Just under three hours of driving from San Francisco and over an hour from Monterey, the pointy peaks of Pinnacles National Park lie within California’s smallest national park. Slightly off the beaten path of a typical national park route, Pinnacles will have you in awe with the towering peaks, rocky caves, and raptors soaring above the Salinas Valley.
If you want to enjoy some solitude and take a one-of-a-kind trip, RVing Pinnacles National Park is the place to go for hiking, bird watching, rock climbing, and a unique landscape amongst the valleys of central California.
Why Visit Pinnacles National Park in an RV?
Pinnacles National Park is a terrific option for RV visits since it is easy to get to and less crowded than other national parks. It is a great stopping point between northern and southern California right off Highway 101 and can provide the opportunity to recharge in a quiet and peaceful place.
This park is accessible to all types of RVs, but it is important to note that there is no road connecting the east and west sides of the park. If you are cruising up or down the 101, the west entrance is a great place to stop in an RV for an afternoon hike or picnic. The east side of the park is the best option for visiting if you want to stay for more than one day.
When to Visit Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles National Park is open all year round. The east side is open 24 hours a day for trail access, and the gate on the west side of the park is open daily from 7:30 am to 8:00 pm.
Expect long delays getting into the park on holidays and weekends due to high visitation. The best time of year to visit Pinnacles National Park is during the spring but arrive early to find parking and avoid crowds. It is not recommended to visit the park during the summer due to excessive heat.
Pinnacles National Park in the Spring
Spring is the best time of year to visit Pinnacles National Park. The grass blanketing the land is green, and there is an abundance of wildflowers. The heat is more manageable during the spring, and the contrast of the budding flowers against the jagged rocky landscape is stunning. Make sure to plan ahead by arriving early since this is the busiest time of year to visit Pinnacles, and parking is limited.
Pinnacles National Park in the Summer
Extreme temperatures make visiting Pinnacles National Park in the summer challenging. If unprepared, hikers can put themselves in dangerous and life-threatening situations due to the intense heat during the summer. If you decide to visit during the summer, be prepared with 1 liter of water per hour per person as you are hiking and hit the trails early in the morning before the sun gets too powerful.
Pinnacles National Park in the Fall
Visiting Pinnacles National Park in the fall has a similar temperature as visiting in the springtime. It’s a great time of year for hiking and climbing, but it can still be crowded, so make sure to plan ahead.
Pinnacles National Park in the Winter
Winter at Pinnacles National Park is an excellent time of year to visit. The temperatures will be the mildest, and it won’t be as crowded as in the fall and spring. Winter is often cool and wet, and the temperatures can drop below freezing at night. Make sure to bring layers and dress properly for winter conditions despite the fact Pinnacles is located in the desert.
Where to Stay
If you are interested in camping for a few days, you can stay at Pinnacles Campground on the east side of the park, accommodating RVs and trailers up to 42 feet long. The campground is next to the visitor’s center and offers showers, Wi-Fi, fire rings, picnic tables, a swimming pool, a dump station, and a camp store for any food items or basic camping gear you may need.
There are 134 sites, including 83 tent sites, 25 full electric hookup RV sites, tent cabins, and a group site.
Tips for your Camping Stay
- You can book tent and RV sites up to 6 months in advance by calling (877) 444-6777 or booking online through Recreation.gov. You must make a reservation ahead of time.
- The campground store is open from 9:30 am to 5:00 pm daily.
- The dump station is open from 9:30 am to 5:00 pm daily.
- Campsite check-in time is at 1:00 pm, and check-out is at 11:00 am.
- RV sites have hookups at 120 volts with 30-amp service, so bring the appropriate RV power adapter.
- The swimming pool is generally open from April 1- September 30.
Staying Outside the Park
If Pinnacles Campground is full, there are several other options for RV parks and places to camp in the surrounding area:
- Casa de Fruta RV Park: Located in Hollister, California, about 45 minutes from the Pinnacles National Park east entrance gate.
- Santa Nella RV Park: Located in Santa Nella, California, about 1 hour and ten minutes from the Pinnacles National Park east entrance gate.
