Friday, January 29, 2021

Point Lobos

Point Lobos coastline
5 miles loop, 450 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve entrance fee required

Francis McComas, an Australian-born Modernist landscape painter, once described California's Point Lobos as "the greatest meeting of land and water in the world." Just south of the Monterey Peninsula and Carmel-by-the-Sea, Point Lobos is a landscape where the pounding surf of the Pacific meets a craggy coastline, inhabited by thousands of brown pelicans and other seabirds. This is one of the most magical spots along the entire, incredible California Coast and is preserved for future generations in the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. This five mile loop hike visits many of the highlights on the peninsula and delivers nearly nonstop, jawdropping coast views. This is one of my favorite hikes on the California Coast, but unfortunately, many other people feel the same way: come on a weekday to avoid the weekend crush of crowds. 

Point Lobos is just south of the Monterey Peninsula, at the northern end of Big Sur. There are many parking areas in the reserve, most of which fill early on nice weekend days; I'm going to describe a loop around the perimeter of the park that starts from Whalers Cove on the north shore of the peninsula. This hike generally hugs the water and visits the many spur trails leading out to viewpoints; if you're short on time, you can cut out some of those side trips to complete this trail more quickly.

I hiked Point Lobos on a nice October weekday with Anna. From Monterey, it is easy to reach Point Lobos State Reserve: we took California Highway 1 south past Carmel and the Carmel Monastery and then turned right at the entrance of Point Lobos State Reserve. After crossing the entrance gate, we turned right at the first junction and followed the Whalers Cove Road to its end at the parking area next to Whalers Cove. This final road is quite narrow and parking is limited at Whalers Cove, so you'll need to arrive early on a weekend or come on a weekday.

The views from the parking area were already excellent. We could see across Whalers Cove to the rocky headland of Granite Point and the first peaks of the Santa Lucia Range. To get a better view, we headed out on the trail, which left from the north end of the parking lot. We ascended a flight of steps to reach the top of some coastal bluffs; at the top of the stairs, we made a right turn to head out onto the bluffs of Cannery Point. The views from Cannery Point were already spectacular: Whalers Cove was below us, with a  forest of kelp underwater powering the productive marine food chains here. Coal Chute Point and Granite Point marked the other side of the cove and between these two headlands I spotted the towers of the Carmel's Carmelite Monastery in the distance. To the north, we could see across Carmel Bay to the hills of the Monterey Peninsula. 

Whalers Cove and the north coast of Point Lobos from Cannery Point
Multiple rocky islets rose dramatically from the the sea nearby, facing the brunt of the impact from waves sweeping towards the coast on the Pacific. These islets- along with much of the other exposed rock along the north shore of Point Lobos- were made up of granodiorite, an intrusive igneous rock that has a slight difference in chemical composition from its cousin, granite. This granodiorite makes for particularly dramatic seascapes, as it tends to erode into rugged forms. The granodiorite of Point Lobos is part of the Salinian Terrane, a granite-heavy chunk of the California coast that technically lies on part of the Pacific Plate rather than the North American Plate. A commonly accepted theory on the origin of the Salinian Terrane is that the block is actually a southern extension of the Sierra Nevada that has been dragged north by lateral movement along the San Andreas Fault.

Waves crash on offshore rocks
After enjoying the view at Cannery Point, we looped back to the main North Shore Trail, which ascended a set of steps to reach the top of a higher bluff. Atop the bluff, an unmarked spur trail broke off to the right, leading out to an excellent view to the north of Carmel Bay, the Monterey Peninsula, and the rugged coast.

View of the Monterey Peninsula from the north coast of Point Lobos
We continued along the North Shore Trail, which flattened out a bit after climbing the initial bluff but continued to deliver good views of the coast. At 0.3 miles into the hike, we passed a junction with the Cabin Trail, which headed off to the left, leading towards the Whalers Cabin Museum. At 0.4 miles from the trailhead, we passed another junction, this time with the trail to Whalers Knoll. We took the right fork to stay along the North Shore Trail at both junctions. 

