things to do in pinnacles national park 07

5 Things to do in Pinnacles National Park For Your First Visit

There are many things to do in Pinnacles National Park despite it not being the biggest or most popular NP in California (yet since it’s still new) and in this article, I’d like to share the top activities as well as how to get the most out of your first visit there.

For me, when I first visited Pinnacles National Park, it was early February 2022 and I only had one day to explore it. However if you know anything about me, you’ll know I tend to fit a lot of activities into a single day trip anywhere and in most cases end up doing as much in that short period of time as people would if they spent days there and that’s exactly what happened when I visited this NP.

What I want to do is share the top 7 activities to do in Pinnacles NP before sharing how I spent my day there if you plan to visit it for the same period of time.

5 things to do in Pinnacles National Park:

things to do in pinnacles national park 07

  1. Explore Bear Gulch Cave Trail.
  2. Check out the Balconies Cave Trail.
  3. Camping.
  4. Rock climbing.
  5. Check out other things to do near Pinnacles National Park.

Now this may not seem like a lot of things to do for a national park, but because of it’s layout and terrain, these activities are the most popular and the good news is that they’re all very close together, and this allows you to get the most out of your visit here. And for the day trip I did there, I was completely satisfied with what I saw.

3 important things to know before visiting:

1) There are 2 main entrances to the park:

You can only come into the park from the eastern or western end (there is no road through the park though). The only 2 roads to the park do NOT intersect so you cannot drive through Pinnacles National Park. And driving between either entrance will take about 1 hour (it’s not worth it, so just pick one).

2) Regarding whether you should enter Pinnacles National Park from the eastern or western end:

  • Go through the eastern end if you’re looking to camp in Pinnacles.
  • Go through the western end if you’re looking to do a day trip here and/or want to be closer to hotels.

The good news is that stopping at either entrance will not impede your ability to explore this park as the trails and activities there go between these 2 roads so you’ll see the same spots wherever you stop, so you should choose where you enter the park from based on the above things I mentioned.

3) One of the best ways to explore Pinnacles National Park is to do a loop trail there:

That loop trail is about 10 miles and takes you through the most popular attractions and sights in the park. I’ll be covering how to do that in a moment.

Here’s a Pinnacles National Park map to showcase this:

pinnacles national park map location 05

You can see those 2 main entrances from the western and eastern end, but again there is no road in between them. Further below I will show you a much more comprehensive Pinnacles National Park map to show how to hike through it.

Info on hotels near Pinnacles National Park (it’s pretty limited):

Usually national parks have major hotels and places to stay nearby but in Pinnacles National Park’s case, the spots are choices are very limited. Here’s what you need to know:

Here are the closest hotels near Pinnacles National Park:

  1. Town of Soldad: It’s about 20 minutes outside Pinnacles National Park (west end), but it’s small and when I was looking for places to stay, there were only 2 choices and I personally wasn’t a fan.
  2. King City: It’s south of Pinnacles National Park (about 30 minutes or so), but the choices are again very limited (maybe 3 places to stay at which are motels and inns).
  3. Town of Salinas: It’s about 30-40 minutes north of the NP and likely where you’ll find the most options for places to stay near Pinnacles including major hotels. This is where I stayed at personally when I was visiting.
  4. Monterey: About an hour away from Pinnacles, and it’s by the California Coastline. This is where you’ll have the most choices.
  5. There are no major towns or places near Pinnacles National Park on the eastern side unless you go a lot further south or north. It just a lot of hills and farmland.

Bear Gulch Cave:

pinnacles national park bear gulch cave 01

If you do a Google (or any) search for Pinnacles National Park, there’s a good chance that the image you’ll see as a preview is of a huge cave or people passing through it. This is what I initially saw that drew me to visit Pinnacles and as I later learned, this place is called Bear Gulch Cave and here’s what you need to know about it:

  1. It’s located on the southern side of the NP park.
  2. The closest parking lot to this cave is Mosses Spring Parking area (with restrooms).
  3. This cave is very easy to navigate and there are easy walks (good for beginners).

