Volcanic Eruptions Created This Magnificent National Park Just 2 Hours South Of SF

Jamie Ferrell Jamie Ferrell

Volcanic Eruptions Created This Magnificent National Park Just 2 Hours South Of SF

Pinnacles National Park is a must-see, whether or not you’re a geology enthusiast.

If you love hiking and spending time outdoors, there are plenty of gorgeous spots to see right here in the City. In fact, San Francisco was rated the 4th best city for an outdoorsy lifestyle in the US! But if you’re itching to get out into some real-time wilderness, California’s national parks absolutely do not disappoint. We’re especially excited about Pinnacles, a beautiful rocky landscape that was born from fire – from volcanoes, to be exact!

Keep in mind that some parts of the park, including the caves, visitor centers, and shuttle services, are closed due to Covid. The campground, parking lots, and trails remain open.

Image: National Park Service

Forming the Pinnacles

Here in earthquake country, we’re all pretty familiar with fault lines and plate boundaries, but we’ll give a quick rundown just for the out-of-towners and transplants (or people who have forgotten high school science class!)

So, much of California’s mountainous geography is the result of plate tectonics, in which pieces of the earth’s crust, or plates, move around and bump into each other. Several of these plates converge in California, and their movement is responsible for creating the state’s characteristic mountains, volcanoes, and valleys over millions of years. An earthquake is the result of a quick movement in the earth’s crust, but most of the movement goes undetected by us.

According to the National Parks Service, the rocky peaks at Pinnacles began forming about sixty million years ago, when the North American plate pushed over top of, or subducted, the heavier Farallon plate. Eventually the Farallon plate began to melt and push molten rock, or magma, up through the surface. The resulting volcanic activity ended up forming the Pinnacles, made by layers upon layers of magma oozing or erupting through the surface. Scientists estimate that this occurred between 22 and 23 million years ago.

Continuous erosion at the Pinnacles has added even more interesting facets to the park’s geography, such as steep ravines, caves, towering rock walls, and canyons.

Image: National Park Service

Things to do


With over 30 miles of trails, Pinnacles is a great spot to keep going back to. You can do a strenuous hike that takes you through rocky terrain, or an easy walk through the grasslands. Keep in mind that Bear Gulch Cave and Balconies Cave are still currently closed due to Covid. Some standout hiking trails are:

  • Prewett Point Trail (0.9 miles, easy)
  • Old Pinnacles Trail to Balconies Cave (5.3 miles, moderate)
  • Chalone Peak Trail (9 miles, strenuous)



Be aware that climbing at the Pinnacles is dangerous and difficult due to the weak rock (volcanic breccia, not granite). Climbers hoping to explore the routes at Machete Ridge may enjoy everything from top-ropes (such as Top Rope Wall) to multi-pitch climbs (such as First Sister, Portent and Pipsqueak Pinnacle).


The Pinnacles Campground, accessible via the east side of the park, remains open for reservations! RVs and tents are permitted, and each site has a picnic table and fire ring, although campfires are only permitted during certain conditions. You’ll also find water fountains, coin-operated showers, a swimming pool (open April – September), and a dump station. Tent cabins are available for rent.

Bird Watching

181 total bird species have been documented at the Pinnacles. Bring a good pair of binoculars and look out for California Condors and Turkey Vultures circling around the High Peaks. Balconies Trail is also a great place to spot Canyon Wren, towhees, and Oak Titmouse.

Image: National Park Service

Getting to the Pinnacles

You can find Pinnacles National Park at 5000 Highway 146 in Paicines, California, which is about 2 hours south of San Francisco. Summers are very hot, so bring lots of water, food/snacks, and sunscreen! Also be aware that there is no cell service in the park, and private vehicles must pay a $30 entrance fee. Learn more about the Pinnacles via the National Park Service website!

[Featured image: National Park Service]

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