After passing the Whalers Knoll Trail junction, the North Shore Trail embarked on a short uphill climb, during which we had fantastic views back to the east of the granodiorite cliffs at Cannery Point and the Carmelite Monastery in the distance. Here, we also began noticing the abundance of brown pelicans perched on the rocks in the area, which was just a taste of what was to come.

North coast of Point Lobos
After a short period of ascent, we came to another unmarked spur trail on the right side of the trail; we took this spur for a brief detour to reach a view of Guillemot Island. Despite its name, this island- a high, rocky ridge that stuck out from the ocean just offshore- was dominated by brown pelicans rather than guillemot. Hundreds of pelicans were perched on the rock and we had a front row seat to see these birds napping, yawning, and grooming themselves. At times, some pelicans would launch off the rock and initiate spectacular dives.

Brown pelicans at Point Lobos
After leaving the viewpoint of Guillemot Island, the North Shore Trail was fairly set back from the shore over the next half mile. We passed a junction where the Whaler's Knoll Trail rejoined the North Shore Trail; we took the right at this junction to stay on the North Shore Trail. At one mile into the hike, the North Shore Trail ended by intersecting with the Cypress Grove Trail at the parking area for Cypress Grove and Sea Lion Point. While it's possible to shorten the hike here by skipping the Cypress Grove Trail, you absolutely must take this 0.8 mile detour: some of the most dramatic scenery of the hike is on this trail. 

Turning right onto the Cypress Grove Trail, we followed it through coastal prairie for about 200 meters to an unsigned junction. The Cypress Grove detour is a loop, so it doesn't matter too much which direction you choose: we decided to take the left fork and do the small loop clockwise. The trail immediately passed through the Allan Memorial Grove, a stand of Monterey cypress. One of the iconic trees of the California coast, the tree is commonly planted in other areas along the West Coast and in New Zealand, but there are only two natural Monterey cypress forests remaining: here at Point Lobos and at nearby Cypress Point in Pebble Beach. The trees are massive but not particularly old, as far as California trees go: Monterey cypresses are not known to survive more than about 250 years.

Cypresses of Allan Memorial Grove
Emerging from the far side of the Allan Memorial Grove, we came to the rocky landscape of South Point. Here, waves pounded the dramatic coastline and the guano-coated rocky islets offshore. This was an incredibly dramatic scene, but it was still just an appetizer for what was to come.

South Point
Here, the trail became slightly rougher and rockier as it wrapped around South Point. Rounding the point, the trail came to Pinnacle Cove and the Pinnacle, which is the farthest extension of land of Point Lobos. This was a seascape of high drama: violent surf crashed against craggy coastal rocks, with the peak of the Pinnacle fading in and out of the fast-moving fog. The rocky nooks and crannies of the Pinnacle provided nests for what seemed like a veritable metropolis of brown pelicans: thousands of birds were perched on the rocks, some napping, some cleaning themselves, others launching themselves into the crashing waves to find a meal. The rocks were stained with guano. The drama of this scene was unrivaled; this truly was an amazing meeting of the land and sea.

The Pinnacle's great pelican colony
The brown pelican population of Point Lobos is astounding: tens, if not hundreds of thousands of these birds call the cliffs of this natural reserve home. Although the pelicans live here for much of the year, many still return to southern California to nest; the use of DDT during the twentieth century badly damaged the viability of brown pelican eggs here, damaging the pelican population. Bans on the use of the pesticide and time have allowed the bird's population to recover.

Pelicans at Point Lobos
We continued on the trail, which passed through forest as it wrapped behind the Pinnacle. There views were consistently excellent here until the trail returned to the forest as it approached North Point.

The Pinnacle
A spur trail led out to North Point, which did not have a particularly unique view; continuing along the Cypress Grove Trail, we took a spur trail to check out another viewpoint. This viewpoint, a little to the southeast of North Point, had a great view of Cypress Cove and of Big Dome, an impressive granodiorite headland crowned with Monterey cypresses. 

