• Ankit Jain

Trip Report: Pinnacles National Park & Gazos Creek State Beach

A California Camping & Coastal Adventure


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fascinating red rock formations covered in lush green vegetation in Pinnacles National Park in Central California

Pinnacles National Park, CA - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain


 

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Trip Info:


Trip Type: Developed Camping/Road Trip (Group)

Season: May 2021 (Spring)

Duration: 2 days / 1 night

Driving Distance: 272 miles

Trip Route: https://goo.gl/maps/W7vxYRZ9dp3BN6S6A

Trip Highlights:


Thousands of birds set up shop on Gazos Creek State Beach along the California Coastline near Pescadero.

Gazos Creek State Beach: Pescadero, CA - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue



Overview:


Pinnacles National Park is one of the most accessible National Parks from a major urban setting (San Francisco Bay Area), yet it is consistently one of the most underrated as compared to some of the more popular Parks throughout California. Case in point - I live less than a 3 hour drive away, yet in all my outdoor adventures I had never before made the trip there to visit. As such, when an opportunity arose for a group camping trip, I leapt at the chance.


On a Friday afternoon, a friend and I set out from the Bay Area to make our way down to Pinnacles. We arrived at our campsite at dusk, quickly set up, and started a fire for the evening. One of our other friends joined us not too long after. We started the next morning off with some breakfast by the fire and eventually made our way out of camp.


We explored some roads further into the park but found it quite crowded on a Saturday. We decided to find a picnic area to grab some lunch, explore the area a bit more, and head towards the coast to catch the sunset. We set our sights on Gazos Creek State Beach, which was a bit of a trek but has always been one of my favorite sunset spots in the Bay Area, and made our way there.


Once we arrived on the coast, we quickly found parking and walked onto the beach. We settled on a spot and soaked in the colorful sunset with the ambient sounds of the waves crashing on the shore. It was the perfect end to a relaxing overnight weekend getaway, exactly what I needed after quite the hectic week at work.


A trail to Gazos Creek State Beach in California weaves its way through succulents and sand dunes en route to the Pacific

Trail to Beach, Gazos Creek State Beach: Pescadero, CA - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain



Trip Planning:


Permits:


For National Parks, I had previously purchased the ”America the Beautiful” National Parks pass which permitted me entry into Pinnacles ($30 per vehicle without the pass). This all-inclusive pass, which is valid for a year, is well worth the $80 if you plan to travel to at least 3 parks over that span. Entry fees for National Parks can be as high as $35 each, so it ends up paying for itself after only a few visits. Definitely a Pathloom-recommended investment!


Camping:


For camping at Pinnacles Campground, reservations are highly recommended as it is the only campground accessible by car within the National Park. There is no backcountry camping allowed within the park.

Pinnacles National Park, CA - Photo Credit: Neil Gupta



Itinerary:


Day 1: Bay Area to Pinnacles National Park


On a Friday afternoon, my friend and I set out from the Bay Area for Pinnacles National Park, the last remaining National Park I had yet to visit in the state of California. I’d driven by the park on multiple occasions, on trips to Big Sur, Southern California, and beyond - but had yet to explore what it had to offer. Due to limited camping options within the park, I had reserved a campsite ahead of time - the only location where camping is permitted. As such, reservations book up early, so it is recommended to begin planning well in advance if looking to camp here.


We arrived at Pinnacles Campground, on the east side of the park, around dusk. It was about a 2.5-hour drive from my home in the East Bay. We quickly set up camp and applied some bug spray due to the onslaught of flies swarming us - a highly recommended inclusion to your pack if you are planning a visit!. Soon after our arrival, one of our neighbors caught our attention and pointed out a tree in the distance, indicating the presence of a Condor’s nest - it was a first for me to see a whole nest of these majestic birds roosting. Pinnacles is one of the few places in the world where this endangered species can regularly be spotted, adding to the appeal of this Park. Not too long after, we got a campfire going with the firewood we’d brought, and set in for a pleasant and relaxing evening.


