The first leg of my journey was up the Juniper Canyon Trail from the west parking lot, then I took the Tunnel Trail for its entire length of just .6 miles to the High Peaks Trail. This small stretch of path is rocky, steep and has numerous switchbacks. Its main feature is the 20-30 meter long tunnel carved through a huge rock. The vegetation along this trail is mostly chaparral.
Soledad was the site of Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, one of the 21 Spanish missions in southern and central California. This mission was established in 1791 and was 13th of Spain's 21 California missions. El Camino Real--the King's Highway--is a series of roads from San Diego to San Francisco which connected Spain's 21 missions, 3 pueblos (or towns located in LA, San Jose, & Santa Cruz plus a 4th established by Mexico in Sonoma), & 4 presidios (at San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco) along the California coast. The first outpost on this trail--San Diego--was established in 1769 while the final mission at Sonoma was completed in 1823. The missions were religious centers, run by a priest, for the purpose of converting the native population to Christianity.
Today Soledad is a small town of just 10,000 people. The town's main streets (Front and Main) form a "T" along the railroad tracks and Hwy-101 with the fronts of most of the shops facing the highway. The area is famous as one of California's top wine-making regions with some 20 wineries in the area and thousands of acres of grapes in all directions.
Soledad is somewhat well-known as the setting for Steinbeck's book Of Mice and Men and it has the infamous Soledad Prison.
Climb Among the Rocks
Pinnacles National Monument is a wildlife and hiking park. The Pinnacles that are referenced are part of the Neenach Volcano which erupted 23 million years ago near what is Lancaster, California today. I visited here with my parents and my children in the early spring of 1966. There are all kinds of hiking trails here plus rock climbing opportunities. Note that my dad (photo 3) is wearing a white shirt and tie and regular oxfords - not hiking attire, and my children were at the time 4.5 and 2.5 years old. So you know that some of the trails are really easy too.
- Budget Travel
- National/State Park
- Hiking and Walking
Chaparral West Ranger Station & Parking Area
Pinnacles National Park has two entrances. There is no direct deriving connection between the two sides of the park, despite the fact they are both on Rt 146 and located only a few miles apart by trail. The east entrances is 30 miles from Hollister and King City, and it takes you to the Bear Gulch Visitor Center or the Old Pinnacles Trailhead.
The wast entrance is 10 miles east of Soledad. You must stop and pay at the Chaparral Ranger Station, about 2 miles from the park entrance, then the parking area is just past the ranger station. This parking lot has restrooms, water, and picnic areas, and is next to the North Wilderness Trail, Balconies Trail, and the Juniper Canyon Trail.
All visitors must stop at the Ranger Station and get a receipt for their windshield. They will also give you a detailed trail map and help with options for your hike. Though this ranger stations closes before dark, and the park closes at dark, you can exit after dark as the gate allows outbound traffic only.
Directions to the park can be found here http://www.nps.gov/pinn/planyourvisit/directions.htm.
The best online park hiking map is available at http://www.stanford.edu/group/outing/directions/pinnmap1.pdf and the trail descriptions are on the NPS site at http://www.nps.gov/pinn/planyourvisit/trails.htm
Bear Gulch Cave
The Bear Gulch Cave is home to a colony of Townsend bats as they hibernate in winter and raise bat pups in the summer. When they occupy the cave, we don't. The cave has gates to prevent people from interfering with the bats. Luckily there are two tails through the cave, and the lower cave is often open, even when the upper, bat-infested cave is closed.
Not a true limestone-type cavern, these are talus caves, formed when rock falls into a narrow canyon and lodge in the gap above the base of the canyon, leaving a small cave under the fallen rocks. Kind of makes you wonder how safe it is to walk here... Pinnacles is the only national park with this kind of cave (and there are two here!).
Because the cave ceiling is formed by fallen rock, some light gets in. A flashlight is required, but you could probably get by without one, as there are only a few small sections that are pitch black.
