Pinnacles National Park is such an underrated place to visit. Located just 2 and a half hours away from San Francisco, Pinnacles is an incredible weekend escape from the Bay Area. With rounded spires, vast rolling hills, surrealist rock towers, and talus caves to explore, you’ll never be bored at this national park. Ready to explore? Here’s my ultimate 1 or 2 day Pinnacles National Park itinerary and guide.
What You Need to Know About Visiting Pinnacles National Park
The first thing that’s important to know is that Pinnacles National Park has two entrances: The East Entrance and the West Entrance. These entrances are NOT connected by road, and it takes a while to drive from one entrance to the other. If you’re visiting from the Bay Area, camping, or a first time visitor, I’d recommend entering through the East Entrance. The East Entrance is closer to the Bay Area, the side with the campsite, and the side that has easily accessible trailheads. This blog post will focus on the East side of the park.
All of my tips in this blog post will be bolded (like this!) and highlighted so they’re easy to spot.
When to Visit Pinnacles National Park
Spring, Autumn, and Winter are the best times to visit Pinnacles National Park. During the summertime, temperatures can skyrocket up to 100 degrees F (37 C), making hiking and climbing not only exhausting, but also dangerous!
Autumn is a beautiful time to visit the park, with the leaves slowly changing and mild, pleasant temperatures.
Winter is cool, and can sometimes bring small amounts of snow. If you’re visiting in the wintertime, make sure to pack plenty of warm layers so you can adjust to the temperatures.
During springtime, particularly from March to May, you’re in for a treat! The wildflowers start to bloom and the red-brown earth is speckled with vibrant, bright colors.
Camping at Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles is a lovely camping destination. The only place you can camp inside the park is at Pinnacles Campground. You’ll want to book your campsite a few months ahead of time to be certain to get a spot. If you’re planning on visiting during the springtime, when the wildflowers bloom, book your campsite as early as possible.
TIP: You can book campsites at 7am up to six months in advance.
The campsite has over 100 sites and 4 different kinds of campsites – group campsites for large parties, tent sites, RV sites, and cabin sites. Each site has a fire pit and picnic table.
There’s also a camp store, open from 9am – 5pm, where you can buy anything you may have forgotten! You can also order firewood at the store, which they’ll deliver straight to your campsite in the afternoon. It costs $12 for a bundle of wood, which will keep a fire going for at least a few hours.
TIP: Remember not to bring in wood from other areas, as you don’t want to bring in new species to Pinnacles.
There are a few toilet buildings, none more than a 5-6 minute walk away from your site! There are also hot showers available (and they cost 50 cents per 3 minutes for hot water).
Getting to Pinnacles National Park
To the East Entrance: Take highway 101 to highway 25. When you go past Hollister, take highway 146 to Pinnacles National Park. From San Francisco, it takes 2.5 hours (although on weekends, add in extra time for traffic).
TIP: The last place to get petrol is in Hollister. We stopped at Safeway Gas and also popped into Safeway to pick up last minute items and food for camping. While the camp store has things you may need, there’s quite a markup on them, so I encourage you to stop here for any items you may have missed when packing!
Getting Around Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles is a relatively small park, so its very easy to get around by foot. If you can’t drive into the park early, I’d recommend walking when possible, as the small parking lots at trailheads can fill up quickly. I’ve heard stories of people waiting or being turned away at the East Entrance as early as 9am because there’s no parking left in the park!
That being said, you might want to save your energy for hiking. Pinnacles National Park has a free shuttle to & from the campsite to the Bear Gulch trailhead, and during peak season, from the overflow lot into the park as well. In autumn and winter, there are shuttles leaving every 15 minutes or so. These shuttles start at 8am and end at 5pm.
1 or 2 Day Pinnacles National Park Itinerary
We spent two-ish days in Pinnacles and had an incredible time. We felt that we saw everything we wanted to see, but still left with more things to explore in the future. While this itinerary is suited to our 2ish days (2 nights and 1.5 days) in the park, you could easily accomplish the bulk of it in one day.
Day 0 Evening: Settle into camp
We arrived late Friday evening and settled into camp. It was our first time doing a form of van life and we had an absolute blast figuring out how to organize ourselves and improve life on the road. If you’re coming into the Pinnacles Campground after 5pm, we recommend checking into the campsite in Hollister, where you still have good service (they’ll send you a way to check in online with your reservation confirmation). We’d also recommend picking up a Duraflame or bringing a camp stove, as you won’t be able to buy firewood when the camp store is closed.
Day 1: One SCENIC hike
This hike was incredible and such an adventure. It isn’t a full day hike, so you can still see most of Pinnacle National Park’s main sights if you have a full day. We recommend combining some of the iconic Pinnacles hiking trails together to do one big loop. The route we did was the Bench Trail > Bear Gulch > Bear Gulch Cave > Rim Trail > High Peaks Trail > Condor Gulch.
You can read all about this hike, including how you can do it too, in this blog post.
This hike takes 4-6 hours, so depending on what time you arrived at Pinnacles National Park, you may have time to have an early picnic dinner! There are some picnic tables at the Bear Gulch Parking Lot, or you could make your way down to the day use areas near the campground. If you’re only in Pinnacles for one day, you’ll probably have to head back. If you’re in Pinnacles for two days, read on!
Day 2: Old Pinnacles to Balconies Cave
This trail is a lot less popular than the trail above, but is still a really lovely hike! This is an easier hike, with little elevation gain, so it’s a great second day hike. In the Springtime, wildflowers pop up all over this trail and add rich, vibrant colors to the earth.
The trail is exposed, with little shade, so I would avoid doing this in the summertime or on particularly warm days. If you do hike this trail, make sure to bring plenty of water.
When going into Balconies Cave, make sure to bring a headlamp. This cave is a little more ‘adventurous’ than Bear Gulch Cave, so you’ll want to make sure you have proper equipment!
Old Pinnacles to Balconies Cave Trail Information
Trailhead: Old Pinnacles Parking Lot
This is a loop hike, so you’ll start and end at Old Pinnacles Parking Lot.
Distance: Just over 5 miles
Ascent: Almost none!
Time: 3.5-5 hours
Pinnacles National Park is SUCH a beautiful park. While other parks in California get most of the attention, Pinnacles is so so so underrated and is absolutely worth a visit.