Pinnacles National Park, CA - Photo Credit: Neil Gupta



We heard critters through the night, we guessed they were raccoons based on the fact we saw one right behind the campsite before going to sleep. On many occasions while camping throughout the Bay Area and surrounding regions, raccoons have always been a part of the mix. They can be quite cunning, sly, and aggressive all at the same time with one objective in mind - getting to your food. It’s important to practice proper food storage to prevent wildlife getting accustomed to getting food from campsites.


Campsite Elevation: 900 feet

Campsite Location: Pinnacles Campground

Campsite Type: Developed

Campsite Natural Features: Mountain, Rock Formations, Forest


Moses Spring Trail provides an up-close view of the bizarre red rock formations that lie scattered throughout Pinnacles National Park in California

Moses Spring Trailhead: Pinnacles National Park, CA - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain



Day 2: Pinnacles National Park to Bay Area via Gazos Creek State Beach


The next morning, we woke up to the sun hitting our campsite - a terrific way to wake up in Springtime in California. During the summer, temperatures can get very hot, and thus shade at your campsite is a required respite from the heat. We set up a campfire to heat up some breakfast. After a good grub we hung out for a bit more at the site before packing up and departing the campground.


We drove to the end of the road towards Moses Spring Trailhead find out more about what the Park had to offer, finding the drive itself and most areas of the park very crowded on a Saturday. Although Pinnacles is considered to be one of the most underrated parks in the state, it wasn’t surprising to see so many people as it was a weekend. After exploring the region for a bit, we found a picnic area for some quiet lunch before heading to the coast to catch the sunset.


A lush green mountain towers over the forest within Pinnacles National Park in California

View from Picnic Area: Pinnacles National Park, CA - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain



Our picnic area was nestled along a flat open canyon. There was a good breeze flowing, and we brought out the goods for a tasty afternoon lunch. We took a mile-long walk along the canyon bed to digest the meal before eventually packing up and leaving the Park around mid-afternoon.


My first impression of the park was that it felt more like a State Park in California than a National Park due to a few things: easy accessibility from an urban setting, the small size of the park itself, and the grouping of campsite clusters at one single campground. I enjoyed the terrain, flora, and fauna in the park - offering rock formations, caves, trees and other wildlife. I am looking forward to exploring the park more in the future via day hikes, which may be an easier way to beat the crowds on the trails and at the campsite.


speckled clouds illuminated by the fierce setting sun over the Pacific Ocean at Gazos Creek State Beach, near Pescadero California

Sunset over Gazos State Beach: Pescadero, CA - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue



Our plan from there was to visit Gazos Creek State Beach, one of my favorite stops to catch a sunset even though it is quite a ways away from the Park - it was about a 2-hour drive to the beach from Pinnacles. Gazos State Beach is a part of Ano Nuevo State Park near Pescadero, CA, which offers spectacular hikes on a coastal bluff setting. We arrived at the beach parking lot, quickly gathered our belongings, and walked out onto the sand.


We found an open spot with great views of surrounding cliffs and the Pacific Ocean setting a perfect backdrop to the sunset. We soaked in every moment of the colorful sky as it turned from bright orange to purple to dusk. It was a perfect way to end a relaxing weekend getaway, and cross off the last National Park in California for me!


Brilliant colors illuminate the dusky sky over the Pacific at Gazos Creek State Beach in California

Sunset over the Pacific Ocean: Gazos State Beach, CA - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain



Gear List


When car camping, I typically bring a lot of gear that I don’t end up using, but it gives me a peace of mind to have redundancies for safety while I’m in the backcountry. Hence, the list below covers all the primary gear that I use in my car camping trips.


Hiking:


Shelter:


Sleep System:


Camp Kitchen:


Food & Hydration:


Clothing:


Tools, Electronics and Miscellaneous:


Hygiene:


Safety/First Aid:


Pristine sand stretches for miles, interrupted only by the occasional footprint and rocky ocean cliff, at Gazos Creek State Beach in PEscadero, California

Beach with rock cliffs: Gazos State Beach, CA - Photo Credit: Ankit Jain


 

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