Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Pinnacles National Park - High Peaks Trail.

Back when I was a Boy Scout in Watsonville (California), hiking and camping in the Pinnacles was a semi-regular staple of our outdoor fare. Of course, back then the park was "just" a national monument and I really don't remember all that much about the trails except that caves were involved. I also went rock climbing a couple of times but again, I have no idea what cliff we climbed up, only that ropes and pitons were required. In 2012, when the monument was upgraded to the lofty status of National Park, my interest in the Pinnacles was rekindled. Since the theme of this year's California vacation was all about reconnecting with old friends and family, it sort of made sense to pay a visit to the Pinnacles. Since Dollie came along, no ropes and pitons were involved in our visit to the park.

A Pinnacles pinnacle
The Pinnacles are divided into the east and west sections and for no reason at all, we first went to the western side. There were several options for hiking but since I superficially form opinions of trails by their names, "High Peaks Trail" immediately captured my heart solely on the basis of that alluring name.

What drought looks like
It hasn't rained in this part of California in something like eight years, and the more sensitive vegetation were covered in dried leaves, the dry leaves rattling in the breeze like skeleton breath. The more hardy species like ceanothus were thriving and we were glad the trail was well maintained, having saved us the trouble of wading through the thorns. The trail brochure had a picture of a mossy waterfall on a creek but water was about as elusive as a unicorn being ridden by a Sasquatch. The land was dry, dry, dry with nary a brochure-adorning waterfall to be found. Talk about false advertising!

Walking on top of the world
The Juniper Canyon Trail led away from the parking lot, gaining elevation at a gentle rate through the sere terrain. After about a half mile into the hike, the trail began switching to and fro, climbing upward in earnest. We were working our way out of the Juniper Canyon drainage and climbing up a steep slope that was garlanded with all manners of minarets, towers, thumbs, ramparts, walls, and balancing rocks. Each switchback offered a different view of all the rock structures festooning the ridge above us. After a mile or so, we took a right turn onto the High Peaks Trail, starting a loop hike around the Pinnacles crest. 

View to the parking lot

As we climbed, we also enjoyed great views of the Chalone Creek canyon and the surrounding Gabilan Mountains. On the horizon to the west were the Santa Lucias, home of the Ventana Wilderness. In between was the large Salinas Valley, full of farms producing crops for our nation's salads. When we began the hike, we peered up to a prominent collection of rocky knobs known as The Fingers, even though they looked more like thumbs; however, as we climbed, we went from craning our necks upward to The Fingers to looking down upon them. In short, the view was epic and one for the ages.

A great place for lunch!
The High Peaks Trail topped out at a mountain pass with a bench and we happily sat down and ate lunch while enjoying the view, which had even become even more epic. From our mountain aerie, we could see to the east in equal grand scope as the western view we had so far been enjoying.  We were on a narrow ridge crest that had rock pinnacles bristling formidably like the spines of an augustinia dinosaur. And coincidentally enough,  the large cluster of pinnacles are known as "The Pinnacles".  A deep and oddly straight valley paralleling our ridge crest was the rift zone of the San Andreas Fault. And just to reminisce, we could also take in the western view we had so enjoyed on the ascent. 

This would be the narrow part
The pass was kind of a meeting place for trails and we had many options for continuing our hike. But, really there was only one choice, a small and dusty trail with a sign reading "Steep and Narrow Trail". If anything, the phrase "steep and narrow trail" was even more alluring than  "high peaks trail".

Pinnacles, everywhere we look
After cresting a small rise on the ridge crest, the trail gently began losing elevation through an increasingly rocky terrain. We were walking at the base of the pinnacles and the ground dropped precipitously away from our feet as we hiked. As we contoured the massive cliffs, large scavenger birds soared on the thermals upwellling from the valley below. 

Look, it's NOT a condor!

The California condor is an endangered species whose last bastion of refuge is on Topa Topa Mountain in Ojai. In a desperate attempt to save the species, captive-bred condors were released into the Pinnacles and by all accounts, are doing quite well there. So naturally, we and several other hikers were quite excited to see these majestic birds soaring gracefully against a blue sky. Post-hike, I found out the condors have a distinctive white pattern on the underside of their wings unlike the birds we had been observing. It was a mild disappointment to find out we had been all agog over ordinary turkey vultures. 

The trail became cliffier and cliffier and soon railings (which were needed) and handolds made an a appearance. And once we got used to holding on for dear life while the rock wall dropped 1,000 feet below us, the trail became a series of small steps etched into the rock face. Way cool, in a scary, totally exposed way. At times we had to walk hunched over (well, more hunched over than normal) under monolithic rocks. And this went on for nearly two spectacular miles. Was this a cool trail, or what!

Tunnel on the Tunnel Trail
Sadly, the mountain goat portion of this hike could not last forever, and we began dropping back down to Juniper Canyon, closing our loop on the Tunnel Trail. The trail dropped rapidly into a narrow canyon where the trail builders decided trail building was too much darn work and blasted a tunnel through an impeding ridge. 

A totally awesome trail
After the tunnel, the trail behaved a lot more ordinary as it returned us back to civilization. Unfortunately, just as the car was virtually within sight, I stepped in a gopher hole and there went the ankle and I sprawled heavily face first into the dust. Fortunately, it was just a short limp to the car with a well dusted face, that was way too much reconnecting with my past, in my opinion.

Appreciative audience
For more pictures of this amazing hike, please visit the Flickr album.


  1. Too bad about the condors. Last time Katchan and I were there we saw maybe half a dozen of them perched on cliffs and pines. They stick together, so it's not unusual to miss them. There is another population in Big Sur.

  2. Very nice description, Richard. Like Al, I have seen condors on that trail section several times; sorry you missed them. A full loop of the trail system going east from your parking spot, through the Balcony Caves and around to the east side and the other caves before climbing up to the High Peaks and then back down to the car is a worthwhile trip: two sets of caves, a reservoir, and those high peaks! But you have to have a full day to do the ten or so miles. Enjoy yourself in CA.
    Oh, and you didn't mention Mexican food; La Fuente Restaurant in Soledad is excellent.

  3. Great views but that trail descent sure looks steep! If you want this hike to be even more exciting next time, maybe a base jump to the parking lot from the top instead of hiking down would do the trick. Ok, we are only joking, don't try that!!!!!