Camping in Pinnacles National Park has been on my bucket list since I first heard about the park a couple of years ago. Unlike some of the other desert campgrounds we’ve stayed at like Joshua Tree’s Black Rock Campground or Furnace Creek Campground in Death Valley, camping in Pinnacles is a little quieter and has some unexpected amenities including a pool. When our plans to hike the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim fell apart we had to scramble to come up with a vacation plan, luckily there were plenty of open campsites at Pinnacles and after reviewing some of the nearby hikes we booked a site for three nights.
There are many guides out there for Pinnacles camping and hiking, but this one has compiled all the information you need to plan a camping trip inside the park, or if camping’s not for you I’ve also included lodging near Pinnacles National park so you can relax in a proper bed.
In the guide we will go over:
- A Brief History of Pinnacles
- How to get to Pinnacles
- How Long to Stay in the Park
- Best Time of Year to Visit Pinnacles
- Pinnacles Campground + Lodging Near Pinnacles National Park
- 2-Day Itinerary for Pinnacles National Park
- Pinnacles National Park Camping Gear List
About Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles National Park is located in the Salinas Valley, northeast of Big Sur State Park. Designated a National Monument by Theador Rosevelt, Pinnacles has inspired visitors with its towering rock spires, deep canyons and stream carved caves. In 2013 President Obama designated the site a National Park due to its abundance of natural and cultural resources.
The park’s spires and caves are remnants of ancient volcanoes that formed millions of years ago. With time, age, and their location near the San Andreas fault the volcanoes slowly split apart. Once split by moving tectonic plates, mother nature worked to smooth and wear away the rock revealing the rust-colored pinnacles you see today. As the volcanoes ripped in two large boulders fell into the canyons and gorges creating rooms, while small streams worked to carve away the rock into passages and caves.
Getting to Pinnacles
Pinnacles is located 124 miles south of San Francisco and 267 miles north of Los Angeles. The park has two entrances, one at the east side of the park and another at the west side of the park. It’s important to note that there is no road connecting the east and west entrances.
I highly recommend using the GPS coordinates rather than just entering “Pinnacles National Park” in your map app. If you do decide to enter the park name make sure you double-check that the navigation is leading you to the entrance you intend to visit.
East Entrance GPS Coordinates: 36.493545, -121.146646 (campground entrance)
West Entrance GPS Coordinates: 36.477700, -121.226136
How Many Days Should I Visit?
The number of days you spend in the park is of course completely up to you, but I would recommend staying at least 2 days in Pinnacles National Park. In my opinion, one day isn’t enough time to fit in all of the hiking trails you will want to check out. We staying in the park for three nights and I found that amount of time to be pretty perfect.
Best Time of Year to Visit
Pinnacles is located several miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, meaning it has a Mediterranean climate rather than the milder coastal climate. In summer temperatures can reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and then drop down to 60 degrees at night. During our summer visit temperatures topped out at 105 during the day and then cooled down to 60 degrees at night. While this wasn’t ideal, we did manage to stay cool by hiking early in the morning and spending the hottest time of day lounging at the pool (yes! this park has a swimming pool!).
While a summer visit is doable, Fall or Spring are the best times to visit Pinnacles. These times of year offer much milder daytime temperatures and give you the chance to snuggle up by a fire at night. According to the annual weather report averages you can expect highs between 70-80 degrees and lows between 30-50 degrees in spring and fall. Perfect camping weather.
Camping in Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles campground can be accessed through the east side of the park (remember there are no connecting roads between the east and west entrance inside the park). The campground offers sites for tent, group, and RV campers.
Campsites can be booked through Recreation.gov and become available on a 6-month rolling basis. Sadly as of this post, the Pinnacles website does not have photos of each site, however, if you head to CampsitePhotos.com you can see pictures of many of the sites. While I didn’t look at every site in the campground, I will say that pretty much all of the sites in Loop C were well shaded. This loop also has fewer sites than the other loops, making it quieter and less crowded.
Campsite amenities include:
- Electric hookups for RVs
- Flush toilets
- Drinking water
- Showers (for a fee)
- General store with basic food and camping supplies
- Swimming pool (mid-April to September)
- Picnic tables
- Fire rings
About the swimming pool: I know what you’re thinking…a swimming pool? Yes, there is a swimming pool and I’m very happy to report that it’s clean, not overly chlorinated, and quite cool.
Pool Tip: There are no chairs or lounges at this pool. Make sure to bring your camp chairs when you head over to the pool so you can lounge poolside and read.
Shower Tip: When we visited the water was so hot I could barely stand under it! There are no temperature controls either so proceed with caution!
Lodging Near Pinnacles National Park
While I would recommend camping inside Pinnicles I completely understand the need for air conditioning, a soft comfy bed, and maybe even some television to wind down in the evening. I will warn you that there aren’t that many places to stay really close to Pinnacles, but here are a few accommodations in nearby Soledad, CA which is a 20-minute drive from the park. If you’re looking for alternative campsites or glampsites head over to HipCamp’s list of sites near Pinnacles National Park.
2-Day Itinerary for Pinnacles National Park
Day 1 – Pinnacles National Park Hikes: Bear Gulch
There are plenty of options when it comes to hiking trails in Pinnacles National Park. With more than 30 miles of trail to choose from it can feel a little daunting. Below I’ve listed several can’t-miss hikes for your first visit to the park. There are options for shorter hikes as well as opportunities to extend your hike thanks to lots of connecting trails.
One spot you don’t want to miss at Pinnacles is Bear Gulch.