View of the Monterey Peninsula and Point Lobos from North Point
Leaving this viewpoint, we completed the Cypress Grove Trail, which brought us back to the parking area for that trail. We were now 1.8 miles into the hike, although we were just a mile away from where we parked at Whalers Cove by trail. Typically, the next stop in the perimeter hike around Point Lobos is Sea Lion Point. We were unable to hike out to Sea Lion Point as the trail was closed at the time due to a collapsed portion of a cliff; however, we could still hear the barking of the sea lions in the distance. When the trail is repaired, I am sure Sea Lion Point will be yet another magnificent coastal viewpoint on this hike. Skipping Sea Lion Point, we turned left onto the South Shore Trail to start following the southern coast of Point Lobos. This trail descended a sandy staircase and wrapped around Sand Hill Cove. While hiking around the cove, we came to a spot where a small cave under an overhanging cliff expelled seawater every time a large wave came in: it was a blowhole, but with a horizontally oriented mouth rather than expelled water outward rather than up.

Blowhole at Sand Hill Cove
As we followed the South Shore Trail along the south coastline of Point Lobos, the fog began to clear up and we were rewarded with sweeping views of the coast, islands and sea stacks just offshore, and the Santa Lucia Mountains. The south shore, lacking the granodiorite of the north shore of Point Lobos, is not quite as dramatic, but the constant views still made this stretch of trail very enjoyable. Around Weston Beach, a few paths broke off from the main trail to lead down to the shoreline, either to visit a beach or tidepools; at one point, we took a detour to see some tidepools. Although we did not see a great variety of marine life in these tidepools, it was still exhilarating to see the waves of the Pacific smash against the rocks and splash into these pools.

Tidepools on the south coast of Point Lobos
The terrain on the South Shore trail varied over the course of the trail, with beaches in some areas and eroded bluffs overlooking coves with kelp forests at other spots. The trail paralleled the road here, generally running just a couple meters from the main road and passing by a number of parking lots. About 0.8 miles after leaving the Sea Lion Point area, we passed a junction with the Mound Meadow Trail, which headed off to the left; we stayed along the coast, passing by pretty Hidden Beach on our way to the Bird Island Trailhead.

Cove near Weston Beach
Kelp forests along the Point Lobos coastline
After following the South Shore Trail for a mile from the Sea Lion Point area, we arrived at the trailhead for Bird Island, now 3 miles into the hike. We crossed the parking lot to join the Bird Island Trail, which ascended a staircase for some quick elevation gain to climb up a bluff. We had some excellent views along the south shore of Point Lobos here that stretched back towards Sea Lion Point. 

Point Lobos south coast
"The greatest meeting of land and water"
The trail wrapped around a headland and then came out to an overlook of China Cove. This calm cove hid a sandy beach at the base of coastal bluffs. Pelicans swam in the shallows on the beach and we spotted a number of harbor seals lounging on the beach. This is a popular haul out spot for harbor seals; do not disturb them.

Pelicans and harbor seals in China Cove
After a fifth of a mile of hiking from the Bird Island Trailhead, we arrived the junction between the Bird Island Trail and the South Plateau Trail, now 3.2 miles into the hike. While we would later take the South Plateau Trail to complete the loop, we first took the right fork for the Bird Island Trail to complete a short, 0.4 mile side loop to see some of the nicest scenery along the south shore of Point Lobos. The start of the side loop delivered pretty views over the secluded white sands of Gibson Beach, which lay at the base of the coastal bluffs. The state natural reserve boundary ended at the other side of Gibson Beach; we could see houses on the coastal properties beyond the beach.

Gibson Beach
We did this particular side loop counterclockwise. The loop took us out to the aptly named Pelican Point, where we had sweepings views of Bird Island as well as up and down the coast in both directions. The area around Bird Island was another outcropping of the granodiorite found along the north shore of Point Lobos; this made for more dramatic landforms here than elsewhere on the south shore. Bird Island and some of the nearby islets were absolutely teeming with brown pelicans and cormorants: birds were occupying every available perch on the granodiorite, covering the rock in thick layers of guano. While this hike had already passed multiple other populous seabird gathering spots- first Guillemot Island, then the Pinnacle- the greatest gathering of pelicans at Point Lobos was almost certainly at this appropriately named spot.

