24 Hours In Pinnacles National Park

After my adventure into Death Valley, I made my way west to the small and not-so-well-known gem of Pinnacles National Park. It was Sunday, though, so unfortunately by the time I got there all of the campsites were taken (so much for being not-so-well-known….) The Ranger was nice enough to direct me to a nearby BLM campsite called Sweetwater, but of course all six of those campsites were full, too… Hunting season had just started. Thankfully, I was able to stake out a primitive spot up on a hill in back of the campground that overlooked a beautiful, green valley below. I had the sunrise all to myself the following morning. Everything works out one way or another 🙂

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The next day I did score a campsite in the Park and spent that afternoon and the following morning hiking and exploring the caves and trails that make up Pinnacles National Park. Before arriving, I had no idea what to expect, but I was truly blown away by the beauty and uniqueness of the area – tall spires of red, gold, and brown lava rock stand upright amid vibrant green meadows dotted with wildflowers; clear streams run through healthy oak forests; pitch black caves beg to be explored; California condors soar high overhead… there’s just so much variety and diversity to experience in this small but mighty park! Since it is small, I do recommend visiting during the weekday if possible and I hear that it gets pretty hot in the summer, so the shoulder seasons (March, April, September, October) are the better times to go.

With over 30 miles of hiking, there’s a trail for everyone, but here are the two hikes that I did:

BEAR GULCH TO HIGH PEAKS

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I started this hike from the campground via the Bench Trail because on weekends, the parking lot at Bear Gulch fills up super early and the line for the shuttle at the ranger station gets quite long. So instead of waiting in line, I opted to hike the 2 miles from the campground to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area. It’s a beautiful walk and I definitely recommend it if you don’t mind adding a few miles to your day. From Bear Gulch I continued on the Bear Gulch Cave Trail which followed a pretty little stream and culminated at the Bear Gulch Cave. I wasn’t expecting much from the cave, but it was definitely more dramatic than I thought it would be! A flashlight or headlamp is a must. Once through the caves, I passed the reservoir at the top and continued along the Rim Trail. From there, I took the steep High Peaks Trail to Scout Peak and finally made my way back to the campground via the rest of the High Peaks Trail and Bench Trail. In all, it was about a (fantastic) 11 mile day.  I started this hike from the campground via the Bench Trail because on weekends, the parking lot at Bear Gulch fills up super early and the line for the shuttle at the ranger station gets quite long. So instead of waiting in line, I opted to hike the 2 miles from the campground to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area. It’s a beautiful walk and I definitely recommend it if you don’t mind adding a few miles to your day. From Bear Gulch I continued on the Bear Gulch Cave Trail which followed a pretty little stream and culminated at the Bear Gulch Cave. I wasn’t expecting much from the cave, but it was definitely more dramatic than I thought it would be! A flashlight or headlamp is a must. Once through the caves, I passed the reservoir at the top and continued along the Rim Trail. From there, I took the steep High Peaks Trail to Scout Peak and finally made my way back to the campground via the rest of the High Peaks Trail and Bench Trail. In all, it was about a (fantastic) 11 mile day.

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OLD PINNACLES TO BALCONIES

On my second day in the park, I only had a few hours in the morning to explore so I hiked the Old Pinnacles Trail to the Balconies – about 4 miles round trip. Unlike the previous day’s hike, this trail is mostly flat and pretty easy (but still beautiful!) The Balconies Cave rivals the Bear Gulch Cave in its darkness and otherworldliness – a flashlight or headlamp is still a necessity. My favorite part on this hike, though, was the upper Balconies trail. Perhaps it was because I had much of the trail to myself (most people work on Monday’s 😉 but I just couldn’t get over the magical beauty and magnificence of the stone formations and lush greenery.

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If I had another day in the park I would have done the 9.3 mile North Wilderness trail that branches off from the Old Pinnacles Trail and rejoins at the Chaparral Trailhead parking lot. (See the faint gray dotted line at the top of the map above). That will be a hike for next time!

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