Pinnacles National Park: High Peaks

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After the delight of Balconies Trail, we were ready for more hiking. This time we’d head up into the heart of the Pinnacles formations. The Juniper Canyon Loop is a 4.3-mile hike with an elevation gain of 1,215 feet. For the first half-mile traveling south, the trail climbs gradually through riparian woodlands in Juniper Canyon. Then it climbs steeply in a series of switchbacks, eventually ending at the High Peaks Trail. The High Peaks Trail winds through the formations themselves before the Tunnel Trail leads back to Juniper Canyon for the descent.

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It was already late morning when we set out, and the sun was climbing higher into the cloudless sky. But we each packed 3 liters of water in our bladders, plus an extra bottle, so we were prepared. I was slightly trepidatious about starting the hike late in the morning, but we were so excited to be there, that the call of the High Peaks was too much. Sean was game for anything.

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The first section of Juniper Canyon Trail was shady as we passed from the chaparral near the parking area into a riparian zone in the canyon.

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Goldenstar

The trail rose so gradually that it was almost a surprise that the elevation has already increased quite a bit at the point of the first switchbacks. We found ourselves looking down at the tops of trees on the canyon floor.

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Throughout, we drew closer to the formations. The unique formations at Pinnacles National Park were created over millions of years of erosion. Originally they formed part of a massive volcano that stood on the San Andreas Fault 23 million years ago. As the Pacific Plate moved north, it tore the now-extinct volcano apart. One-third remained where the volcano had been near Los Angeles as the Neenach Formation. The other two-thirds were carried 195 miles north to become the park’s namesake pinnacles. As it traveled north, the heavy igneous rock of the former volcano sank and was covered by sedimentary rock, which gradually was eroded away to reveal the formations.

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Soon the trail led us up above the woodland of Juniper Canyon and began offering us sweeping views down the canyon to the mountains beyond.

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Although the trail was increasingly sun-exposed, the scrubby chaparral grew tall enough in some places to provide shade as we stopped to take breaks and ponder the view. A couple, we assume the owners of the car from British Columbia that had been the only other car in the parking lot when we arrived, passed us on their descent.

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Resurrection Wall looms across Juniper Canyon from the trail.

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Bush Lupine

We passed the fork with Tunnel Trail, but continued on Juniper Canyon Trail as it turned south again, leveling off for a bit just beneath the mass of the formations. We could now see the Santa Lucia Mountains to the west beyond the Salinas Valley. Beyond the Santa Lucias was the Pacific Ocean.

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We were now at the end of Juniper Canyon, just beneath the long ridge of the High Peaks. We were surrounded by orange-pink rock and a surprising amount of vegetation considering the steep canyon walls.

The canyon curved around to our left across from us in this protected pocket. Turkey Vultures, which we still thought might be condors, soared above and below us, casting their shadows on the trail and the ridges.

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Brightly colored lichen on brightly colored rock.

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California Buckwheat

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Turkey Vulture

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After a brief final series of switchbacks, Juniper Canyon Trail ended at the juncture with High Peaks Trail. We were now on the ridge that comprised the heart of Pinnacles and had our second, much higher, view into the eastern side of the National Park. The elevation was 2,450 feet; we’d climbed 1,050 feet from the parking lot in 1.8 miles.

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The view to the west.

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The view to the east.

The section of the High Peaks Trail that confronted us was the “steep – narrow” section that threaded its way through the formations. While far from being acrophobic, I do have something of a fear of heights (most vividly when I’m in a moving vehicle as a passenger). So as we set out on the steep and narrow, I wasn’t entirely certain how I would handle it. A photo posted on Wikipedia of foothold steps carved into a rock face with a metal railing on one side didn’t increase my confidence.

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The West Pinnacles parking lot is visible, more than 1,000 feet below. (I’m amused by the dragonfly I inadvertently caught in this image.)

A 360-degree view from the High Peaks ridge.

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Near the trail convergence we encountered some other hikers, either headed the other direction or stopping to take a break. But during the bulk of our time twisting through the High Peaks, we were alone on the trail.

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Narrow indeed: our trail hugs a formation as it curves to the left, affording us an easterly vista. Condor Gulch Trail is visible far below.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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California Ground Squirrel

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Shortly, we encountered what would be the first of a half dozen of the aforementioned “steep – narrow” portions of the trail.

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For this first section, we essentially had to squeeze between the rock face and the guard railing, which only came to slightly above knee level.

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Other parts of the trail were more traditional trail staircases up small ridges or between formations.

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At some parts of the trail, it wasn’t so much the steep staircase, particularly when seen from the trail below (see the image above), as it was the staircase combined with the vertigo-esque view back down (see the image below).

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Turkey Vulture (?) and Violet-Green Swallow. We would be confident that this large bird is a Turkey Vulture except that it is tagged. Could it be an immature condor?

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And then finally we reached the staircase that I’d seen the image of before our trip. It happened that we had to descend it. Sean went first, and I followed, descending it backwards so I could see the footholds more easily.

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The view back up.

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Looking back at the staircase from farther along the trail.

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We reached the junction of High Peaks Trail and Tunnel Trail. High Peaks Trail continued toward the east side of the park. We turned left onto Tunnel Trail to return to the Chaparral Picnic Area and West Pinnacles parking lot.

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The descent on tunnel trail was gorgeous with many gray pines, colorful lichens, and formations all the way to the junction with Juniper Canyon Trail.

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The parking area beckons.

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Chaparral Virgin’s Bower (seed heads)

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Beneath an imposing set of formations, the trail led to a bridge.

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And then to the tunnel for which the trail was named.

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Shortly after the tunnel, we reached junction with Juniper Canyon Trail, just above its major set of switchbacks.

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We passed a family, mom, dad, and little boy, probably about six years old. They were resting under some chaparral overhang along the trail, just two switchbacks shy of the junction with Tunnel Trail. They asked us how much farther it was to the top. We said that they still had quite a way to go, but that at the very least they should go as far as the tunnel. Sean said later that he could tell the little boy wanted to ask something, but had been too shy.

We passed several more sets or groups of hikers working their way up Juniper Canyon Trail, including a couple with an infant in a front papoose. The early-afternoon sun had by this time crested over the top of the ridge and was beating down on Juniper Canyon Trail. Both Sean and I were appalled that the couple was bringing an infant up the climb in such sun and heat.

Even though we’d made the trek up well after the cool of early morning, we were certainly glad we’d made the ascent as early as we had. Once we hit the shade of Juniper Canyon, the hike was cool and lovely.

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Soon we had left the woodlands of the canyon and were back in the chaparral leading to the parking lot.

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A Valley Live Oak in the foreground and the High Peaks beyond.

One thought on “Pinnacles National Park: High Peaks

  1. Pingback: Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Unit: Buckhorn Trail, Caprock Coulee Trail Loop | As They Are: Exploring the National Parks

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