hiking among the raptors at pinnacles national park despite my fear of heights
Travel date April 2021

Pinnacles, California’s newest National Park, received its park designation in 2013, during the Obama administration.   The native animal species and wildflowers attract many visitors to this lesser-known park in central California. Don’t let a fear of heights deter you from visiting the California Condors along the Steep and Narrow High Peaks trail at Pinnacles National Park.

Fun Facts about Pinnacles National Park

  • Over 100 species of wildflowers grow within the park.
  • Pinnacles National Park protects the largest diversity of bees in a single place in North America. Over 400 species of bees are found in the park.
  • The largest native frog in the western US, the California red-legged frog, has been re-established in the park after being designated endangered.
  • California Condors nest in the park.
  • Pinnacles National Park is one of the few release sites in the US and Mexico for captive-bred Condors.
  • Condors are one of the largest birds in North America.  They weigh about 20 pounds and have a 9 ½ foot wingspan.
  • Condors can fly as high as 15,000 feet altitude at speeds up to 55 miles per hour.
  • The Bear Gulch Dam and day-use area plus tunnels and trails were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s.
  • A grassroots preservation campaign led by local families caused FDR to give Pinnacles their National Monument status in 1908.  

Pinnacles National Park Basic Facts

Location: central California (50 miles from Pacific Ocean; 140 miles south of San Francisco)

Park Size: 26,000 acres (over 16,000 of which are designated wilderness)

Elevation: lowest 824 feet along Chalone Creek; highest 3,304 feet atop North Chalone Peak

Number of visitors annually: 200k

Established: National Monument in 1908; National Park in 2013

Admission: $30 for a 7-day entrance permit for private vehicles or an annual America the Beautiful National Parks pass

Visitor Centers: Pinnacles Visitor Center (East section at campground); West Visitor Contact Station; Bear Gulch Nature Center (open weekends only)

kara at pinnacles national park sign

How much time do you need at Pinnacles?

Pinnacles National Park is quite condensed and doesn’t require a lot of time. One section (East or West) can easily be seen in one day.  If time is limited, a half-day would be sufficient to see one section of the park.  The park consists of two sections (East and West) that are not connected by road.  No road goes through the entire park.

With the visitor center and nature center closures, we only needed enough time for our chosen hike. Hiking trails range from half an hour to eight hours.     

If you plan to visit both the East and West section, allow two hours to drive between the two entrances.   

official NPS Pinnacles map
Map courtesy of NPS

What the best entrance at Pinnacles National Park? 

The east and west park entrances are not connected by roads.  I would recommend choosing the entrance closest to your route and only visiting one side of the park. We visited the east entrance because it was closer to our route. Additionally, the east entrance had more trail options available for hiking.

The east entrance is the home to the park’s only campground.  The camp store and visitor’s center share a small building at the campground entrance.  Showers and restrooms are available here.  The Bear Gulch parking area is home to the Bear Gulch Nature Center. It also provides trail access to the High Peaks and Bear Gulch trails. 

RVs and large vehicles are not recommended at the west entrance due to a steep and narrow road from Soledad.  The West Visitor Contact Station has a small bookstore and park information.  

What to know before you visit Pinnacles National Park?

There are limited services in the park so be sure to pack a picnic for your trip.  Drinking water refill stations are available at the Bear Gulch trailhead and Pinnacles Visitor Center.   The campground store at the East entrance had limited grocery items available for sale.

Download offline maps in preparation because cellular service is not available in most of the park.

Parking is very limited in the park so visit during less popular times.  We didn’t have an issue finding parking at the Bear Gulch area mid-week at 10am.

Summer temperatures exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit so plan accordingly.  Hike early or late in the day.  Wear protective clothing.  Carry and drink at least one liter of water per person per hour.

pinnacles rock formations

What is there to do at Pinnacles National Park?

Pinnacles National Park is smaller than most of the other nine California National Parks. 

A few of the most popular things to do at Pinnacles National Park are:

  • Learn about the Park
  • Hiking
  • Caving
  • Rock Climbing

Wildlife is one of the main attractions at Pinnacles.  During our visit, we weren’t lucky enough to see any of the resident California Condors.   Turkey vultures circled the sky during most of our hike and were fun to watch.

turkey vultures soaring over pinnacles

Learn about the Park

Upon arrival at National Parks, we go to the Visitor Center as soon as possible.   It’s great to talk to a ranger and get personal recommendations. 

During COVID, we were disappointed the Pinnacles visitor center and Bear Gulch Nature Center were both closed.   We were unable to watch the park film or read any of the educational exhibits. 