Condor Gulch Trail
The Condor Gulch Trail runs from the Bear Gulch Visitor Center to the High Peaks Trail about 1.7 miles away. This is a relatively steep trail that takes you right up to the High Peaks. Along the way is the park's only official overlook...which is kind of comical as Pinnacles is full of great views from everywhere. This little overlook offers a modest view of the Condor Gulch...disappointing. Heading up Condor Gulch, I did see my first California Condor circling the High Peaks.
From the end of the Condor Gulch Trail to the Tunnel Trail on High Peaks is .5 miles.
Pinnacles Flora and Fauna
In Pinnacles National Monument, I saw a cottontail rabbit, a woodpecker, a few squirrels, numerous small birds, and a few rare California condors. The park claims 149 species of birds, 49 mammals, 23 reptiles, 6 amphibians, 68 butterflies, 40 dragonflies and damselflies, nearly 400 bees, and many thousands of other invertebrates. The California condor is a federal endangered species, while the California red-legged frog and California tiger salamander are federal threatened species. Numerous bat species including the Townsend bats are California Species of Special Concern.
The wild condor population stands at 127 birds, 70 of them in California, including 28 in Big Sur and 13 at Pinnacles, with other populations in southern California and Arizona.
The most unique tree I saw in the park is the colorful manzanita tree with its smooth, shiny, red bark.
Juniper Canyon Trail
Juniper Canyon Trail takes you from the east parking area to the southern edge of the High Peaks at the High Peak Trail. The lower half of the trail is straight with a slight incline following, and occasionally crossing, a small trickling stream. The path is mostly soft dirt and grass in the lower woodlands full of a lot of oak. On my second trip to the monument we saw a buck mule deer just a few minutes from the parking lot along this trail.
As the trail becomes steeper near the top, there are frequent switchbacks. This part of the trail quickly enters the chaparral area of the park full of mahogany, sage, and manzanita. About 1.2 miles from the parking area you'll see the Tunnel Trail to the left leading to the north end of the High Peaks. That is a good route, or you can stay on the Juniper Canyon Trail for another .6 miles to the peaks.
A trip up the Juniper Canyon Trail, across the Steep and Narrow Section of the High Peaks Trail, and back on the Tunnel Trail should take 2-3 hours.
High Peaks Trail -- Steep and Narrow Section
The "Steep and Narrow" runs just .7 miles, but it clings to the east edge of the peaks offering great views of the park. Not that you'll do much sightseeing from here...the trail hugs the edge of the cliffs with steep steps and a sturdy iron railing for support. In some areas the trail is extremely narrow and other sections require hikers to duck under the overhangs. I don't know what you'd do when another hiker is coming your way! The most famous trail of the park...it should not be missed!
The Steep and Narrow was built by the CCC in the 1930s.
This section of trail reminds me of one of my favorite hikes in Korea at Seoraksan on a mountain called Ulsanbawi, where metal stairs were built into the side of the rock.
Bear Gulch Reservoir
After I had lunch on the peak, I continued down the High Peaks trail to the southeast. After about 1.5 miles, I turned off to the Rim Trail which takes you to the Bear Gulch Reservoir.
This area has a stone dam holding back a small body of water. A sign here tells the story of the California red-legged frog, which lived in this reservoir until some exotic sunfish moved in and ate them. Biologists used electro-shocking to eliminate some 3,500 sunfish and the frogs were reintroduced. Touching story. Poor sunfish.
Balconies Cliff Trail
The Balconies Cliff Trail is a short relatively easy 0.8 mile route that provides and alternate to wandering through the Balconies Caves for those who are claustrophobic or without flashlights. The trail starts at either end of the cave, climbs up about 300 feet above the ravine, levels out then lowers hikers back to the Balconies Trail. The trail has a few relatively steep sections with a few switchbacks, but this makes for an easy route around the caves should they be flooded or closed.
