Pinnacles National Park is a gem hidden in plain sight. It’s one of the youngest National Parks in the system–having been promoted to NP status in 2013–yet many of the trails date back over a hundred years. Back then Schuyler Hain — the “Father of Pinnacles” led tours up Bear Valley to the caves. He spoke out in support of preserving Pinnacles, and in 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt established Pinnacles as a National Monument.
We began our out-and-back hike at the Peaks View trailhead, hiking a short distance on the Bench Trail before heading up the woodsy Bear Gulch Trail and eventually ascending to the Condor Gulch Overlook.
Getting to Pinnacles National Park
To say that Pinnacles National Park is off the beaten path would be an understatement. It over an hour away from any major freeway, and I was happy that it’s not surrounded by development (yet). Heading from San Francisco it’s a pleasant drive down Highway 101, then south on Highway 25. We stopped to pickup some lunch in Hollister, and made our way to the park.
Getting to Pinnacles from Los Angeles is another matter. It’s about 80 miles to Interstate 5 with very little civilization inbetween, so be sure you’ve fueled up before heading to the park. Driving home to LA was about 260 miles and 4-1/2 hours driving time. The Road Less Traveled? We found it. Beautiful back roads that most folks never see as they speed up the Central Valley.
Note that there is a eastern entrance and a western entrance to Pinnacles NP — and never the twain shall meet. For this hike, you should enter the park from the east.
Look up turn-by-turn driving directions to the eastern entrance here on Google Maps.
Hiking to the Condor Gulch Overlook
Many people drive back to Bear Gulch where there is a seasonal visitor center and some trailhead parking. On the day after Thanksgiving, the lot was full, and we had to park closer to the entrance. My initial disappointment at having to adjust our plan quickly turned into delight. The relatively level Bench Trail provides stunning views of the peaks as in wanders beside the dry (in November) Chalone Creek.
We followed this to the first of many bridges we would cross as we wound our way up the Bear Gulch Trail.
Bear Gulch was incredibly scenic. A narrow canyon with steep walls and a small creek, it felt very much like fall with crunchy leaves and cool air. There were a few small waterfalls in late November, but other sections of the creek had dried up completely. In springtime it would be amazing.
At 1.4 miles we reached the the parking area at Bear Gulch, where you’ll find a number of park buildings including a seasonal visitor center and a parking lot. There are restroom facilities immediately across from the parking, and the Condor Gulch Trail begins just north of there. Follow the signs up… up… and up. You’ll be climbing steadily from here to the overlook, gaining about 760 feet in just under a mile.
At the 2.7 mile mark (or about 1 mile from the Bear Gulch parking area), we reached the Condor Gulch Overlook. The overlook provides a great view back down through Condor Gulch. You can see where the water has carved out depressions in the volcanic rock, and after a storm this would be alive with waterfalls.
The Overlook would be our turnaround point for this short out-and-back hike. We soaked in the views and appreciated the fact that our mostly uphill climb was going to be an easy downhill jaunt back to the trailhead.
I took a few moments to capture some macros of the lichen with my iPhone and my Olloclip.
Joan and I loved Pinnacles National Park, and next time will camp here so we have more time to hike and explore. We will return to hike the High Peaks Trail, and visit the caves (not always open due to the mating season for the bats).
Pinnacles NP is fairly small compared to the “big” National Parks and even though it was busy on the holiday weekend, it didn’t feel crowded. It’s off the beaten path, and that no doubt contributes to the smaller “feel” of the park. I liked that.
Condor Gulch Overlook Trail Map
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Pinnacles National Park Tips
- Get there before 10am on busy days (any holiday weekend). This is a no-brainer at most National Parks, but I had never been to Pinnacles before and wasn’t sure what to expect. As it turns out, the parking nearest the caves in Bear Gulch is pretty limited and fills up quickly.
- This place gets hot and dry in the summer. Bring more water than you think you’ll need.
- Pinnacles is an outstanding deal as far as National Parks go. It’s only $5 to get in, and the pass is good for seven days.