Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park
Bear Gulch Reservoir

Last President Day weekend, I've been to Pinnacles National Park. Pinnacles National Park is the smallest National Park in California, and it is only one hour and a half driving from my home (Palo Alto). Luckily, we could book a tent cabin for one night on Friday - the weekend spots are hardly found for months. I watched a few Youtube videos and read several articles but couldn't figure out what the visit would look like. Every source said the parking on weekends would be terrible. We would have a night in the campground but couldn't get whether we could park the car after checkout or move the car to a common parking lot early in the morning. We had sent an inquiry to the park but couldn't get the information in time. So, we decided just to face it.

The Campground

The park has two entrances - The East and The West. The campground is at the East entrance. The campground was wonderful. Each site was spacious and well-managed. The campground store (visitor center) had a lot of goods: water, icecreams, firewood (no outside firewood was allowed), and even fire starters. I bought two loads of firewood, and they delivered it to my site. The restroom was clean. It was easy to get water, but the Park homepage said it might not be suitable for a drink. So, we brought drinking water.

The tent cabin was well-managed. It had three beds and for up to 4 people. It had lights (inside and the entrance), but no power outlet. We knew that there were no beddings. So, we brought our sleeping bags, and they saved our lives. My sleeping bag is the Montbell DownHugger 800 #0. It is a great sleeping bag that provides comfortableness even at 14F and sustains life at -40F. We already knew its usefulness in many winter campings. The problem was that the cabin wall (which seemed to be made by some thick fabric) passed through all chilly airs. It was 30F outside at night. We had played Forbidden Island, but we had to burrow into the sleeping bag at 8 pm.

One thing I had to mention is the stargazing. It was one of the best night sky views in my life, even better than at the Korean DMZ. If you want to enjoy the stars, I recommend ramping up more firewoods for a long night, but please remember that the quiet time starts at 10 pm.


Parking was the most concerning part. To conclude, Friday was fine, but Saturday was insane. Our biggest mistake was we thought that the campground parking lot was the only and main one. There are mainly two parking lots at the East gate side: the campground and the Bear Gulch Day Use Area. If you want to enjoy hiking to several iconic places, you should consider parking at Bear Gulch Day Use Area.

On Friday, we arrived at the campground around 1 pm. As the check-in time was 3 pm, we parked at the common parking lot (there was a huge - 200~ 300 spots with my guess - common parking lot next to the visitor center) and left for the Bear Gulch Cave. We mistook the Bear Gulch Trail and the Bear Gulch Cave Trail. We thought it would take 40 min to 1 hour to the cave, but it was from the Bay Gulch Day Use Area (not from the campground).

  • Bear Gulch Cave Trail is from the Bear Gulch Day Use Area to the Bear Gulch Reservoir (through the Cave). It would take 1 ~ 1 and 1/2 hours round trip.
  • Bear Gulch Trail and Bench Trail constitute a way from the campground (visitor center) to Bear Gulch Day Use Area. It is more than 2 miles and would take 1 and 1/2 hours one way.

The way (Bear Gulch Trail + Bench Trail) was an excellent tracking course. But when we got to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area, it was too late, and we had to return to the campground for the check-in.

The next day (Saturday), we checked out at 11 am and tried to go to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area by car. But a ranger blocked us and told us we couldn't go because the Bear Gulch Day Use Area parking lot was already full (it would be 40~50 spots with my guess). I was also astonished to find the vast common parking lot was also already full, and about a hundred people were lined up for a shuttle bus (I heard that the shuttle bus was out of service, but there might be some special lines that day). We would return home but changed our minds and lined up for the Bear Gulch Day Use Area parking lot. There was one car ahead of us, and at the moment, two cars came down, and we could pass to it. It was a super lucky moment of the day.

After the hiking, we left for home around 3 pm. We found about 20 cars lined at the campground intersection (to Bear Gulch Day Use Area) and more than 50 cars at the park entrance. To sum up, there would be two lines on the East side of the Park:

  • One is at the Park Entrance (to the campground and the visitor center)
  • Another is at the intersection of the visitor center (to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area)

You might side-park the car around the entrance if you arrive late on the weekend. But it would take 1 and 1/2 hours from the entrance to the visitor center, another 1 and 1/2 hours to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area, and another 1 and 1/2 hours for the Bear Gulch Cave Trail. Considering the returning path, it would take 8 to 9 hours of walk. I can hardly recommend it. I believe it would be better to arrive before 8 am and go directly to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area parking lot if you plan one day visit on weekends.

Bear Gulch Cave Trail

When we first saw the Park, we hardly got why it was a National Park. But the Cave Trail paid for everything. The trail was moderate; we could see many families with 3~4-year-old kids along the way. The official page said that we need flashlights for the cave. I took it lightly but brought one and realized that it was mercy; yes, you need it definitely. Unless you have a flashlight, you should break the social distance and pull in someone else who has one.

The Cave was beyond my expectation in every aspect. I expected a stone corridor of 200~300 ft. However, it was a long and complex passage of ups and downs, with stone stairs sidelined with the chilly sound of streams. I had to incline, bend, twist, and crawl to pass the various structures. With a slight fair exaggeration, it was like in the labyrinth of Moria.

One thing to keep in mind is that the Cave is not always open. You'd better check the status page before you make a way to it.

The Bear Gulch Reservoir was splendid. The deep blue and the clear reflection made it stand out the beautiful scenery. We thought that some rocks far away looked like stone statues in the Indiana Jones movies (although many might not buy it because I couldn't find anyone's mention about it).

I was so happy to know this extraordinary National Park was near my home. I strongly recommend anyone to have a chance to visit there. But only on weekdays; it should be worth a day off.

P.S.: The entrance fee was $30 (for seven days). We could use our America the Beautiful Pass.