Paicines, in San Benito County, is a tiny community perched at the gateway to Pinnacles National Park. The landscape here is truly a vision to behold. Formed millions of years ago by violent volcanic eruptions, shifts along the San Andreas Fault, and water, chemical, and wind erosion, the resulting towering rock formations and talus caves attract visitors from all over the world.
Pinnacles is one of only four sites where captive-bred California Condors are released into the wild, and the park is also home to over 400 species of bees that pollinate the sea of colorful wildflowers that bloom here every spring. The main attraction in Paicines is Pinnacles National Park, but the area is home to several wineries based in Hollister that are worth a stop. The easy hiking on accessible trails here make it an excellent choice for novice hikers.
The secluded hiker’s paradise of Paicines and Pinnacle National Park are just 106 miles south of San Francisco. It’s an easy drive for a day trip through the park, or you can stay for a weekend. No matter your intention, this trip will certainly fly by! You’ll be communing with nature before you know it. Start by merging onto US-101 S. Keep right to stay on 101 S toward San Jose for about 80 miles.Take exit 353 for CA-25 toward Hollister. Hollister is a great little town with fantastic wineries. The rolling hills visible from the highway are simply beautiful. You’ll make a left on CA-25 S and follow that for 12.2 miles before turning left onto Santa Ana Rd. Watch out for Fairview Road on your right in about 1.5 miles. Make the right onto Fairview and follow that until you see signs for the left onto CA-25 E. Follow 25 E for about 8 miles and you’ll hit Panoche Rd in Paicines.
The Ridgemark Golf Club & Resort in nearby Hollister is a bit older but the property is extremely well-kept. The rooms here are ridiculously large with comfortable bedding and clean bathrooms, some of which feature spa tubs and separate dressing areas. There is a restaurant that offers room service, a full bar, and evening entertainment, including karaoke! Guests can access the golf course and tennis club for an additional fee.
If you’re looking for accommodations right in the center of Paicines, you’ll love the studio cabins at the San Benito Camping Resort. These rustic units have satellite TVs, kitchen facilities, and private bathrooms. Breathe in that mountain air as you enjoy your morning brew from your private patio. Many units also have sitting rooms or dining areas. The resort features a game room with pool tables, a playground, swimming pool, library, BBQ pits, and even a mini golf course.
This charming roadside motel just 10 miles from Hwy 101 is painted a cheery bright yellow and flowerpots dot the walkways. The utilitarian rooms are clean, comfortable, and well-appointed with coffee machines, microwaves, and refrigerators. Hotel staff is available 24/7 and housekeeping services are offered daily. This is a great bargain option for visitors looking for a convenient place to rest their heads. The prices can’t be beat.
The local Paicines General Store is open seven days a week at 8 am. The family-run shop doesn’t look like much from the outside, but it’s worth a stop on your way into or out of Pinnacles National Park. The restaurant is open until 2:00 pm and they serve delicious huevos rancheros. The house-made salsa is incredible and sold in Mason jars – grab a few to take home. The owners are friendly, bathrooms are spotless, and you can browse for antiques and souvenirs as you wait for your meal.
Fisher’s in Hollister is truly a gem. They serve crazy fresh food in a convivial dining room that’s a favorite with locals and tourists alike. Mike, the chef/owner, is passionate his food, his wine, and making sure that every guest leaves happy. The chalkboard menu changes daily and takes full advantage of seasonal ingredients, but mainstays to try are the juicy French dip, the grilled sweetbreads, and the tender flatiron steak with frites. Open for lunch and dinner services Tuesday through Saturday.
The orangey-red paint on the walls and wood furnishings create a warm atmosphere in this authentic Italian-American restaurant. The service is friendly, and portions are huge – there’s plenty to mangia here! Their carbonara is out of this world and scampi with pasta is unbelievable. Soak up the sauce with gooey, cheesy garlic bread. Open for lunch and dinner every day but Sunday, this moderately-priced restaurant is a great place to bring the kids.
Twenty-three million years ago, volcanic eruptions formed the towering spires, talus caves, and volcanic fields that are the foundation of Pinnacles National Park. This is a hiker’s park, so leave your car at the trailhead. The relatively low elevation and easy terrain make it a perfect place for beginner hikers and families with kids. High Peaks/Condor Gulph Loop is a five-mile roundtrip trek with spectacular views. Balconies Cave is one of two talus caves created by gigantic boulders wedged into the ravine. Flashlights are an absolute must to navigate the caves, and make sure to bring plenty of water.
Calera Wine Company isn’t a tourist destination with crowded gift shops or themed attractions. It’s a serious vineyard that produces very serious wine. They’re renowned for their Pinot Noir, an elegant, fruity wine with rich, spicy undertones that has been lauded by Wine Spectator magazine and recommended in Wine & Spirits and the Wall Street Journal. The friendly staff in the tiny tasting room are excellent hosts who really know their stuff. Calera Wine Company has picnic tables with spectacular views. Guests are encouraged to bring lunch and make a day of it.
Panoche Hills Ecological Reserve in nearby Hollister is a haven for visitors interested in viewing wildlife or collecting fossils. The rolling landscape with gentle hills is a beautiful drive, though access is restricted as some areas are privately owned. Although popular with bicyclists, many visitors prefer to explore on foot to search for treasures. Vertebrate fossils are protected by law, but invertebrate specimens are yours to keep. Many unique bird species call this area home and you’ll also spot roadrunners, deer, San Joaquin kit fox, and the unusual blunt-nosed leopard lizard among others. Late spring is the ideal time to explore Panoche Hills.
Bear Gulch Cave is the more popular of the two talus caves in Pinnacles National Park. It’s just a short hike from the trailhead and it’s easy for novice hikers and young children to navigate the lower sections. The upper caves are a bit more strenuous, though the breathtaking waterfalls here are worth the effort. The cave is home to a colony of big-eared bats, and visitor access is restricted during the maternity period from mid-May through mid-July. The lower caves are almost always open through the rest of the year, though access to the upper caves may be limited at times. Bring a flashlight!
Pietra Santa is another great Hollister vineyard with a unique flavor all its own. Located on the Pietra Santa estate, the Dickensen House is a stunning example of Prairie School architecture. The balcony of their second-floor tasting room is a lovely setting from which to enjoy their award-winning wines while taking in stunning panoramic views of the Cienega Valley and Gabilan Mountains. The Pietra Santa estate also grows olive trees and they make their olive oil with a press that the owner brought from Italy. The welcoming staff provide informative tours and the gift shop has a wonderful selection of wine, olive oil, and gourmet treats.