How to Plan the Perfect Pinnacles National Park Stargazing Trip in 2023
The Golden State is home to many wonders, and this is no better encapsulated than in the nine national parks in California. There you’ll find towering Redwoods, steaming fumaroles, otherworldly Joshua Trees, and the breathtaking beauty of Yosemite.
I’ve been fortunate to visit many national parks in my life so far – and go stargazing in nearly as many of them. Pinnacles holds a special place in my heart, as it’s my favorite national park in California. After a day spent hiking, exploring the caves, and watching the Condors ride the thermals, Pinnacles delights after dark since it’s far from any big California cities and far less-visited.
If you’re intrigued and want to explore Pinnacles by day and by night, read on. You’ll discover everything you need to know to plan a Pinnacles National Park stargazing trip.
In this post, I promote traveling to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Popeloutchom (Amah Mutsun), Ohlone, and Chalon peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
This post was originally published in February 2022, and was updated in January 2023.
How to Get to Pinnacles National Park
Before you start planning your Pinnacles stargazing trip, you need to know the different alternatives you have to reach Pinnacles National Park.
Pinnacles National Park has two entrances, one on the West and another one on the east side.
If you’re driving from the North to the East Entrance, you’ll take Highway 101 south through the city of Gilroy to Highway 25 south. Then, you’ll go through the town of Hollister and continue about 30 miles to Highway 146, where you’ll turn left into the Pinnacles Campground to check in at the Pinnacles Visitor Center.
If you’re driving from the North to the West Entrance, you’ll also take Highway 101 South to the town of Soledad. Then, take Highway 146 East. You’ll see the park’s entrance in 14 miles.
Those driving from the South to the East Entrance, you’ll take Highway 101 North to the town of King City, and exit at 1st Street. Then, turn right toward King City and continue straight until 1st St turns into Bitterwater Rd (Monterey County G13). You’ll follow Bitterwater Rd until it intersects Highway 25. Then, turn left on Highway 25 (North) and follow for about 15 miles. Turn left onto Highway 146 to enter the park.
If you want to reach the West Entrance driving from the South, you’ll take Highway 101 North to the town of Soledad. Then, take Highway 146 east. Stay on Highway 146 for 14 miles and then you’ll arrive at Pinnacles National Park.
As a heads up, there is no road connecting the park’s east and west entrances. The shortest route from the east entrance to the west entrance (or from west to east) is through the town of King City on Highway 101.
Where to Go Stargazing in Pinnacles National Park
You’ll find a decent amount of dark spots for stargazing in Pinnacles. Here are four areas where you can catch the stars and planets in all their glory.
South Wilderness Trail
The South Wilderness Trail is already popular for bird and wildlife viewing. It turns out it is also an excellent place to surf the night sky in Pinnacles. One of the perks of this trail is that it is quite easy for less adventurous stargazers without many elevation changes. Also, there’s minimal traffic, which means your stargazing session will be very peaceful. To access the South Wilderness Trail, you need to head out to The Bench Trail, which takes off from the southwest corner of the Pinnacles Campground.
Peaks View Picnic Area
If you want to avoid hiking to see the dark sky, check out the Peaks View Picnic Area. Besides being a lovely spot for a picnic, Peaks View is one of the few places where you can get a good view of the High Peaks (hence the name) and the stars without getting on a trail.
The picnic area sits on the west side of the park. To reach it from the visitor center, you’ll have to drive 1.4 miles southwest on CA 146 and turn left at the stone entrance sign. The area also has restrooms and drinking water available.
Chaparral Trailhead Parking
Provided they’re far from artificial lights; parking lots are usually quite good areas to set up your telescope and surf the night sky. The Chaparral Trailhead Parking’s surroundings are all wilderness, guaranteeing you’ll have no light pollution.
If you go during the daytime in summer, very few sections are shaded, so make sure to bring water as it will be hot and dry. The only downside of stargazing at the Chaparral Trail is that its trailhead is the start point of other numerous tails, which means you can expect some company here.
Jawbone Parking Area
The Jawbone Parking Area is also an excellent place for stargazing within the park. You have two ways to access the Jawbone parking area. Either you hike the Jawbone Trail, which descends to the Jawbone Parking Area, or you can go to the Chaparral Trailhead since there’s a 0.3-mile connector trail that links the Jawbone parking area with the Chaparral parking area (it’s at the far end of the parking lot.)