If you’re looking to put in a long hiking day start at the Pinnacles Visitor Center and head towards the Bear Gulch Day Use Area and then take the Moses Spring to Rim Trail Loop. This route will follow Chalone and Bear creeks to Bear Gulch Day Use Area then continue on to the talus caves and the reservoir. The total mileage for this route is 6.8 miles. In spring and fall, you will see flowing water and in summer dried river bed. Be warned that a large percentage of this hike is in full sun so make sure you bring your sunscreen and hat.
Pinnacles Visitor Center to Bear Gulch Day Use Area Hike Details
Distance: 2.3 miles one way
Elevation: 300 feet
The day we hiked this trail we saw a tarantula crossing, several deer, many California condors above us and plenty of ground squirrels and bunnies. Keep your eyes peeled for poison oak, I did see some growing along the trail.
We hiked this section of the trail in summer and it was VERY hot. If you’re planning your trip for the hot summer months I highly recommend you start hiking early to avoid the hottest parts of the day. There is water and bathrooms once you reach the Bear Gulch Day Use Area.
For those looking for a shorter hike drive to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area and park your car (yes there is plenty of parking). If you happen to be there on the weekend take a look inside the Bear Gulch Nature Center (open 10am-4pm, Saturdays & Sundays) before you get started.
Moses Spring to Rim Trail Loop
Distance: 2.2 miles round trip
Elevation: 500 feet
One of the highlights of this hike for me was exploring the Talus Caves. Remember to pull out your headlamp before entering the caves, you’re gonna need it. You can thank the Civilian Conservation Corps for all of the expertly installed handrails and stairs, believe me, they will come in handy. As you explore the caves watch your head and keep your eyes peeled for Townsend’s Big-eared bats. The park has several species of bats currently nesting in the caves, trees, and cliffs. There are certain times of year that these caves close to protect the bats, be sure to check the status of closures before heading off on this hike.
After exploring the caves continue on to Bear Gulch where you can enjoy a rest and a cool down in the water. As the trail name states, this is a loop so once you’re ready to move on you can continue to take in views of giant fallen boulders, distant pinnacles, and wildlife.
Once you’ve made it back to the campsite be sure to rest and relax in the pool, especially during the hottest part of the day.
Day 2 – Balconies Cave Hike
The second must-see spot in the park is Balconies Cave. Unlike the talus caves, these are a bit more adventurous, small children might have a tougher time with this hike, but it’s well worth it if you want a little bit more bouldering than yesterday.
Drive to the Old Pinnacles Trailhead parking area to start this hike. Make sure to bring a headlamp or a flashlight for these caves and keep an eye out for Western Mastiff bats. Again, check the status of cave closures prior to heading out.
Old Pinnacles Trail to Balconies Cave
Distance: 5.3 miles
Before you approach the caves make sure to spend some time looking up at the Machete Ridge and the Balconies cliffs high above. This hike will take you into the Balconies caves where you will see plenty of giant boulders suspended in crevasses, creating several small rooms for exploring. Be warned that these caves do not have as many handrails or carved steps as the talus caves. You will need to keep an eye out for arrows on rocks and small signs pointing the way through them, but it is very worth it!
If you’re feeling up to it add on a small section called the Balconies Cliffs Trail. This section will take you up higher for a closer look at some of the pinnacles. It will also allow you to see what’s on top of the cave you were just climbing through.
Pinnacles Camping Gear List
- America the Beautiful National Park Pass: Even if you’re only visiting one national park this year I would still say you should buy the parks pass. Would it be cheaper to just pay the entrance fee? Yes. But by purchasing the pass you are giving to our national parks and I think that’s a good thing.
- Tent [Recommended: Marmot Limelight 3P Tent]: Catherine and I love this tent. We’ve taken it to Joshua Tree, Death Valley, and Pinnacles. It’s roomy, super easy to put up and the orange color makes it easy to spot.
- Water bottle or bladder [Recommended: Osprey Hydraulics Reservoir – 3 Liters]: I can’t stress enough how important it is to carry enough water while you’re hiking in Pinnacles. While there are opportunities to fill up your water, you never want to be in a situation where you run out. I love this Osprey reservoir because it has a rigid back. This means that when it’s in my pack I can’t feel a bulge where the water blatter is, instead it lays flat against my back making hiking a little more comfortable.
- Sunscreen [Recommended: BeautyCounter Countersun Mineral Sunscreen Mist]: I’ve recommended this sunscreen many times and I’m doing it again. I want to stress that this is not an affiliate link. I truly love this stuff! It doesn’t have any weird chemicals, it’s easy to apply and most importantly you can see exactly where you applied it so no random sunburn spots.
- Headlamp [Recommended: Black Diamond ReVold Headlamp]: I bring this headlamp on every hike I go on, it’s always in my pack just in case. It’s bright, reliable and not too heavy on my head. I used it in all of our cave hikes in Pinnacles and love that I could use both hands while bouldering instead of holding a flashlight.
- Sunglasses [Recommended: O’NEILL Sunglasses Tow Polarized]: I’ll be honest. I don’t own these sunglasses, but I’ve tried them on several times at REI. I fully intend on purchasing them once my current pair breaks or gets lost. They are lightweight, stay on my face (isn’t it annoying when your sunglasses slide off your nose!) and I love that they come in blue.
- Hat: I’m a baseball hat wearer myself, but sometimes you need a brimmed hat for extra coverage.
- First Aid Kit [Mountain Series Day Tripper Lite Medical Kit]: I carry this first aid kit on every hike we go on. Thankfully I’ve rarely needed to use it, but when you need it you need it. It’s lightweight, has all the supplies you need for a day hike and REI sells resupply kits for after you’ve used it.
- Looking for plus-size hiking clothing? I have a whole page dedicated to plus-size hiking gear.
Looking for more hiking and camping related posts? Check out these posts!