Pelicans and cormorants near Bird Island
Bird Island
Turning around at Pelican Point, we also spotted the only major sea arch of the hike. Here, a granodiorite headland had been partially eroded into an extremely picturesque natural opening. This striking scene was a fitting conclusion to our exploration of Point Lobos' south shore.

Sea arch on the south coast of Point Lobos
We returned to the junction between the Bird Island Trail and the South Plateau Trail, putting us 3.6 miles into the hike. This time, we took the South Plateau Trail. We quickly passed by a spur trail that led down to Gibson Beach, which we skipped but which you could add for about 150 feet of additional elevation gain and a few tenths of an extra mile of distance. The South Plateau Trail brought a break from the constant views we had enjoyed throughout the hike. For the next mile, we followed an inland trail across the width of the Point Lobos peninsula. The South Plateau Trail had a number of short ascents and descents as it crossed over the rolling hills that made up the interior terrain of Point Lobos; much of the elevation gain of this hike occurred along this stretch. After following the South Plateau Trail for 0.4 miles, we passed a junction with the Pine Ridge Trail; we stayed to the right at this junction to continue on the South Plateau Trail. The South Plateau Trail briefly approached Highway 1 before arriving at the Point Lobos entrance station, 0.75 miles after leaving the coast. We crossed the road here and connected up with the Carmelo Meadow Trail, a flat and wide path that we followed north for a quarter mile to return to the shores of Whalers Cove.

Returning to Whalers Cove at sunset
At the end of the Carmelo Meadow Trail, we came to an intersection with the Granite Point Trail. At this intersection, we had a lovely view of Whalers Cove. The waters of the cove were washing against a sandy beach beneath the bluffs in front of us, while the rocks of nearby Coal Chute Point was gleaming in the late day sun. At this intersection, the right fork led out to Granite Point, while the left fork returned towards the Whalers Cove trailhead. Hikers looking for a complete perimeter tour of Point Lobos can add some mileage to this hike by taking the right fork and visiting Granite Point, but we decided against it and turned left here. 

The flat Granite Point Trail took us along the top of coastal bluffs bordering Whalers Cove for about 250 meters to the Whalers Cove Road and the Whalers Cabin Museum. The Whalers Cabin was closed during our visit because of Covid-19 restrictions; it was a pity, as the Whalers Cabin is a structure significant to Chinese American history in California. The cabin was one of a number of structures built starting in 1851 by settlers from southern China. The Chinese Californians of Whalers Cove fished for abalone and were involved in local whaling operations in the 1860s. However, by the late 1870s, growing anti-Chinese sentiment among European-American arrivals on the West Coast forced the settlers here to leave.

From Whalers Cabin, we chose to follow the Whalers Cove road north for the final 200 meters back to the trailhead. If you'd prefer to avoid the road walk, you can follow the Cabin Trail west from the Cabin to connect with the North Shore Trail and then turn right and follow the North Shore Trail back to the parking area as well; that option is two-fifths of a mile long. Following the road provided views of Whalers Cove along the way and was probably the more scenic option.

This is an awesome hike with some of the most stunning coastal views in California. To best enjoy the hike, come during a quieter time of week; but make sure you don't miss this stretch of coast.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Balconies Loop (Pinnacles NP)

Machete Ridge view from the Balconies Trail
2.5 miles loop, 400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate, some dark and wet rock scrambling in Balconies Cave
Access: Narrow paved road to trailhead, Pinnacles National Park entrance fee required

The Balconies Loop is a short hike that visits a talus cave and provides some decent views of the volcanic rock spires of California's Pinnacles National Park. While lacking the drama of the hikes that visit the High Peaks of the Pinnacles, this hike delivers views and a cave with minimal effort and is a good choice for a short and fairly easy hike for hikers arriving from the park's western entrance near Soledad. 