Hiking at Pinnacles

Pinnacles National Park offers over 30 miles of hiking trails ranging from easy to strenuous.  Hiking is a great way to explore the park’s unique rock structures. 

The East Side of Pinnacles offers more trail options than the West Side. 

TrailDistanceElevationNPS Rating
PINNACLES WEST SIDE TRAILS
Balconies Cliffs- Balconies Cave Loop2.4 mile400 ftEasy to moderate
Juniper Canyon Loop4.3 mile1,215 ftStrenuous
North Wilderness Trail Loop9.3 mile1,020 ftStrenuous
High Peaks-Balconies Cave Loop8.4 mile1,540 ftStrenuous
Prewett Point Trail0.9 mile70 ftEasy
Jawbone Trail1.2 mile one way560 ftEasy to moderate
PINNACLES EAST SIDE TRAILS
Visitor Center to Bear Gulch day use2.3 mile one way300 ftModerate
South Wilderness Trail6.5 mile300 ftModerate
Visitor Center to Balconies Caves9.4 mile450 ftModerate
Moses Spring – Rim Trail Loop2.2 mile500 ftModerate
Condor Gulch – High Peaks Loop5.3 mile1,300 ftStrenuous
High Peaks – Bear Gulch Loop6.7 mile1,425 ftStrenuous
Condor Gulch Trail1.7 mile1,100 ftModerate
Chalone Peak Trail9 mile2,040 ftStrenuous
Old Pinnacles Trail to Balconies Cave5.3 mile350 ftModerate

Hiking Steep and Narrow Trail at Pinnacles

The most popular section of trail in Pinnacles is the Steep and Narrow area of the High Peaks Loop.  It travels through the heart of the Pinnacles rock formations in the park.   The park’s California Condors regularly soar around this section of trail.    I really wanted to do the High Peaks Loop at Pinnacles but my fear of heights gave me pause about the Steep and Narrow section.

the view is amazing from steep and narrow trail in pinnacles and worth challenging your fear of heights

Can I hike the Steep and Narrow trail at Pinnacles if I have a fear of heights?

I have a fear of heights and I hiked the Steep and Narrow trail at Pinnacles National Park.  I realize being scared of heights is not rational but I have no control over it. Over time, l have realized steep drop offs bother me the most. 

I attempted Moro Rock at Sequoia National park earlier in the month.  The steep drop-offs had me shaking and near tears before I made it halfway up the 350 stairs to the top of the granite dome. I turned around and headed back before completing the Moro Rock trail.  Thankfully, Kevin continued the walk and took some great pictures for me.  

Despite a fear of heights, I really wanted to see condors at Pinnacles.  High Peaks Trail has the most condor sightings in the park and I didn’t want to miss it. 

In preparation, I watched a few YouTube videos of the route.  I knew the steep and narrow section was only a few minutes of the 5.3-mile loop.  With condors as a reward, I thought I could power through a few minutes of misery.  

The steep and narrow section has vegetation and rocks around the trail so it doesn’t feel like sheer drop-offs.   I was a bit nervous at a few points but it was definitely manageable.  The difficult section of the trail only lasted a few minutes and I was very proud to make it through after missing out on Moro Rock at Sequoia National Park.

kara powering through her fear of heights on the notched steps of the steep and narrow trail at pinnacles
climbing the stone notched stairs on steep and narrow trail in pinnacles can be challenging if those with a fear of heights

Caving at Pinnacles

The Balconies and Bear Gulch caves are talus caves. They formed when boulders fell on top of narrow canyons creating roofs on the canyon.   Passing through caves can require wading in water or scrambling over boulders.  Flashlights are recommended.   

The caves occasionally close due to flooding to protect bat species.     Sadly the caves were closed during our visit due to COVID.

Rock Climbing at Pinnacles

Unlike the granite and basalt at other parks, the rocks at Pinnacles are weaker and more technical.  Only experienced technical rock climbers should attempt to climb in the park.  The rock can be so unstable that even new bolts may fail.

lichen covered rock formations at pinnacles national park

Is Pinnacles National Park worth it?

Our visit to Pinnacles was only half a day but we enjoyed it.  We felt Pinnacles’ unique hiking trails were worth the trip. If you are willing to try, do not let a fear of heights deter a hike on the Pinnacles Steep and Narrow trail. Due to COVID closures in the park, we weren’t able to explore the caves.  Despite not seeing any condors during our visit, we enjoyed the Condor Gulch – High Peaks loop.  In conclusion,  I would like to go to Pinnacles again.  On our next trip, I hope to experience more of the park and hopefully see a resident condor.

kevin does not have a fear of heights and walked right on the trail edge on the high peaks trail in pinnacles

Pinnacles Steep & Narrow YouTube Video

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