For my “30th” birthday (36), I thought it would be a fun idea to visit my 30th national park. Living in Los Angeles, I’ve been lucky enough to travel around the western part of the US and see a lot of national parks, yet Pinnacles National Park had somehow slipped through my fingers until now.
A 4.5 hour drive from Los Angeles, Pinnacles National Park is an often overlooked park that offers breathtaking landscapes, excellent hiking, and the opportunity to see one of the biggest birds in North America, the California Condor. I had my sights set on hiking the High Peaks Trail, as it was showing up in all my research as the best hike to do in the park.
While planning our trip, my girlfriend and I decided to make a weekend out of it by staying in Paso Robles, combining two of my favorite things - hiking and wine country. Here is my guide to exploring Pinnacles National Park.
Where To Stay
Pinnacles National Park is pretty remote, as it is located in central California, and doesn’t have any big cities super close to it. San Francisco is about a 2.5 hour drive away, and Los Angeles is about a 4.5 hours drive north up to Pinnacles. That leaves Paso Robles and Monterey as two of the closer destinations to stay while visiting, both about 1.5 hours away from the park.
Camping is also a great option as the park has two campgrounds: Pinnacles campground and the more remote and primitive Bear Gulch campground. Both campgrounds offer picnic tables, fire rings, and restrooms with flush toilets and showers.
Pinnacles Campground is located near the park's East Entrance and has 134 campsites available on a first-come, first-served basis or by reservation through Recreation.gov.
Bear Gulch Campground is located in the heart of the park and is accessible only by foot or bicycle. It has 30 campsites available on a first-come, first-served basis and is often filled during peak season.
Staying at Paso Robles was a fun option for us as it gave us an opportunity to stay at a winery in California, and we could still head into Pinnacles National Park for a day of hiking. We stayed at the Allegretto Winery and absolutely loved it.
When To Go
When to visit the park will depend on your personal preferences, but generally speaking I would advise against going in mid summer (June - August) to avoid the heat and the crowds, and avoid mid winter (December - January) as weather conditions may have trails closed.
I visited in early February and it felt like a perfect time to visit. Crowds were super thin - we didn’t see a ton of people on the High Peaks Trail, and easily found a parking spot in the Bear Gulch Day Use Area. The weather was very comfortable hiking weather (high 50s-low 60s) and we had mostly cloudy skies with a bit of light rain for the last 30 mins of our 3 hour hike.
The High Peaks Trail
via Condor Gulch
The one hike to rule them all in Pinnacles National Park is the High Peaks Trail. This is the one you want to hike. Access to the trail is from the Bear Gulch Day Use Area on the East side entrance of the park, past the visitor’s center.
There are a few ways to hike this trail as other trails intersect. I hiked The High Peaks Trail via the Condor Gulch Trail, which essentially cuts off the larger High Peaks Trail but creates a sizable loop with a beautiful variety of scenery. The trail is about 5.5 miles long and took me 3 hours to complete.
This trail is not easy, but it’s also not hard. The first half of the trail is almost all uphill. It’s a steady climb and can be a leg burner at times. My total elevation gain on the hike was 1,585 feet. The climb through Condor Gulch was very scenic with some great views of the park’s unique rock formations.
Once you reach the top, it’s not actually the top, but it feels like it as the trail flattens out a bit and you are treated with sweeping views out over the park and the large canyons. Here is where you’ll have a great chance to see the endangered California condors. These massive birds can have a wingspan up to 9.5 feet long and you will most likely see them hovering around the peaks, looking for food to scavenge on.
We saw two condors perched on one of the rock formations along the peaks, and got a good look at them with our binoculars; they are wild looking. And even more wild was that I finally had a real reason to use my binoculars. If you are hiking this trail and want to get a close up glimpse of the condors, I'd highly suggest bringing your binoculars with you!
When we got close to the rock where they were perched, there was a sign indicating it was a condor area. They had since flown away but we waited for about ten minutes and sure enough, a giant condor came swooping right up to the rock, stunning us all with its wingspan. We couldn’t get a good look at it once it landed, but seeing it fly up that close to us was a treat. I saw many condors circling above in the sky along with tons of ravens.
After the condor rock, we faced the ultimate test of the hike: ascending the area with the railings. This area has steps carved from the rock that are pretty vertical. There is a metal safety railing that helps guide you up (or down, depending which way you are coming from).
It was a little intimidating, but ultimately it wasn’t very challenging to get through. To make it a little tougher for us, it started raining and became very windy almost as soon as it was our turn to hike up this section. It also happened to be the highest point of the trail, which maybe explains the wind and rain, but when we emerged we were greeted with an unforgettable rainbow.
The rest of the hike was all downhill from here and felt more like a long stroll, which was a very enjoyable change of pace. Once you get back down, you are greeted with more incredible views looking back at where you just came from. You have the option of continuing your hike through the Moses Spring Trail - which I would recommend if you have the time - but we cut ours short and headed back to the parking lot as it was beginning to rain.
After a quick stop in the convenience store next to the visitor’s center to load up on snacks, we were off on the open road back to Paso Robles.
The High Peaks Trail was one of my favorite hikes that I’ve done in California and was a perfect day hike. If you’re into hiking and nature, this is the trail for you to explore when visiting Pinnacles National Park. A great workout with scenic views and unique wildlife sightings, a pretty good birthday present indeed!
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