Pinnacles National Park

jana meerman bear gulch trail pinnacles national park california (2)

After nearly two years, the US borders finally reopened to vaccinated European residents and I was able to come home for the holidays. The last time I was in the States was for Christmas 2019, while still living in New Zealand, just before COVID-19 hit. The borders shut shortly after in March 2020 and only just reopened in November 2021!

It was complicated to get over here, with various booster shots, tests within 1 day and forms to complete, but it was wonderful to be back on North American soil for the holidays.

Most of my time in California was spent as a proper Christmas holidays should be - eating yummy food, hanging out in my pajamas, reading plenty of books and catching up on relaxation. However, it was a nice treat to finish out the year with a day trip to Pinnacles National Park, just south of the Santa Clara Valley where my parents live. After so long away from North America, it was wonderful to be out in nature here again.


A Guide to Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park is one of the smallest national parks in the USA, coming in at seventh smallest, meaning a day is plenty of time to do the two major sections of the park. Pinnacles National Park is 1.5 hours south of San Jose and the park is accessible by two roads, but note that the two roads do not meet so you cannot cross the park by road and must choose which one to enter in. The two roads are connected by a hiking trail, so you can cross the park by foot only.

We entered at the East Entrance which is where you can also find the small but well-stocked visitor centre. From the East Entrance, you can access the two main sections of the park: Bear Gulch and Old Pinnacles. There is not a lot of parking in this national park, so unless you arrive early to nab one of the few parking spots at the two sections, you'll need to park at the visitor centre and hop on the free shuttle that trundles through the park dropping off and picking people up at the various parking lots.

The most popular activities at Pinnacles National Park are hiking and climbing. We did two hikes here, Bear Gulch Trail and Balconies Caves Trail.


Bear Gulch Trail Hike

The Bear Gulch Trail to the Bear Gulch Reservoir is a short and fun little trail that winds its way through caves requiring a bit of scrambling and definitely a flashlight! At the top, a beautiful reservoir with stunning reflections can be found, with a rim trail that you can do around the perimeter. Bear Gulch Trail is a loop trail, but from there you can also access the longer hikes such as the High Peaks Trail.

BEAR GULCH TRAIL HIKE DETAILS

When: year-round

Where: Pinnacles National Park

Difficulty: easy

Length: 1 hour for 2.4km loop

Directions: starting at the Bear Gulch parking lot, follow signs to Bear Gulch Reservoir. The trail does go through caves which requires some scrambling through darkness, so a flashlight is a must.

Bathrooms: yes, at the parking lot

Public Transit: no public transit to the park, but a free shuttle does run inside the park between the visitor centre and the various parking lots

jana meerman bear gulch trail pinnacles national park california (1)

View from the Bear Gulch parking lot

jana meerman bear gulch trail pinnacles national park california (2)
jana meerman bear gulch trail pinnacles national park california (2)
jana meerman bear gulch trail pinnacles national park california (2)
jana meerman bear gulch trail pinnacles national park california (2)

Mum walking the Rim Trail around Bear Gulch Reservoir

jana meerman bear gulch trail pinnacles national park california (2)

First light over the Reservoir

jana meerman bear gulch trail pinnacles national park california (2)
jana meerman bear gulch trail pinnacles national park california (2)
jana meerman bear gulch trail pinnacles national park california (2)
jana meerman bear gulch trail pinnacles national park california (2)
jana meerman bear gulch trail pinnacles national park california (2)

The Reservoir seen from above on the Rim Trail

jana meerman bear gulch trail pinnacles national park california (2)

The views on the way back to the parking lot


Balconies Caves Trail Hike

A longer hike awaits at Balconies Caves Trail which has an even more exciting and quite dark and compact cave to rock scramble your way through and, after heavy rains, calf-deep rivers to wade through! You hike through the caves on the way out and then hike across the cliffs up top for the panoramic views over the pinnacles on your way back. This was a really fun hike.

BALCONIES CAVES TRAIL HIKE DETAILS

When: year-round

Where: Pinnacles National Park

Difficulty: easy, but be prepared to rock scramble through the cave section

Length: 3 hours for 8.3km loop

Directions: starting at the Old Pinnacles parking lot, follow signs to Balconies Caves. At the fork, follow signs for the caves and then complete the loop after emerging from the cave by following signs for the cliffs back to the parking lot.

Bathrooms: yes, an outhouse at the parking lot

Public Transit: no public transit to the park, but a free shuttle does run inside the park between the visitor centre and the various parking lots

jana meerman balconies caves trail pinnacles national park california (1)
jana meerman balconies caves trail pinnacles national park california (1)
jana meerman balconies caves trail pinnacles national park california (1)
jana meerman balconies caves trail pinnacles national park california (1)

Entrance to the Balconies Caves

jana meerman balconies caves trail pinnacles national park california (1)

Bring a flashlight!

jana meerman balconies caves trail pinnacles national park california (1)

Wading through water at the end of the caves

jana meerman balconies caves trail pinnacles national park california (1)

The view from the cliffs above

jana meerman balconies caves trail pinnacles national park california (1)
jana meerman balconies caves trail pinnacles national park california (1)

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