Day Trip to Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park is a beautiful national park that’s close to the San Francisco Bay area, making it possible to do it in a day trip. It is about 2.5 hours away from San Francisco, and is one of the newest national park in the to be inducted into the National Park system back in 2013. 

The park itself is approximately 26,000 acres (compared to 750,000 acres at Yosemite). It is formed 23 million years ago from volcanic eruptions. Throughout the years, erosion led to the unique pinnacles and cave formations. The landscape in Pinnacles National Park is quite diverse, with the west side containing the pinnacles and canyons and the east side filled with grasslands and  chaparral.

Few tips about Pinnacles National Park before your visit:

  • Entrances: There are two entrances to the park – East and West side. There are no roads connecting the two entrances (only foot trail) so you must pick one to enter. The East Entrance contains the campground and is open 24 hours. The West Entrance is open from 7:30AM to 8PM. Vehicles can still exit even after the gate is closed. I highly recommend entering from the West Entrance if you are making a day trip. It is less crowded and is close to the Balconies Cave.
  • Times to visit: Pinnacles National Park gets to the high 90s F and is extremely dry during the summer. So it is recommended that you visit the park during Spring or Winter time. Spring is preferable as Winter season can have moderate rain as well. I also recommend arriving early to the park to avoid both the hot mid-day sun and the crowd.
  • What to see / do: The park is known for its caves. There is also hiking, rock climbing, and bird watching Prairie, Peregrine, and the endangered California condors.
  • Be prepared: Brings lots of water and sunscreen for this hike. Most trails aren’t covered! Also bring a flashlight or headlamp for cave exploring.

Getting there

As mentioned earlier, Pinnacles National Park is a quick 2.5 hours drive from San Francisco. We left the Bay area around 7:30AM and arrived at the West entrance by 10AM.


Did you really go to a National Park if you didn’t take a picture in front of its sign?

Hiking

Since it’s our first time here, we figured we would do the most comprehensive trail, a counter-clockwise loop around the park! We started at the Juniper Canyon Trail, then continue on the High Peaks Trail,  then Old Pinnacles Trail, then the Balconies Cave Trail, and finally the Balcony Trail for a complete loop of 10.2 miles. It took us about 5 hours total. 


Our Strava map of the loop we did

Juniper Canyon Trail

We started off at Juniper Canyon Trail which has high elevation gains. We wanted to do the high elevation part first because this is when we still have the most energy in the day. There were lots of switchbacks on this trail but the views are worth it!


Panoramic view while climbing up the Juniper Canyon Trail


Once we got up to the top, the view was even better! And of course, I had to climb to the top rock at the peak to get those good photos!


Another panoramic view from the top.


It wasn’t too crowded when we were at the top of Juniper Canyon Trail around 12PM.

High Peak Trail

At the high peak, it switches from the Juniper Canyon Trail to High Peak Trail. Although the High Peak Trail sits on the highest elevation of the park, and has some more elevation gains, the steepest part of our hike was at the Juniper Canyon Trail. 

The unique part about High Peak Trail is that there are narrow and steep stairs that you have to occasionally climb through. Here are some examples of the stairs that we had to do. 

The struggle was real.

Old Pinnacles Trail

After the High Peaks Trail, it starts declining back to lower elevation. The whole trail is a gradual decline with barely any covers. It was hot and bare and it definitely hampered my mood to take any photos during this part of the trail. Here’s a picture of a dry creek that we passed through while on Old Pinnacles Trail.

Balconies Cave Trail

After what seemed like a forever sunny hike, we got to the Balconies Cave Trail where the cave is! The cave was significantly cooler and was very fun to explore. Definitely bring a flashlight or headlight as it gets pretty dark in there.

 

This is the darkest part of the cave. We stayed for a while doing some long exposure photography.

We had some fun with the rocks too!

Balcony Trail

After the caves, it’s another 10 minutes of flat ground on Balcony Trail to walk back to the parking lot.

Winery

We finished the hike at around 3PM and started driving out of the park. Then, about 3.5 miles from the West Entrance, we saw these signs for multiple wineries. You can’t miss them as there is only one road in and out of the park. We randomly picked Michaud Vineyard and started driving towards it. It took about another 4 miles into that split from the main road to get to Michaud Vineyard.

Their wine tasting is $12 per person. Sara and I ended up splitting one because I have to drive. Their wine is quite good. I enjoyed their Table Red and Pinot Noir a lot! And their tasting room gives an excellent view of the pinnacles!

Gilroy

We passed by Gilroy, CA on our drive back to the Bay. Gilroy is known for their production of garlic. It is nicknamed “Garlic Capital of the World”. They even have a Gilroy Galric Festival every year which offers interesting cuisine like garlic ice-cream (I tried it and personally wouldn’t recommend it, but different strokes for different folks!). 

But did you know Gilroy also offer cherry picking? We didn’t actually end up picking cherries this trip but saw multiple signs that had cherries for sale. So we stopped at one of them and bought some fresh fruits before heading home!

Budget

This was a fun day trip filled with loads of activities. It was also really good on the wallet too!

Pro tip: if you are a national park frequent visitor, I strongly suggest getting the America the Beautiful annual pass. It is $80 for one year. The Pinnacles National Park entrance fee is $25 per vehicle. Other national parks are usually $30 per vehicle. So if you go to more than 3 national parks within a year, the pass will already have paid for itself. This is also why I didn’t have any entrance fee cost in the budget below.

Description Cost Cost per person
Meals / snacks $50.00 $25.00
Wine Tasting $12.00 $6.00
Fruits $11.00 $5.50
Gas $45.00 $22.50
Total $118.00 $59.00

Getting Interviewed

While at the park, we were interviewed by the local news channel about the recent price increase of the Pinnacles National Park entrance fees! Refer to the Budget section above for my solution to the ever increasing park entrance fee!

 

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