For a short visit to a relatively small park, our weekend camping trip to Pinnacles National Park afforded Sean and me with ample opportunities to see wildlife, from the endangered California Condor to many other, more abundant species. As I’ve written before, the park is a jewel for its scenery certainly, but also for its wildlife. I’ve spent quite a lot of time since we returned from the trip identifying species (particularly the birds) from photos we captured or notes we made. Obviously we saw more species than what’s listed here (with a nod to butterflies and other insects), but I’m pretty confident of the accuracy of what is on this list.
It was Sunday morning, June 2. Sean and I were booked on a flight home to Chicago from San Jose at 1:55 that afternoon, but now, at not quite 7am, we were ready for our final hike at Pinnacles National Park: South Wilderness Trail.
South Wilderness Trail is 3.25 miles one-way with little to no elevation gain. It follows Chalone Creek south from a junction with Bench Trail not far from the Pinnacles Campground. Ironically given its name, it does not actually pass through much of the park’s federal wilderness area as designated by the Wilderness Act. The trail, although relatively easy to follow, is less maintained than many of the other trails in the park.
After our long morning hike on Saturday (June 1), we were back at our campsite by early afternoon. We lunched on tortillas filled with peanut butter and potato chips. We were considering an evening walk, but for the afternoon, we decided it was time to relax in the campground, particularly since it was so hot. (We’d learn later that it hit 104 degrees in the park that afternoon.)
For our Saturday (June 1) hike, we wanted to explore the Pinnacles formations from the east side of the park. The logical choice was to hike to at least the overlook on Condor Gulch Trail. Several options presented themselves to us: we could drive to the trailhead or we could hike there from the campground. We could do the trail as an out-and-back or we could link it to other trails as a grand loop. Ultimately, we decided to hike to and from our campsite, linking Bench Trail, Bear Gulch Trail, Condor Gulch Trail, and High Peaks Trail into a marvelous 8.8 mile hike with a 1,350 foot elevation gain.
We set out around 7:45am on Bench Trail, which connects the campground to all the other trails in the park. The first section of Bench Trail followed both Sandy Creek and the park road into the heart of the park, passing by grasslands in various stages of restoration.
It was Friday afternoon, May 31. We’d finished our hike into the High Peaks at about 1:45. Now we needed to drive around the south end of the Gabilan mountains to the park’s east entrance in order to reach Pinnacles Campground.
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.
Balconies Trail, a 2.4-mile loop with an elevation gain of 200 feet, is a perfect introduction to Pinnacles National Park. From the oak savanna near the parking lot, it winds through chaparral areas before entering a canyon carved by the West Fork Chalone Creek. The trail climbs in a series of switchbacks up the lower part of the Balconies cliffs before looping around and passing through Balconies Cave. The relatively short trail passes through three (arguably four) of the five habitats in the park. It offers sweeping vistas, great bird watching, and a scramble through a talus cave.
We always intended our visit to Balconies Cave to be the first item on our to-do list at Pinnacles, preferably as early as possible on Friday so that there would be relatively few other visitors.