The trail is composed of packed, sandy earth with a few rocky steps. The vegetation on this stretch is sparse with a few tall evergreens, but we did see a California Buckeye tree with fruit ripening at the southern end of this trail.
Mission Nuestra Señora Dolorosísima de la Soledad
The Soledad Mission was the 13th of the 21 Spanish Missions in California and was established in 1791. Throughout its history, the mission was plagued by drought and disease, limiting its native population to under 700 at its peak in 1805. Flooding was a significant problem for this mission, and church buildings were destroyed in 1824, 1828 and 1832. When the missions were secularized by the Mexican government in 1834, the native population had dwindled to just 172. By 1841 the mission was reported to have been in complete ruins, and though the Catholic Church regained ownership of the land, the mission lay abandoned for the next 100 years.
Reconstruction of the mission began in 1954, with the chapel, and in 1963 one side of the quadrangle was completed. The bell along the side of the modern chapel is the original mission bell from 1794. The remaining structure is being examined by an archeology team from Cal State University Monterey Bay, and may be eventually reconstructed. A museum is open to the public in the rebuilt wing, and the tiny rebuilt chapel is also open. The church gardens and other ruins may also be viewed.
Plenty of parking and restrooms are available on site.
Similar to the Bear Gulch Caves, Balconies Caves are talus caves that are created when rock falls into a canyon and lodges above the canyon floor. Unlike Bear Gulch Caves, the Balconies Caves have significant stretches of pitch black, plus a far more natural floor with narrow crevices, and uneven footing. Fun! Also different about the Balconies Caves is there are no bats living here, so the cave is open to hikers all year long, despite the presence of some western mastiff bats.
The trail through the caves is about 0.4 miles, and covers some unique ground. Portions of the cave are very confined, and I thought we might have to send Laura back to the car... luckily these confined spaces don't last long, and quickly open into larger chambers or back into well-lit areas. This cave is not for the claustrophobic!
Hike to the High Peaks
The High Peaks are the pinnacle of Pinnacles National Monument, and should be the primary destination of any hiker who is in decent shape. These volcanic rocks tower above the center of the 18,000 acre park and are the destination of numerous trails. From the Chaparral parking area in the west, the Juniper Canyon Trail is 1.8 miles from the peaks and can be hiked in 1.5 to 2 hours. Another option that I prefer from the west is to take the Juniper Canyon Trail 1.2 miles to the Tunnel Trail, follow that for another 0.6 miles, and turn onto the impressive Steep and Narrows Trail that runs along the High Peaks.
From the eastern side of the park, the High Peaks Trail runs 2.6 miles from the Chalone Creek parking area, and the High Peaks Trail also loops around to the lower end of the Condor Gulch parking area, about 2 miles from the parking lot to the peaks. In the middle of the High Peaks Trail, the Condor Gulch Trail runs from the condor Gulch Visitors Center 1.7 miles, then meets the High Peaks Trail for another 0.6 miles to the High Peaks.
The High Peaks include Hawkins Peak at 2,720 feet, Scout Peak at 2,605 feet, the Fingers at 2,267 feet, and numerous other rocky points in this range. Interestingly, the High Peaks are not the highest peaks in Pinnacles National Monument. North Cholone Peak stands at 3,304 feet and South Cholone Peak is 3,269 feet.
The Balconies Trail is a very easy, one mile path that begins at the Chaparral parking area and heads northeast down a relatively flat canyon. After 0.6 miles the trail enters the talus Balconies Caves, and proceeds the last 0.4 miles through these dark, narrow crevices. The trail is very wide and easy to walk, with just a slight downhill away from the parking lot. The stream bed is covered with bridges so the trail would even be walkable in the rain. This first section of the trail would make an easy walk for most anyone.
The second section through the caves gets a little more interesting. Here you have some narrow crevices, steep drops, and dark stairs. Flashlights are required through the caves so you don't brain yourself on the low ceiling, or fall down some of the steep steps. The cave is not too tough if you use a little caution. This section of the trail can be closed when the cave floods or if bats are present.