Hiking Trail in Pinnacles National MonumentCredit: photo by Reena Sharma

Springtime is the perfect time for hiking one of the many hiking trails in Pinnacles National Monument.  The park is located just east of central California’s Salinas Valley not far from Soledad and Salinas, Ca.  The monument is part of an extinct volcano created when the Pacific plate yanked off a portion of the North American plate. The Pinnacles National Monument slowly drifted 195 miles north from Lancaster, California while the other half of the volcano, the Neenach Formation, did not move.  The Pinnacles were weathered by erosion and the elements to what is seen today, a third of their original size, yet still magnificent.

 Pinnacles National Monument has numerous trails for different levels of hiking experience.  The hiking trail system in Pinnacles is over 30 miles long with easily hiked trails to those requiring more strenuous effort.

Hiking Trails from the Pinnacles Campground

 Three trails are accessed from the campground.  The trail connecting the Pinnacles Visitor Center to the Bear Gulch Day Use area is 2.7 miles one way.  This trail, Bench Trail, is rated with a moderate difficulty level and has an elevation gain of 300 feet.  Sections of the trail are accessible by wheelchair.  Hikers walk along the Chalone and Bear creeks.

 The South Wilderness Trail is a level trail offering bird and wildlife viewing.  It is one mile to the junction of the Old Pinnacles Trail and a total of three miles one way.  It is rated an easy hike.  It is one of the less populated trails, going to the border of the park and meandering among a grove of valley oaks.

 The trail to the Balconies Caves is a popular trail.  It is 4.3 miles one way and is rated a moderate hike with a 300 elevation gain.   This trail begins at the visitor center on the Bench Trail.  The Bench Trail junctions with the Old Pinnacles Trail at about 2.3 miles.  After the trails merge, it is another two miles to the caves.  Flashlights are required for the caves.  If exploring the caves, some scrambling through talus passages is required. The Balconies Caves can become flooded and closed to access during some months of the year.

 Hiking Trails From the Bear Gulch Day Use Area

 In addition to the Bench Trail mentioned above, a nice, short little trail for viewing rock formations, the talus caves and the reservoir is the Moses Spring-Rim Trail Loop.  This loop is rated as a moderate trail with a 500 feet elevation gain.  It is about a 2.2 miles hike for the entire loop.

 If desiring a more strenuous hike, there are several options.  The Condor Gulch-High PeakView from hiking trail in PinnaclesCredit: photo by Reena Sharmas loop is about a 5.3 miles loop ascending an elevation of 1,300 feet.  This loop takes hikers through the heart of the Pinnacles rock formations.  The first mile to the overlook is a moderate hike, but the trail gets much steeper beyond the overlook.  The Rim and Moses Spring Trails can extend the loop to 6.1 miles.

 Another strenuous hike is the High Peaks-Bear Gulch loop.  Taking this scenic trail, hikers will climb to an elevation of 1,425 feet.  The loop is about 6.7 miles long and descends through meadows of wildflowers.  Along the Bear Gulch trail, hikers will find shade among the sycamore trees surrounding the path.

 Possibly the most strenuous hike is along the Chalone Peak Trail.  It is an 8.6 mile round trip trail that ascends to an elevation of 2,040 feet.  Hikers climb to North Chalone Peak which is the highest peak in the park.  The view from the top is spectacular.  The hike can be extended by continuing to South Chalone peak on an unmaintained trail.

 Hiking Trails From the Chaparral Parking Area

 The Balconies Caves, Balconies Cliffs, and High Peak Trails can also be accessed from the Chaparral Parking area.  In addition, two other trails are accessed from this parking area which is located at the west entrance to the park.

 The Juniper Canyon loop is a 4.3 miles loop and ascends to an elevation of 1,215 feet.  It is a strenuous climb along switchbacks to the heart of the high peaks.  At the top hikers will enjoy beautiful views of the valley below.  Wildflowers and other plant life can be enjoyed as well as the various wildlife.

 The North Wilderness loop is the longest of the trail loops at 9.7 miles.  It is a steep climb along ridgetops on an unmaintained path, ascending to an elevation of 1,020.   It descends into the Chalone creek bed and the choices for return trails are the Old Pinnacles Trail or the Balconies trails.

 What Pinnacles National Monument Offers

 In addition to the numerous hiking trails in the park, the park includes rock Rock Formations in Pinnacles National MonumentCredit: photo by Reena Sharmaformations which many climbers enjoy.  The rock formations are a nesting ground for many raptors such as falcons and hawks and are the location of a reintroduction program for the California condor.  The park is a perfect place for mammals such as the gray fox, bobcats and even mountain lions.

 Within the Pinnacles Park, 49 species of mammals, 149 species of birds, 22 reptiles, 69 butterflies, 8 amphibians, almost 400 species of bees, 40 dragonflies and damselflies and thousands of other invertebrates make their homes.

 Plant life is abundant in the park. The majority of the plant community is chaparral.  Trees include pine, valley oak and buckeye. The valley floor includes sycamore, willow andWildflower Viewd from Hiking Trail in PinnaclesCredit: photo by Reena Sharma cottonwood trees.  The wildflowers bloom beautifully in the spring dotting the landscape with swaths of brilliant colors.

Preparing for a Visit to Pinnacle National Monument

Several factors need to be considered when preparing for a visit to Pinnacle National Monument.  These include:

  •  July and August are the least populated months due to the extreme heat.  If visiting during those months, bring lots of water to keep hydrated.  Check weather forecasts to avoid temperatures over a hundred. 
  • During some months, rock climbing in certain areas is not allowed due to the nesting habits of the birds.
  • If exploring the caves, bring a flashlight.  Winter weather can flood the caves and at times they are closed to the public.
  • The Bear Gulch cave is home to a colony of Townsend’s Big-eared Bats. These bats are listed as a “sensitive species” by the state of California. They hibernate in the winter and raise their young in the late spring and early summer.  The cave is closed between mid-May to mid-July while the bats raise their young.  Depending upon the colony, the lower half of the cave is generally open from mid-July to mid-May of the following year.  
  • Dogs are not allowed on any of the park’s trails.

Pinnacles National Monument is accessed by taking Highway (Hwy) 101 to Hwy 25 to Hwy 146.  The west entrance is accessed by taking Hwy 101 to Hwy 146 (going through Soledad, Ca.)


The copyright of the article “Hiking Trails in Pinnacles National Monument” is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.