My Sunrise Hike at Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park is a U.S. National Park in Northern California, south of San Francisco and an hour inland from Monterey Bay. It’s known mostly for its stunning rock-spires formed by an extinct volcano and an abundance of California Condors. Pinnacles was established as the United States’ 59th National Park, elevating it from a National Monument. In this post, I’ll share photos from my visit to Pinnacles, and general thoughts on the park.

Despite its appearance, Pinnacles National Park is is home to 49 mammals, 22 reptiles, 8 amphibians, 71 butterflies, 41 dragonflies, 400 bee species, and 149 species of birds. The most famous of these is the California Condor, as Pinnacles is one of four sites where captive-bred condors are released to live in the wild. California Condors were one of my favorite animals as a child, and the main reason I wanted to visit Pinnacles National Park in the first place.

Despite having resided in Southern California for a couple of years now, I’ve only made one trek to Pinnacles National Park, and that was actually when we were in San Francisco over the weekend for a wedding. We had a bit of downtime, and while looking into how we might fill the half-day, I noticed that Pinnacles was only a 2.5 hour drive away. That sealed the deal.

I got up about 4 a.m., stocked up on free coffee in the hotel lobby, and then drove like a madman. As I drove like a bat outta hell through the middle of nowhere at dawn, it felt a bit like a scene out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Except the only drug in my system was a copious amount of caffeine and I was driving a basic economy rental car instead of a fly convertible and my destination was a National Park instead of a party in Las Vegas, but otherwise, totally the same thing.

As with many National Parks, the route to Pinnacles National Park from San Francisco went through the middle of nowhere, and I lost phone service right before I entered the park, which was about 20 miles from my destination. Also like the route to many National Parks, there were no gas stations within 20 miles of the park. Due to poor planning, I was really low on gas.

When I closed in on my destination within Pinnacles, I still had about 45 minutes until sunrise, nearly no gas, and little idea where to drive for the best view. After going left at a fork in the road and driving about 5 miles, I realized that my choice would take me to a lower elevation.

I was supposed to go to the right to reach the higher elevation, which would’ve afforded me a great spot for sunrise. Oops. My gas situation being what it was, I didn’t have the luxury of backtracking 5 miles without running the risk of hitting E before making it back to the closest gas station.

There was minimal time before sunrise, and not many options. My only choices were to admit defeat and take a leisurely stroll around the lower elevation, which would be the practical route, or begin a frenzied hike to reach a higher elevation that would provide great vantages for sunrise photos. The reasonable choice was obvious.

Of course, that is not the choice I made. With my ~20 pound camera bag but no water, I began the 2.5 mile one-way hike in a dead sprint uphill. Before I make myself sound like too much of a badass, this was totally idiotic. Best case scenario, I had twenty minutes to do a hike that would normally take a couple of hours.

I made it maybe one half-mile before my body gave a firm “nope” and I had to slow down. I tried to at least keep up a decent pace before the sun peaked over the volcanic spires, but it was all to no avail. At official sunrise time, I was still far from where I needed to be, and in all honesty, I wasn’t even entirely sure where that was.

I managed to capture sunrise from the trail with the eroded volcano remnants all around me and a few interesting photos of sunbursts from behind the rock spires. I continued on the hike, hoping for interesting vantages to present themselves, but it was ultimately an “epic fail” in terms of the sunrise itself.

Pretty much every idea I had regarding this visit to Pinnacles National Park was a bad idea–even the idea to drive 5 hours roundtrip from San Francisco for only a few hours in the park.

Nevertheless, it was a fun and memorable experience. Even if it was not fruitful in terms of incredible sunrise photos, it was a beautiful hike, and being up-close to the volcanic rock formations during the hike was really neat. Even after it was patently obvious that I wasn’t going to make it anywhere in time for sunrise, I kept going because I was enjoying the hike.

The only reason I eventually turned back was because I had already been hiking for over an hour without any water, and I knew I had a long drive back to San Francisco with a full day of events ahead of me. I’ve been all over California and have seen many of the unique ecosystems found in the state–Pinnacles National Park still had me awestruck as unlike anything I’ve seen before.

The wealth of stunning environments in California is part of the “problem” and what’s kept me from making a return visit to Pinnacles National Park. In terms of landscapes, California has an embarrassment of riches, and even though I desperately want to return to Pinnacles, there are also so many other places I want to see for the first time. For the immediate future, Pinnacles remains on my “list” and is a National Park that I hope to have the chance to revisit sooner rather than later. Hope this brief glimpse of the park piqued your curiosity about it, and perhaps has you likewise thinking about making a visit!

If you’re planning a California road trip or vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to see and do. If you enjoyed this post, please use the sharing buttons above to help spread the word via social media. I greatly appreciate it! 

Your Thoughts…

Have you been to Pinnacles National Park? What did you think was the highlight of the experience? Did you see any California Condors? Any tips for visiting this National Park of your own to add? Any questions? Share your thoughts on this or anything else, or questions you have in the comments!

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6 replies
  1. Jonathan Nguyen
    Jonathan Nguyen says:

    Hey Tom,

    I am visiting Pinnacles for the sunrise with a couple of friends this weekend from San Jose and i appreciate your report. Sounds fun and im going to keep your tips in mind. Beautiful photos btw.

    Thank you,

    • Jonathan Nguyen
      Jonathan Nguyen says:

      If you have any other recs on what trails we should take or what things we should look out for, please feel free to lmk!

  2. Steve
    Steve says:

    Really fun, yet under the radar park! This should be high on anyone’s NP list if your in that area. I’m sure it often gets overlooked with yosemite being not too far away. I highly recommend making a loop around the high peaks area and checking out the bear gulch cave. I thought the views were pretty stunning with something new around every turn. We didn’t see any condors but hope to get back here again next time I’m in the area to see the western side. Nice pics btw tom, especially given the circumstance! I’m sure its hard to choose here with so many others close by being so great but would love to see more from here someday.

  3. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    Thanks for the fun report. I see through these posts part of why you moved to California. We have a free weekend coming up and were looking at somewhere fun to drive for an overnight trip. But most interesting scenery is 5+ hours away. I think Cuyahoga is the only national park in my state (and it barely counts, IMO) and Mammoth Cave is the only one in an adjoining state.

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      If it’s any consolation, you have better scenery during the fall…and that’s just about anywhere. Parks in the Midwest and East just aren’t as grandiose as the West Coast, for the most part.

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