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High Peaks Trail

I managed to squeeze in a long dayhike, finally! Since the Sierra backpacking season ended I haven’t gotten out on a lot of long hikes and I’m definitely missing it. On Sunday I headed down to Pinnacles National Monument with David, Antony, Sammydee, Laurent, Jeff and Pang for a nice long 13 mile loop through the High Peaks and unmaintained North Wilderness trail.

It’s unlikely that I’ll ever get to hike every trail I’d like to in my lifetime, but at least I have Pinnacles off the checklist. It’s the only park in which I can claim I have hiked every mile of trail, most of them more times than I can count. But that doesn’t make it any less fun or interesting – Pinnacles feels a lot like the desert hiking I love so much, yet it is less than a two hour drive away from home. Much like the desert, Pinnacles is best avoided during the hot summer months, but it has great hiking once the temperatures cool off to a more comfortable 75 and lower.

High Peaks Steps
High Peaks Steps

So on Sunday we headed down for a nice long hike. On paper it didn’t look so bad – 13 miles, less than 3000 feet of gain. We started off from the west side Chaparral entrance (don’t believe maps that show a road going through the park – pick a side and commit to it – you won’t be driving through) and decided to get the hard part of the day over with by heading up to the High Peaks before the sun broke the ridge.

It was a nice and cool climb and we celebrated gaining the ridge in such a short time. The sun was now on us and we continued along to the High Peaks. The ‘trail’ is made up of steps that have been blasted into the rocks, with small rails to guide you and keep you from falling 1000 feet and becoming a condor snack. It’s a lot of fun, and certainly nothing you’d find the park service doing now. Pinnacles was declared a National Monument back in 1915 so we’ll cut them some slack for the destructive nature of the trail building.

After giggling and photographing our way through the fun stretch, we descended to the dry Chalone creek and found a much appreciated shady spot for lunch. It seemed like ages ago that we were freezing our butts off at the trailhead – now it was hot and dry and we were stripped to our base layers.

After lunch we started out on the North Wilderness Trail, taking the long, seven mile loop back to the Chaparral parking. This unmaintained trail is pretty easy to follow, but likely doesn’t see a lot of foot traffic. It is in a dry wash and doesn’t have the big views and rocks of the High Peaks, but during wildflower season it is bursting with color and life. Of course, this isn’t wildflower season so it ended up being a bit of a dry slog for us.

Pinnacles
Pinnacles

The trail gains elevation ever so slowly – slowly enough that it feels almost flat, but just enough gain that you wonder why you’re getting so worn out (the heat doesn’t help, even in the ‘cool’ season). Eventually, you turn out of the wash and up a gully, finally gaining a ridge from which you can see back to the High Peaks. But you’re not done with the climb – of course the trail HAS to go over the highest point on the ridge, instead of taking a more reasonable contoured path. This, of course, was the most exposed portion of the entire day’s route, and we were pretty sick of the sun by then.

It was approximately mile 10 and everyone was starting to drag and run low on water. We were finally on the home stretch – with the High Peaks in view we knew how far we had to go, plus it was all downhill – yay! We all made it back to the cars exhausted but happy.

A few notes on the route:

  • This is one of those ‘harder than it looks on paper’ hikes. There is no serious climb, there is no difficult route finding, but doing it in the direction we did involves over 9 miles of exposed, hot, and sunny uphill. Though a lot of it is gradual, it does ever so slowly sap energy so that when you get to the last climb out of the wash you’re a lot more tired than you’d expect. All of us on the hike are experienced and strong hikers, and all of us were surprised at how tired we were at the end.
  • If you do the hike in the reverse direction you’ll get the long and hot Wilderness Trail out of the way in the cooler part of the day, but you’ll have the exposed climb out of Chalone Creek to the High Peaks in the sun. Having done it both ways, I’d say the way we did it is the best, returning via the Wilderness Trail. Alternately, park on the East Side and return via the North Wilderness Trail – that’s probably the best way to go since it’s a gradual downhill for the last several exposed miles.
  • There is very little protection from the sun – bring sunscreen, a hat, and lots of water.
  • WATER – there is no water on this route, even though the topo maps show the North Wilderness Trail paralleling Chalone Creek. Chalone Creek is dry most of the time – don’t expect to find water. I carried three liters which was only enough because I realized I was running low and rationed myself the last half of the hike. Others carried more and ran out. I had water treatment along with me (always part of my emergency kit) but there was no water to treat in the first place.

Pinnacles offers a lot to the dayhiker – fun rock scrambling, steep and scenic trails, wildlife (well known for the condors), wildflowers, a couple of peaks, and even caves (not visited on this trip). I highly recommend it!


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  1. Ehren

    Wow. Thank you for sharing this. The trail looks beautiful and those High Peaks steps look like a lot of fun 🙂

  2. Roger Beaudoin

    Live in Hollister, so do a lot of hiking in Pinnacles, always seems harder here than everywhere else, I think it is because the ground is so damn hard and little shade on most of the trails!  This is a tough hike!

  3. Ranjeet Tate

    Thanks for the description and suggestions. I’ll be camping on the east side, so I’ll probably start from Peaks’ View and follow your suggestion to do the route clockwise with the high peaks part at the beginning and then return via the north wilderness trail.

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