When people type up Pinnacles National Park caves, Bear Gulch is what comes up.

So if you’re looking to explore this specific spot in the park, this is what it’s called and it’s probably the most popular area to check out. Out of all the places with parking I saw the day I went there, the Moses Spring Parking area was where I saw most of the cars and people.

The cave itself is pretty cool to check out, and there are underground rivers, streams and a few waterfalls. The hike in Bear Gulch isn’t very long (maybe under 1/4 mile), but it is very scenic and highly recommended especially if you aren’t looking to do the more difficult hikes in this park.

Balconies Cave:

pinnacles national park balconies cave trail 02

The Balconies Cave is the second major one in Pinnacles National Park and in my opinion it’s better than the Bear Gulch Cave because it’s more remote, less crowded, a bit more challenging to hike through and more exciting to explore. In fact, this was my favorite spot in the entire park because there was no one there when I went. The silence of the caves, distant drops of water and even not knowing where the trail continued was exciting to me.

Getting to the Balconies Cave though is a lot more difficult than the Bear Gulch Cave as it involves more primitive hiking trails and scrambling, but I’ll be showing you how to get here momentarily and also do a loop trail to see both caves. But without a doubt be sure to check out the Balconies Cave if you intend to visit Pinnacles National Park! This was one of the top 5 experiences I had when exploring caves, with the other fun ones being:

Other popular hiking trails in Pinnacles National Park:

  • Prewett trail (western side of the park).
  • North Wilderness trail (north end of the park).
  • High Peaks Trail (cuts through the middle of the park).
  • Condor Gulch trail (cuts through the middle/south of the park).
  • Juniper Canyon Trail (west end of park, scenic and a lot of switchbacks).
  • Moses Spring Trail (pretty scenic and takes you past a pond and reservoir).

Out of all these options, I’m going to recommend trying the 10 mile loop trail I did when I explored this park which I will provide a map of below. It’s not an official trail but it does mix several sections of the existing trails in the park and if you do it, you’ll basically get the best type of tour through Pinnacles National Park, see the best sights and basically get the best experience there.

Stay at one of the Pinnacles National park camping areas:

pinnacles national park campground 02

There is at least one famous campground in this NP and it’s called Pinnacles Campground. And remember, it’s on the eastern end of the national park so make sure you don’t get that wrong! There is also an amphitheater on the campgrounds as well as showers, bathrooms and more. If you are looking for camping at Pinnacles National Park, you can check out this page for reservations.

There’s over 130 spots available there and if it’s full, there are other areas further outside the park to find camping in. I already addressed the hotels question above but if you enjoy camping, Pinnacles is a great place for that and being that it isn’t as popular of a park as others in California, you shouldn’t have issues reserving a campsite if you do it a few weeks before your trip. I’d just plan it a month ahead of time just in case.

Rock climbing:

pinnacles national park hiking trails 03

One of the reasons I even discovered Pinnacles NP existed was thanks to a friend who used to do rock climbing there. He highly recommended I check out this park when he overheard I was traveling through California. Rock climbing is indeed a popular activity in this NP and highly recommended as there are numerous mountains, and stone formations that are perfect for it. I believe I saw some as I was traveling through Balconies Cave, but even so there are numerous spots I saw on the trail where it was pretty clear it was a starting point for rock climbing.

What you see in the picture here is me standing at one of the famous viewpoints in the park. If you look out into the mountains, you will see a lot of climbing opportunities available. If you hike through the park like I did, you’ll also see designated spots for this as well.

Other things to do near Pinnacles National Park:

things to do near pinnacles national park 01

Although the activities seem limited in this NP, again they are very wholesome and doing even one of them (especially the cave trails) makes for a lot. But the other thing to note is that there are other fun places to explore that are near Pinnacles National Park and here is a short list:

1) Big Sur:

Big Sur is about 1-2 hours west of the park. There’s many beautiful coastal spots there including Mcway Falls I would highly recommend checking out (and as much of Big Sur as possible since it is very beautiful there).

2) Henry W. Coe State Park:

1-2 hours north of the NP. It’s a large and very beautiful park with amazing green hills (provided you come between February and August) as well as hiking trails and just overall a very scenic area.

