Did you know? Pinnacles National Park was only designated a national park in 2013. In addition, it’s the only national park that serves as a release site for captive bred condors.
We didn’t think it would be this long between national park #13 (Death Valley) and #14. We had a trip planned to Great Basin for August 2020, but their campgrounds were closed due to the pandemic. Since then, we’ve kept it relatively local with hikes and camping at Joshua Tree in November and a great trip to Catalina Island for Thanksgiving.
Pinnacles National Park has been a target of ours for a while. It’s within driving distance (365 miles), is easily explorable over a long weekend, and is close enough to recruit some family from San Francisco to join. It also has a campground within the park that allows reservations in advance, which is always helpful for us.
Pinnacles is a relatively small park at only 41 square miles, but it can only be accessed by the east and west entrances, with no roads cutting through the park. It takes about 2 hours to leave one entrance and loop around to the other, although you can probably hike to the other side in 2 hours. For our trip, we explored the eastern side of the park where the campgrounds are located. We didn’t want to spend any additional time driving with the long drive to the park already behind us. Once we were settled into our campsite, the trailheads were less than 10 minutes from the campsite.
Thursday had us arrive to Pinnacles shortly after lunchtime. We set up our campsite at #11 (it’s listed as #10 on the map as they recently renumbered sites), which was a huge site with trees on three sides creating tons of privacy. Not all the sites have that much privacy and some sections reminded us of Yosemite Valley with many sites stacked next to each other. It also had a open lawn in the middle of the loop which allowed the kids to play and for us to set up our telescope. When we checked into the ranger station and campstore, we got a great tip from a camp host – the parking lots at the two main trailheads are not very large and fill up quickly on weekends. He advised we wake up and go straight to the trailhead to have breakfast ensuring we secure a parking spot. Fantastic advice!
In terms of activities, Pinnacles has lots of hiking trails and rock climbing. We saw a few groups hiking to climbing spots and the girls expressed interest in doing some rock climbing. We’ll have to explore that in the future.
For hikes, we focused on getting our hikes done early in the morning so we could relax back at our campsite for the afternoons. We did the following hikes:
Viewpoint on the Condor Gulch Trail – a 2 mile round trip hike that brought us up from the Bear Gulch day use area into the canyon and to a great overlook to see some of the High Peaks.
Bear Gulch Reservoir via the Rim Trail and Moses Spring trail – This was a 2 mile loop that brought us along a red rock-style landscape and dumped us out right next to a small reservoir that was awesome. When it’s really hot in the summer, I have to imagine the reservoir is a great place to hike and relax. The second half of the hike was down steep rocky steps, through a rock covered cave, followed by a tree covered stroll through a lush part of the park. The larger Bear Gulch cave system was closed due to the pandemic, but we still got to go under some boulders and explore. In fact, we hiked this twice, Friday morning and again on Sunday morning before we left. Equally great both times. The Friday pictures have blue sky while the Sunday pictures have an overcast sky.
Saturday morning had us tackle the Old Pinnacles Trail to the Balconies Cliffs Trail. We were joined by family from San Francisco, my brother-in-law and his girlfriend. This hike was the longest hike the girls have ever done – 5.5 miles long! The newly arrived family members excited the girls and kept them moving their little legs.
The first few miles were flat with the middle section being a short climb to some great views of Machete Peak and the Balconies. To keep everyone motivated on the 5+ miler, we had tons of snacks and took a break at the top to watch some climbers. We finished off the hike by retracing our steps and got back to the car well before lunch time. We celebrated with some beers back at the campsite. The girls had Gatorade.
Each trip, the four of us list our favorite part of the trip.
Sean: I was blown away with the amount of wildlife. We saw golden eagles, turkey vultures, California condors, raccoons, squirrels, hawks, wild turkeys, California quails, acorn woodpeckers, frogs, and our first rattlesnake. The snake was a baby rattlesnake, so it doesn’t actually rattle yet because it hasn’t shed any skin to create the rattle. At night time, there was so much noise from the frogs in the nearby creek along with other birds and critters. On the drive, we saw tons of cows and horses and a coyote trotting through a field.
Mary: The look on the girls’ faces when we climbed down the stairs into the Bear Gulch Cave area. They had been dragging their feet on the hike until that point and they became so excited to explore the caves. They were running up ahead and yelling back to me and Sean telling us how awesome it was. The funny thing is that we couldn’t even go into the real cave system due to the pandemic. They would have loved crawling around with the headlamps on!
Quincy: The snake was cool to see. But I really liked swinging in the hammock with Lauren and Leona when Uncle Dan would push us really hard.
Leona: The wildlife! Squirrels, golden eagles, vultures, turkeys. I loved seeing the animals!
Pleasant and unpleasant surprises we encountered on our trip:
We had no idea how beautiful the countryside would be driving to Pinnacles. Because there was some rain recently, the valleys and hillsides were very, very green.
Another pleasant surprise was that the campground has a pool and we were allowed to use it. The water was cold, around mid 60s, but the girls felt it was necessary to swim. They also couldn’t comprehend that it was going to be colder than the pool where they take swimming lessons. Once they jumped in the water to swim to me, they both froze with shock at how cold the water was. So that pool experience was about five minutes…Ha!
Seeing our first rattlesnake was pretty cool, yet still scary.
Sadly, a car hit and killed a squirrel near our campsite. The girls were interested in it and walked over to check it out. Leona was extremely interested in it and pretty much held a vigil.