Where to Stay Near Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles National Park is worth visiting for more than a day. So here are a few accommodation options you can check out when organizing your Pinnacles stargazing experience.
Hotels near Pinnacles
- Inn at the Pinnacles – Inn at the Pinnacles is a Mediterranean-style bed-and-breakfast amid 160 acres of hilltop vineyards overlooking the Salinas Valley and the coastal Santa Lucia Mountains. The fantastic venue is 1.5 miles from the Pinnacles National Monument west entrance. It’s an excellent choice for couples looking to relax after a long day of hiking. The owners organize a cheese-and-wine-tasting hour featuring the estate’s own Brousseau wines on Saturday evenings.
- Paicines Ranch – Paicines Ranch is a complex of comfortable rooms and cottages sitting on a corner of a 7,000-acre working cattle ranch. The ranch is a 30-minute drive from the park’s east entrance. Unlike the previous hotel, Paicines Ranch is a perfect alternative for big groups and families. There aren’t any other amenities besides the cottages, but you’ll get the chance to glimpse hawks drifting across the sky, take in stunning views of oak-studded hillsides, and interact with the ranch’s wildlife.
Camping in Pinnacles National Park
The Pinnacles Campground sits on the east side of the park. It features tent and group camping, tent cabins, and RV sites. Each tent and group site has a picnic table and fire ring, while most RV sites feature electrical hookups and share community tables and barbecue pits.
As for tent cabins, they’re big enough to sleep up to four people, and some of them have electricity. Although you can’t take dogs in the trails, the campground is pet-friendly.
What to See & Do During the Day at Pinnacles
Pinnacles National Park is equally fetching during the daytime, with tons of adventures for hikers and outdoor lovers. This park won’t disappoint you, from grand peaks and challenging climbs to cave exploring and bouldering.
- Hiking: Pinnacles offers over 30 miles of hiking trails for every fitness and adventure level. Be sure to hike High Peaks, as it’s the park’s crown jewel. While you’re there, be on the lookout for the California Condors that roost in the area.
- Ranger Programs: Park rangers offer different programs throughout the fall, winter, and spring. You can check out the Program Schedule for a complete list of programs or check the park’s events calendar to know what programs you can attend during your visit.
- Rock Climbing: Thousands of years ago, volcanic activity shaped the park’s astounding spires and pinnacles. The best way to get a closer look at the rocky landscape is by climbing it. You can find access to different climbs from the east and west sides of the park.
- Talus Caves: Pinnacles is home to two talus caves: the Bear Gulch Cave, which is closer to the east parking areas, and the Balconies Cave, which is closer to the west entrance.
- Bird Watching: There are over 160 bird species documented in the park, from the California Condor to the Acorn Woodpecker. You’ll likely encounter several species while hiking; however, check out Pinnacles National Park birding page to know where you can go and what you might see if birding is your primary goal here.
Other FAQ About Stargazing in Pinnacles National Park
Here’s a short FAQ if you still have questions about your Pinnacles stargazing experience.
When is the best time to go stargazing at Pinnacles?
Like any other park, autumn, winter, and spring are the best times to go stargazing in Pinnacles. Also, try to visit the park before and after a new Moon, so the moonlight doesn’t wash out the stars.
Can you see the Milky Way while stargazing at Pinnacles?
Yes, you’ll be able to see the Milky Way during your Pinnacles National Park stargazing session. All you have to do is find a truly dark spot in the park. The best time to see the Milky Way is during the Milky Way season, from February to October.
Is Pinnacles National Park open at night?
Pinnacles National Park opening times vary depending on the entrance. The East Side has 24-hour access to the trail, and you can enter anytime during the day or night. The West Side has trail access from 7:30 am to 8:00 pm. However, visitors can leave at any time. For campgrounds, they stay open seven days a week and 24 hours.
Are there guided night tours in Pinnacles?
Yes, Pinnacles rangers offer night hikes. First, you’ll learn all about the volcanic activity that brought the landscape to life. After dusk, local astronomers bring out their telescopes and invite visitors to participate in a sky talk and telescopic views of celestial bodies.
Is there a dark sky festival in Pinnacles National Park?
Unfortunately, Pinnacles National Park doesn’t organize dark sky festivals. Keep your eyes peeled, though! Some astronomical organizations occasionally host stargazing parties on the park’s Eastside.
Have any other questions about stargazing in Pinnacles National Park? Let me know in the comments!