3) Road 25 (scenic drive):

A lot of the middle area of California in this region has very beautiful sights, hills and places to stop and sight see at. While my buddy and I were driving up to Pinnacles from the south we saw a lot of potential areas for future exploration, but even if you don’t plan to stop anywhere, just the drive here is wonderful.

4) Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area:

  • 1-2 hours northeast of Pinnacles, this is a park for off road vehicles and adventures.
  • If you love riding ATV vehicles, dirt bikes and 4 wheel drives in mud and other obstacle like courses, this is a great place to explore.

5) Explore San Jose:

San Jose is about 2 hours north of Pinnacles and is the closest major city to the NP.

6) Other spots:

Technically if you don’t mind driving 2-3 hours, then there’s 4 other options to consider, and they are:

How to hike through Pinnacles National Park (the 10 mile loop trail):

The following map I’m sharing is how I explored Pinnacles National Park. This ended up being a 10 mile loop hike that I would only recommend people do if they are into moderate level hikes, challenging scrambles and high elevation gains (you’re looking at about a 2,000 foot elevation gain in total for this trail). On this trail you will be able to see some of the best sights in the park, including both the Balconies and Bear Gulch Caves:

pinnacles national park map of hiking trail

For this loop hike you can start at either the western or eastern entrance of the park (remember to choose which one according to whether you’re camping or just visiting for the day), but regardless you will still hike the same distance. 


You can also modify this map as there are other trails, but please be very careful and have an official map of Pinnacles National Park and/or some sort of Alltrails kind of offline map of the area so you don’t get lost in the woods (you will not have a lot of cell phone reception in Pinnacles). The trail I outlined above is fairly simple to follow, but if you’re not experienced at doing long hikes like this, you may have issues.

Frequently asked questions about Pinnacles National Park:

Is it worth visiting Pinnacles National Park?

Yes. It’s very scenic, there are caves and overall you can get a lot done in just 1 day there.

What month is best to visit Pinnacles National Park?

In my opinion February-April. It’s very cool then most of the day and there aren’t many crowds in the park either.

What is special about Pinnacles National Park?

The caves and the combination of views there. Definitely worth visiting for that!

How many days do you need to see Pinnacles National Park?

One day is honestly enough, but if you’re staying in the area, 2-3 is more than enough.

More Pinnacles National Park photos from my day trip there:

pinnacles national park photos 01

If you have any other questions about the different things to do in Pinnacles National Park, just ask below!

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  1. I am really looking forward to my first visit to Pinnacles National Park and love having this article to use as a handy guide! I also like to pack a ton into my vacation time, so this is the perfect type of guide for me! It looks like you found some really neat places. I appreciate you sharing your expertise in finding these special spots. Thanks!

  2. Hi Vitaliy,

    This park seems a really cool place to visit and you managed to do all this in one day! I would love to visit the caves there especially to see the waterfalls at Bear Gulch.

    Can you tell me whether the Balconies cave and the rock climbing are suitable for an 8-year-old? What I mean is – is the cave part where you have to scramble and crouch easy to get through? Is the rock climbing ok for beginners?



    1. The Balconies Cave area is more of a scramble than a climb and in the dark so you will need a flashlight, but it’s not something that’s difficult for kids in my opinion. Climbing is just another side quest in Pinnacles you can do but there are specific designated areas for that outside of Balconies Cave Teresa.

  3. It sounds like you had an amazing trip. I really would like to follow in your footsteps. Caves and rock climbing just draws me in. And I really want to investigate this park. It is an adventure. Sounds good that I can bring my family. I will also bring some friends so I have someone to play with. Thanks for sharing.

  4. So I like to go camping, hiking and being in nature. I really love the cave walks. I have done a lot of cave walks and i will have to put this one on the list as places to check out. I love the photos and the descriptions. This NP looks like it could be a good family place to get out there and see what nature has to offer. Hope to see you out there.

    1. It is a good family spot for general hiking and certainly camping. I think Pinnacles is right up your alley John!

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