California has nine national parks: Death Valley, Channel Islands, Joshua Tree, Redwoods, Lassen Volcanic, Pinnacles, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite. Yesterday I went to Pinnacles for the first time and hiked the two highest mountains in the park.
It was Veteran’s Day and my sister’s birthday. Her kids were out of school, so we drove two hours south to the national park. The second hour of the drive was through a beautiful small valley (Bear Valley; one of probably a thousand Bear Valleys in California) surrounded by green and gold rolling hills. Just as we entered the park I noticed something moving off the side of the road and saw that it was a bobcat. I thought at first that it might have been a large domestic cat, but it was stockier than a housecat and had the longer mutton chop fur on the sides of its face. It was no mountain lion, but it was still the first bobcat I’ve ever seen in the wild.
We split up after parking at Bear Gulch Day Use Area. Kara and the kids were going on one hike and I was going on my own. My plan was to hike North Chalone Peak (3,304 feet/1007 meters), the highest point in Pinnacles, and then hike neighboring South Chalone Peak (3,269 feet/996 meters) if I had the time.
For about fifteen minutes the trail wound around boulders and above rocky drop-offs. Pinnacles is one of California’s great non-Sierran climbing areas, and I saw several groups climbing on three or four different cliffs. I haven’t climbed in months. I wanted to shout, “I’m one of you!” as I passed, but I held back and kept hiking.
The trail then went through part of Bear Gulch Cave. The park’s caves aren’t hole-in-the-ground type caves but are talus caves. These are caves and tunnels formed by boulders getting wedged in narrow gorges. I had to duck and almost get way down on my hands and knees to fit through some of the openings.
I then came to Bear Gulch Reservoir, a small, man-made body of water at the bottom of a large bowl ringed by cliffs and spires. Here I turned off of the well-traveled trails and stepped onto the North Chalone Peak Trail proper.
From here to the top of the peak, I saw only one other hiker on the trail. I also caught a brief glimpse of what at the time I thought was a fox, but then I talked myself out of it, thinking a coyote was more likely. But the official Pinnacles website says that the gray fox is “often seen” by visitors, and that coyotes are “not commonly seen.” Either way, it was nice to see another neat mammal.
I hiked up a valley and then up onto a ridge, leaving the rock formations behind. The landscape was much dryer and more “deserty” here. From the ridge I had views of both of the mountains I was looking to climb. North Chalone Peak was closer, and the green lookout tower on top was clearly visible. From there a ridge led down away from me and back up to South Chalone Peak. As the trail continued toward North Chalone Peak, the view broadened to include the rocky High Peaks section of the park to the north and down into the farmland in the Salinas Valley to the west.
The trail intersected a couple of fences and gates that I had to climb over on stiles, and I made it to the top of the mountain after an hour and eighteen minutes and 4.5 miles of hiking.
There were four other hikers on the summit, and the view was more or less the same as it had been on the way up except that I had a better look of South Chalone Peak. I drank some water, took a few pictures, and retraced my steps a short distance down the trail to the turnoff to South Chalone Peak.
I’d read somewhere that there was an unmaintained trail leading to South Chalone but hadn’t looked into it beyond that, so I didn’t quite know what to expect. The trail dropped down to the saddle between the two peaks and then gradually went back up. I followed the trail until it petered out in a tangle of bushes somewhere on the summit ridge but still below the actual high-point of the mountain.
I didn’t want to bushwhack my way to the top, so I retraced my steps until I found a gravelly slope that looked relatively brush-free, and there I left the trail and made my way upward. I weaved through and around the bushes for a few minutes, following faint and occasional footprints in the ground, before arriving on top. A small pile of rocks marked the spot. The view was mostly obstructed by the large bushes, but I was able to take a couple of photos of North Chalone.
After spending a few minutes on top, I went back to the trail and followed it all the way back to below the cave, where I ran into Kara and the kids.
Kara and the kids had hiked to the reservoir and were on their way back to the car when I met them. Back at the parking area, the two youngest kids were eager to visit the little park building and get their Junior Ranger badges. The building had just been closed and locked by the ranger, who was now lowering the flag. He asked if any of the kids knew how to fold a flag, and Cannon raised his hand. He and Kate held the short ends of the flag and folded it in half a couple times before he, with some tutoring from the ranger, folded it up into a nice little triangle. It was especially neat that they got to do that on Veteran’s Day.
The ranger opened the building back up, asked the kids a few questions about the park and what they learned, had them recite the Junior Ranger motto, and then gave them each a nice little Pinnacles National Park pin. We got back in the car and drove north, picking up some great Mediterranean food in Mountain View before heading home for the night.
Overall, it was a great day out. Pinnacles is a small but pretty national park. I really enjoyed the solitude of the hike once I got past the reservoir, and it was great to see a couple of animals I’d never seen before. Now Channel Islands is the only California national park I haven’t been to. The highest point there is El Montañon…
Here were my times:
- 0:00 – left (~12:30 pm)
- 0:20 – reservoir
- 1:18 – top of North Chalone Peak
- 1:24 – left the top
- 2:00 – top of South Chalone Peak
- 2:06 – left the top of South Chalone Peak
- 2:35 – back at the South Chalone Peak/North Chalone Peak trail junction
- 3:30 – ran into the family on the trail
- 3:40 – back at the car
- Total distance: ~12.2 miles.
- Total elevation gain: ~3,500 feet
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