Family who love to hike will find plenty to explore at this little-known national park.
Upgraded from a national monument to a national park in 2013, Pinnacles is a popular retreat for nature lovers living in the San Francisco Bay area, but it’s relatively unknown to other national park enthusiasts. Formed by millions of years of volcanic eruptions, lava flows, and landslides, the park is located about a 3-hour drive from San Francisco and Sacramento in Central California.
Hiking is the big draw to this park whether it’s through the craggy spires near the summit or through the unique talus caves. Spring is the most popular time to visit with April being the busiest month. The weather is comfortable, and more than 100 species of wildflowers are in bloom including California poppies, mariposa lilies, and sticky monkeyflowers. It’s also spring break for many families. Summer and early fall aren’t ideal times to visit as daytime temperatures can reach above 100°F.
KidTripster Tip: I’d strongly recommend avoiding weekends in April. Parking is limited, and during this time of year, lots fill up quickly. Sometimes, cars are forced to wait in line outside the park until parking spots open up. Crowds also will be on the trails, ruining the kind of nature experience that you’re likely seeking. We visited in late March. While the wildflowers had just started to bloom, we didn’t have to compete with a lot of visitors.
Fun fact: With 400 species of bees, the park protects the largest diversity of bees in any single spot in North America.
While you’re hiking, keep an eye on the sky. Pinnacles is one of four sites where captive-bred condors are released into the wild. They primarily fly between the park and the Big Sur coast but can be difficult to spot. However, their smaller cousins - the turkey vultures - are a common site at Pinnacles. Chat with a ranger before setting out so you’ll be able to spot the difference.
KidTripster Tip: Don’t forget to have your kids either pick up a Junior Ranger booklet at the Pinnacles Visitor Center or print it online in advance.
KidTripster Tip: I always recommend watching the park movie as a primer before setting off for the day. At this park, the movie plays at the Bear Gulch Nature Center not at the Pinnacles Visitor Center near the campground.
Where to stay?
The east and west sides of Pinnacles National Park are split by the Gabilan Range. There are no roads that cross the park. Therefore, you’ll likely need to choose a side to visit. I think the east side is the better choice for families. You’ll be able to visit the Bear Gulch Nature Center and access the trails to both Bear Gulch Cave and High Peaks. Plus, the east side is home to the only campground.
The campground offers tent and RV sites (with electricity), as well a group camping sites. Coin-operated showers and a dump station are available. Surprisingly, the campground has a swimming pool next to the visitor center, which is typically open from mid-April to late-September.
For drivers of large RVs like me, I really appreciated the shuttle that runs from the campground to Bear Gulch Day Use Area on the weekends. Alternatively, you could ride bikes the 3.2-mile distance, if you were worried about parking.
Cost: Tent $23/night; RV $46/night. Tent and RV sites can be reserved up to six months in advance; group sites can be reserved up to one year in advance. To make reservations, go online or call (877) 444-6777.
What to do?
If your family enjoys hiking, this park is for you; if not, you’ll be hard-pressed to find other activities to engage the kids here. While there is rock climbing in the park, you really need to be an expert. So grab a trail map and get moving!
KidTripster Tip: Looking for the official Pinnacles National Park sign for that obligatory family photo? On the east side of the park, it’s located between Pinnacles Visitor Center and the Bear Gulch Day Use Area.
As mentioned earlier, I’d suggest basing a one- or two-day visit on the east side of Pinnacles. From the Bear Gulch Day Use Area, it’s an easy .9-mile hike to Bear Gulch Cave. My son and I have visited a lot of caves over the years, but this one was markedly different. This cave - as well as the Balconies Cave on the west side - was created when giant boulders formed a ceiling over a narrow canyon. While some daylight shines through the spaces between the rocks, you’ll still need to bring a flashlight to safely navigate. Note that the caves are sometimes closed because of flooding; be sure to check with the rangers at the nature center in advance. Also, parts of the Bear Gulch Cave can be closed seasonally to protect the Townsend’s big-eared bats. When we visited in March, the maternal colony was hibernating, so a small section of the cave wasn’t open to the public. If you want to explore this cave, don’t go from mid-May to mid-July, as the entire cave is closed for the pupping season. As you exit the cave, you’ll find yourself at Bear Gulch Reservoir, a perfect spot for a quick snack along the lake.
If you want to visit the Balconies Cave where the males roost, you can make the moderate 9.4-mile hike (round trip) from Pinnacles Visitor Center. The hike takes four to six hours.
Instead we hiked from Bear Gulch Cave up the High Peaks Trail through the pinnacle formations that give the park its name and then down Condor Gulch Trail back to the nature center. The entire loop took us about three hours. It’s a fairly strenuous climb with an elevation gain of 1,425 feet. I especially enjoyed the section of the trail that weaves through the spires; here you’ll find footholds and railings to help with the navigation. And bring your camera as the view from the top is Instagram-worthy.
KidTripster Tip: Plan to get an early start when the weather is cooler. And bring at least 2 liters of water per person for the hike.
At the nature center, look for signs about ranger programs; programs also run during busy times of the year in the evening at the campground. I’d recommend catching one on the Californian condors to learn about their resurgence.
Where to eat?
There is no food service inside the park, but you'll find a small selection of ready-made sandwiches and snacks at the Pinnacles Campground Store in the same building as the Pinnacles Visitor Center.
The nicest spot for a picnic is near the nature center on the trail leading to Bear Gulch Cave. You’ll find shaded picnic tables along a pleasant creek.
Pinnacles National Park is a 3-hour drive southeast of San Francisco or a 3-hour drive south of Sacramento. Print directions in advance of your trip, as GPS navigation sometimes misdirects in this area.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah travels to national parks with her husband and two sons. She’s logged thousands of miles behind the wheel of the family’s 38-foot RV.