Just over two hours south of San Francisco, Pinnacles National Park is not only an exemplary portrayal of California’s oak chaparral forest, it’s home to impressive rock formations and wildlife seen in few other places in the world.
Rare red-legged frogs and the still-rare California condor can be seen hopping through the parks cave system or soaring high above the mountains. The majority of the park is dedicated wilderness, meaning that while you can hike through it, no motorized vehicles are permitted, leaving much of the park as natural experience as one could want. Condors are the largest birds in North America, with wingspans of around 9 ½’, and can be distinguished from their cousins the turkey vulture by noting the bottom of their wings. Turkey vultures have black wings with a white strip along the back of the wing, where condors have their white stripes on the front of their wings. Eagles and falcons are also abundant, as they nest in the park during the first half of every year.
Always check the park’s website for “raptor advisories,” as climbing and other activities may be limited at certain times of the year (often January – July.)
Rock climbing is a popular sport at Pinnacles, and hiking trails — complete with guard rails and steps carved directly into the rock — are abundant. Ranger programs are available to learn more about nearly every activity in the park. The signature caves of the park were not specifically carved underground, but the result of canyons being filled with massive boulders over time, making a hike through one of these caves an expedition in crossing water, avoiding wildlife and all as sunlight pours in through the gaps between the boulders, providing somewhat of a heavenly light effect.
Camping in Pinnacles National Park
The National Park Service operates a campground directly within the park, and as it’s the only real camping available within a 45 minute drive, it’s easily the most desirable if you want to experience Pinnacles from dawn to dusk.
Though you can enter the park from both the west and east entrances, roads do not connect to the two. You’ll want to enter the park via Highway 25, on the eastern side, where you can get more information on camping at Pinnacles Visitor Center (as opposed to Soledad Visitors Center or West Pinnacles Visitor Contact Station, both on the western side.)
Camping is more or less divided into “tent sites” and “RV sites,” the latter having electric hookups, but vans and Class B RVs, such as those we rent here at Trail Mix RV, can utilize the tent sites as well. Reservations can be made up to six months in advance. Camping is available year-round.
Sites tend to cost between $30 – $40 per night. For that, you get the site itself, including a picnic table and fire ring (depending on whether there are fire restrictions in place, you may or may not be able to have a fire, and you’ll need to bring wood as gathering wood is prohibited), access to coin-operated showers, flushing toilets and a dump station. Dry camping is also available, and a small general store is available as well.
Reservations aren’t necessarily required, especially when camping mid-week, but the park does see busier times from spring through fall than in the winter, and weekends any time of year can be busy, so it never hurts to at least check what the typical availability looks like via their reservations system.
Individual sites in the campground are often closed, which is a bonus should you get a site sandwiched between a few of these closed spots, giving you more privacy than a typical national park campground. At certain times of the year, a mild river crossing is required to make it into the campground.