Family Camping & Climbing in the Pinnacles

Family Camping & Climbing in the Pinnacles

Pinnacles National Park is full of family-friendly adventures: camping, great hikes, rock climbing, cave exploring, swimming holes, and unique wildlife.
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When the American Alpine Club announced that they had reserved some campsites for members at Pinnacles National Park, we jumped on it. School was still in session, but it was time to start spending some quality time outdoors with my two boys.

Pinnacles is about a 4-hour drive from our home in San Francisco – nearly as far as Yosemite. The towering rock walls are not always solid, and poison oak is abundant. But it’s full of family-friendly adventures: easy camping, great hikes, rock climbing, cave exploring, swimming holes, and truly unique wildlife viewing opportunities. 

Pinnacles National Park viewWe arrived in the late afternoon and everyone pitched in to help set up camp. The boys settled right in and quickly formed a pack of explorers with the other kids, looking for beetles, sneaking up on bunnies, and finding the perfect marshmallow roasting sticks. After an easy pasta meal and a lovely campfire (with s’mores, of course), we went to bed early to get ready for the big day ahead.

Boys on a Hike at Pinnacles National ParkAfter a quick breakfast, we jumped on the shuttle bus that you can take to the Bear Gulch trailhead, and we headed up the trail. It started off easy enough, but quickly started gaining altitude. Luckily, we had three tricks up our sleeves to keep the boys’ motivation high: lots of distractions (birds, insects, reptiles, running water, sticks, rocks, etc); copious snacks and treats; and the promise of a really cool cave to discover, a lake to play in, and some rock walls to climb at the top!

boys entering cave at Pinnacles NPDespite all that, the 3 miles uphill were still a challenge, and the cave came just in time. The boys flicked on their headlamps and charged in, navigating their way through tight squeezes, large chambers in absolute darkness, roaring waterfalls, and some tricky stairways. The boys absolutely loved exploring the cave.

boys exiting cave in PinnaclesEventually, we emerged back into the daylight. Almost to the summit and the promise of Bear Gulch Reservoir!

boy and woman wading in bear gulch reservoirAt the summit and reservoir, the temperature had dropped quite a bit so a swim was out of the question... but it sure felt good to cool our feet in the chilly water!

kid on summit of bear gulch hike in pinnaclesAfter that, we found a great perch high on the cliffs where we could enjoy lunch with an amazing view of the Pinnacles.

kid roped up for a climb in pinnacles national parkOnce our lunch break was over, it was time to continue our adventures! We found a suitable climbing wall for the boys, set up a rope, and got everyone geared up. In the end, the climb proved a bit too intimidating for the boys on that particular day, and we didn’t push it – we all have days like that, and we still had a big return hike ahead of us.

boys at campsite in pinnacles national parkWhen we finally made it back to our campsite, everyone was pretty exhausted. But our steak dinners seemed to hit the spot, and the AAC had a big campfire planned. There was no way that the boys were going to miss that! Loads of s’mores, endless stories, finding connections and making new friends. The boys may not have really climbed much that day, but they felt like real climbers around this campfire.

Many thanks to the AAC for hosting this fun event and to our National Parks for giving us space to live, grow, and dream big.


This Family Adventure was contributed by Mike Kavanaugh from San Francisco, CA. You can check out more of his family's outdoor adventures (not to mention his great photography) by following him on Instagram @m.kav.


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