in the 1800s. This was more than a half-century before the Civilian Conservation Corps arrived in the 1930s, building a system of steps, trails and passageways.

The shortest cave to reach is Balconies Cave, best accessed from the Chaparral Parking Area in the park’s west district, where the easy-to-moderate Balconies Trail will lead you to the cavern in 0.7 miles. Turn on your flashlight or headlamp as you crawl under boulders and scramble through the uneven ground in the dark — you’ll be through it all in five minutes, so be sure to enjoy the thrill of rushing water (depending on the season) and dance between darkness and light enveloping you. Return to the parking lot via the scenic Balconies Cliffs Trail, completing a 2.4-mile loop.

Park in the Bear Gulch lot in the east district to begin your adventure to the Bear Gulch Cave. After a half-mile jaunt, turn left on the Moses Spring Trail (0.7 miles), which winds its way through dramatic pinnacles, some miniature caves and rock debris covered in multicolored lichen en route to the cave’s mossy entrance. The deeper you get inside of the cave, the narrower the trail walls become. Fret not; white arrows will direct you as you cross puddles, climb stairs, bend and dip your way through the damp rock jumble, eventually letting you out at the Bear Gulch Reservoir, a picture-perfect oasis to have lunch and rest. When you’re finished, hike back through the cave or take the short Rim Trail route back to your car.

Moorer says the park’s diversity of lichen is one of the more overlooked aspects of Pinnacles, so be on the lookout.

“Lichens are an interesting organism that is part fungus, part algae, and they adhere to rock,” he says. “At Pinnacles, they display a kaleidoscopic array of colors through the park.”

For the venturesome parkgoer, it’s possible to hike the entire park in a single day on a 9-mile-or-so loop from either side and see everything Pinnacles has to offer: both caves, the High Peaks, Bear Gulch Reservoir, and the trickling Chalone Creek, one of the park’s flattest strolls on the Old Pinnacles Trail.

Other activities. Pinnacles’ varied ecosystem, as well as its position on the migratory Pacific Flyway, reveal a variety of birding opportunities. Peregrine and prairie falcons are known to nest cliffside on the Balconies Trail (tip: Look for white excrement painting its cliff walls). The greater roadrunner can often be seen dashing after snakes and lizards on the park’s paved roads. California quail, acorn woodpeckers, golden eagles, wild turkey, great horned owls and a variety of hummingbirds are common park residents.

From March to May, Pinnacles’ hillsides burst into bloom, revealing more than 100 species of bright-colored wildflowers. California buckwheat, elegant clarkia, bush poppy and larkspur paint the park in a rocky rainbow blossom. For adventurists, Pinnacles’ volcanic breccia rock affords plentiful climbing routes, but only for the well-trained climber. Far removed from the pollution of artificial light, the park’s uber-dark setting displays some of the clearest night skies in central California for stargazers.

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