Rising from chaparral-covered hills, Pinnacles National Monument is an excellent hiking area filled with towering rock spires, narrow gorges and talus caves. These three hikes provide an excellent overview of the park:
High Peaks Loop
Length: 7.2 miles
Difficulty: Moderately strenuous
Elevation gain: 1,425 feet
Trailhead: Bear Gulch Visitor Center
Description: No visit to Pinnacles is complete without exploring the High Peaks, a dramatic ridge of rock spires and crags that are the weathered remains of an ancient volcano. From the visitor center, cross the road and follow a parallel trail west for 0.2 miles to a small parking lot and another 0.3 miles to the High Peaks Trail. Bear right and snake up the canyon, passing some distinctive rock formations. At 2.3 miles, the trail tops out at the crest. A well-positioned bench provides views toward the Santa Lucia Range. (There are also bathrooms nearby.) With the High Peaks looming, things are about to get interesting. Sections ahead are extremely steep, narrow and exposed. Metal handrails have been installed for safety along with footholds and toeholds that have been blasted into the rock. The best wildlife viewing is also in this area. The trail winds around several rock formations before heading down the mountain to meet the Condor Gulch Trail at 3.6 miles. Passing lush spring wildflowers, the High Peaks Trail meets Chalone Creek at 5.6 miles. Turn right and follow the Bench and Bear Gulch trails back to the visitor center.
Condor Gulch Overlook
Length: 2 miles (round trip)
Elevation gain: 1,100 feet
Trailhead: Bear Gulch Visitor Center
Description: This is the hike to take if you want to see the famous High Peaks without having to scramble through them. From the visitor center, cross the road and follow a wide, smooth track as it switchbacks up the nearly treeless canyon. On a hot day, an early start is essential. Though the climb is continuous, it is not too steep and it isn't long before the High Peaks come into view. While your eyes study colorful lichen formations on the canyon wall, your nose becomes intoxicated by the aroma of wild sage. Not a bad collision of the senses. The overlook itself isn't much more than a metal handrail perched over the canyon, but it's a good place to catch your breath and peer out over the trail you've just climbed. If you're feeling adventurous, continue uphill until Condor Gulch Trail meets the High Peaks Trail at 1.7 miles. If you're not, simply retrace your steps back to the parking lot.
Balconies Caves (via Chalone Creek)
Length: 5.2 miles (round trip)
Elevation gain: 400 feet
Trailhead: Old Pinnacles Trailhead
Description: This hike has everything from a sunny stroll along a creek to scrambling through dark, dank caves. Flashlights are required (and absolutely essential) in the caves. From the parking lot, the Old Pinnacles Trail follows abandoned road near the West Fork of Chalone Creek. Although its water is critical to the park's wildlife, the creek runs dry most of the year. But no worry. There are plenty of spring wildflowers, and the wide, flat track makes for easy hiking. At 2.0 miles, you'll reach a junction where the Balconies Cliffs Trail meets the Balconies Cave Trail. These trails form a small loop, and you can go either direction. The Balconies Cliffs Trail climbs several and provides lovely views of the canyon's rock formations before dropping down and entering the cave. A steel fence lets you know you've entered the cave; time to get those flashlights ready. For the next 0.4 miles, you'll be scrambling over clefts, ducking under ledges and climbing down carved staircases. It's even more fun than it sounds. Eventually, you emerge from the darkness and re-enter the canyon near the Balconies Cliffs Trail junction. From there, retrace your steps 2.0 miles back to the trailhead.