- Morgan Hill RV Resort: Located in Morgan Hill, California, about 1 hour and ten minutes from the Pinnacles National Park east entrance.
- Yanks RV Resort: Located in Greenfield, California, about 25 minutes from the West Pinnacles Visitor Contact Station.
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How to Get Around Pinnacles National Park
The best way to get around Pinnacles National Park is by parking your RV or car and exploring by foot or by taking the free shuttle. The free shuttle operates on the east side of Pinnacles from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm on the weekends.
It is important to note that there is no through road in this national park, so you will need to park either at the Pinnacles National Park East Visitor center or the West Pinnacles Visitor Contact Station. The best way to drive from one entrance to another is through the town of King City, California, on Highway 101.
Parking is limited at Pinnacles National Park, so plan to arrive early on the holidays and weekends so you can find a spot for your vehicle or rig. Parking lots tend to fill up around 8:00 am on the holidays and weekends of the busy season around October-May. There are more amenities and parking available on the east side of the park, with plenty of room to turn around large RVs and trailers.
Restrooms, visitor centers, and picnic areas are fully ADA accessible, but due to steep terrain, most hiking trails are not accessible for strollers or wheelchairs.
Places to Go
Especially if it’s your first time visiting Pinnacles, include a few of the park’s most popular attractions in your itinerary.
Pinnacles Visitor Center and West Pinnacles Visitor Contact Station
Check out the Visitor Center past the east entrance of the park or the Visitor Contact Station by the west entrance of the park. You can learn more about the different hiking trails and climbing routes on each side of the park and any events that may be going on during your stay.
The park store is a bookstore located in each Visitor’s Center, which carries a wide variety of books and souvenirs. The East Pinnacles Bookstore is open daily from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm but closed daily from 12:00 pm to 1:00 pm for lunch. The West Pinnacles Visitor Contact Station is open Thursdays and Saturdays from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm.
High Peaks Trail
The most iconic trail in the park, the High Peaks Trail, will take you up steep switchbacks through the needle-like rock formations with epic views of the landscape. This 6.4-mile hike is one of the best places to go in the park for a challenging hike with incredible views. Make sure to leave your dogs behind for this hike since dogs are not allowed on the trails.
Bear Gulch Reservoir
Bear Gulch Reservoir can be reached by hiking one mile up the Moses Spring Trail from the Moses Spring trailhead. The dam at the reservoir was created by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935 to prevent flooding and for the aesthetic appeal of the water. Check out the Bear Gulch Cave on your way up to the reservoir.
Bear Gulch Cave
Meander through the Bear Gulch Cave, home to a colony of Townsend big-eared bats. The cave is usually partially open to the public ten months a year, but it closes in the late spring/early summer for two months to protect the bats as they raise their young. The only time of year that all the park’s talus caves are usually open is during the months of March and October.
Pinnacles Campground is not only a great place for camping, but it also has a swimming pool which is a rarity for national parks. If you are visiting Pinnacles National Park during the heat of the summer, take time during the hottest part of the day to take a dip in the pool and relax in the shade of the picnic area.
Notable Closures: Balconies Cave and Bear Gulch Nature Center (*as of 10/2022)
Balconies Cave is closed indefinitely due to vandalism. Once the park is able to remove and repair the extensive damage, they will consider reopening. Check current operating hours on the national park website for updates.
The Bear Gulch Nature Center is also closed until further notice. Check current operating hours on the national park website for updates.
Things To Do in Pinnacles National Park
Stay active and explore the park’s less-traveled areas with these popular activities.
Climbing at Pinnacles National Park is a very popular activity, but the rock formations of Pinnacles are very brittle, so proceed with caution on climbing routes. Always wear a helmet and be aware that most routes rated below 5.10 are poorly protected and a safety concern due to the weak rock layers.
The rock formations on the east side of the park are significantly more solid, but the routes on the west side are longer. Please proceed with caution with these rock formations, and these routes should not be used by beginners.
The California Condor is one of the rarest birds in North America and calls the cliffs and rock towers of Pinnacles National Park home. They can have a wingspan of up to ten feet wide, and they are rare to spot, so if you see one, consider yourself lucky. Some other common birds in Pinnacles National Park are roadrunners, thrashers, wrens, and vultures.
One of the most popular things to do in Pinnacles National Park is to explore the hiking trails. Whether you go to the west or the east side, there are several options for a wide variety of hikes, from easy to challenging.
One popular and strenuous hike that starts at Bear Gulch Day Use area is the Chalone Peak Trail. Hike up to the highest point in the park, North Chalone Peak, to be rewarded with stunning views of the rock towers and surrounding valleys of the Pinnacles.
Ranger Programs are usually held during the summer, but this past summer in 2022, there were no programs held. Check the calendar closer to summer 2023 to see if any ranger programs are planning to start again.
The lack of light pollution in Pinnacles National Park makes it a great place for stargazing. It is known as an International Dark Sky Park, and the South Wilderness Trail is a relatively easy night hike that offers wide sky views for stargazing with little elevation change.
What to Bring and How to Prepare
- Prepare for the sun: Pinnacles National Park is in the desert, and during the day, it can get really hot, even during the colder months. Prepare for little cloud coverage, so bring sunscreen, layers, and sunglasses. Look into some options for a Camelbak so you can hike with plenty of water and have your hands free for the steep terrain.
- Food and drink: There are no cafes or restaurants in the national park, so it’s smart to go to the grocery store ahead and buy plenty of food for meals and snacks. There is drinking water located at Bear Gulch, Chaparral Trailhead, and Moses Spring Trailhead, but make sure to carry plenty of water in your vehicle as well because of extreme temperatures. It’s always good to have backup water for unexpected circumstances or vehicle breakdowns.
- No cellphone service: This national park is in a remote area of central California and does not have reliable cellphone service. Be prepared to be more off-grid or purchase a satellite antenna for your RV ahead of time if you want the comforts of home.
- Campground Reservations: Remember to book Pinnacles Campground ahead of time since there are no first-come, first-serve camping options. Plan ahead to avoid crowds and come during less busy times of the year if you have a flexible schedule. The Pinnacles Campground can be booked up to six months in advance.
- Wildflowers, Bird Watching and Stargazing: Pinnacles National Park is known for viewing over 100 wildflower varieties, several species of birds, and the vast starry skies at night, so make sure you bring some binoculars to take in the faraway views.
- Climber’s Advisory: Be aware of raptor nesting advisories that are updated regularly as nesting activity is monitored. Please stick to the main climbing routes and don’t go off trail or off route due to unstable rock conditions.
Brief History of Pinnacles National Park
Stories have been passed down throughout generations of the indigenous Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and the Chalon Indian Nation inhabiting the land around Pinnacles National Park. Many plant and animal resources were used by the native people as medicine and food, and condors had a significant role in Amah Mutsun mythology. The condors were known to escort the spirits of the recently deceased across the sea to the next world.
Around the late 1800s, a settler named Schuyler Hain led tours around Pinnacles and the caves and became known as the “Father of Pinnacles”. He wrote articles and urged the government to protect the land, and in 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt granted Hain’s wish making Pinnacles a 2500-acre protected national monument.
In 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed buildings, fire lookouts, and trails in Pinnacles National Monument. Many of the hiking trails initially constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps are still used today.
In 2003 Pinnacles became a release site for condors, and these magnificent birds have re-inhabited these rocky spires after nearly becoming extinct. President Barack Obama signed Pinnacles as a National Park in 2013, making it the 59th national park in the United States.
The park has become very popular with tourism in recent years. Recent challenges, such as mitigating fire danger, and recent vandalism to Balconies Cave, have made it difficult to manage certain aspects of the park. Pinnacles continue to grow in popularity in central California, specifically for rock climbing, bird watching, and hiking.
Have you visited Pinnacles since it became one of the newest parks to visit? Let us know about your experience in the comments below!
Lydia Schuldt is a Freelance Writer based on the North Coast of Oregon. In 2020 she bought and converted a 1993 Ford Club Wagon van that she ended up traveling and living in for 6 months. When she isn’t working you can find Lydia surfing, riding her bike or taking trips in her van around the west coast.