The Balconies Cave- a rare talus cave- is the highlight of this hike. Unlike karst caves that are the result of gradual weathering of limestone, talus caves are the result of rockfalls: a talus cave is simply the network of passages formed when massive boulders pile up. A flashlight- or preferably, a headlamp- is necessary to navigate the Balconies Cave. Traveling through the cave also requires a bit of rock scrambling on uneven, wet, and often slippery terrain, so come in hiking boots and be ready to use your hands. Balconies Cave has a population of nesting bats and may occasionally close; check the national park's website for the cave's status before you go. 

Pinnacles National Park is generally quite pleasant during late fall, winter, and spring, but can be extremely hot in the summer, surprising visitors from the Bay Area. While foggy San Francisco is often in the 50s or 60s Fahrenheit during the summer, temperatures here regularly exceed 100 during the summer. Temperatures in the 70s and 80s can be quite common even during winter.

I hiked the Balconies Loop on a nice February day. From the Bay Area, I took US 101 south past Salinas to the town of Soledad, taking exit 302 and then turning left onto Front St. to head towards downtown after exiting. I took Front St across the railroad tracks into downtown, where I turned right onto East St and followed it up for there blocks, then turning right onto Metz St, which is CA Highway 146 East. I followed Highway 146 east out of town for three miles and then turned left at the sign for Pinnacles National Park to stay on Highway 146. I then followed Highway 146 for nine miles into the Gabilan Range. The road was quite windy and narrowed as I drove into the mountains, eventually becoming a one lane road that accommodated two way traffic with occasional turnouts; however, the road remained paved the entire way. The road passed vineyards and a ranger station at the entrance of Pinnacles National Park before dead ending at the Chaparral Trailhead, which was the start of this hike. There's room for about 45 cars at the trailhead, but on weekends the lot may fill, requiring hikers to park in an overflow lot about a half mile back on the road.

The best view of the Pinnacles' rugged High Peaks region was actually right at the Chaparral Trailhead, where I could see directly up to the lofty rock spires. This view is the best road-accessible view of the rock formations of Pinnacles National Park and is a far clearer and more impressive viewpoint than any road-accessible view on the park's more popular eastern side. This geological oddity is composed of volcanic rocks deposited by ancient eruptions of the Neenach Volcano in Southern California over 20 million years ago, which then migrated north along the Central California coast on the San Andreas Fault.

High Peaks of the Pinnacles
Two primary trails left from the Chaparral Trailhead: the Juniper Canyon Trail, which headed off to the right towards the High Peaks, and the Balconies Trail, which led off to the left. I took the left fork to head towards the Balconies. The trail started out as a very wide, well-graded gravel path as it followed the flat bottom of the West Chalone Creek valley. I quickly passed a junction with the North Wilderness Trail, which leads through some of the least-visited areas of Pinnacles National Park. Shortly after leaving the trailhead, the trail made a broad turn to the right and came to some excellent views of Machete Ridge, an impressive, serrated rock ridge that rose directly from the floor of the valley. Collections of rock pinnacles towered further uphill on the slopes of the High Peaks. The trail was almost completely flat here.

Machete Ridge
There were constant views of Machete Ridge as the trail traveled through the grassy, flat bottom of the valley until the valley suddenly narrowed at a half mile from the trailhead and transitioned to a canyon filled with towering rock outcrops. The trail began to descend very gently as it traveled through this canyon, entering some pretty woods and crossing over West Chalone Creek, which keeps the vegetation in the canyon fairly verdant by California standards. At 0.6 miles, the trail passed by the base of Machete Ridge and soon the great cliff faces of the Balconies, a rock outcrop that featured an extended line of cliffs, rose above the canyon. At 2/3 mile, I arrived at a junction between the Balconies Cliffs Trail and the Balconies Cave Trail. I took the right fork for the Balconies Cave Trail, although I would later return on this loop by the Balconies Cliffs Trail.

The Balconies Cave Trail continued downhill through the canyon, entering terrain that became progressively rockier. Soon, the trail entered a massive talus pile with house-sized boulders stacked atop each other. I passed through a gate that marked the entrance to Balconies Cave; this gate is locked when the cave is closed. The trail then squeezed between some boulders and dropped into the dark cave. A flashlight or headlamp was absolutely essential to navigate the cave, which is pitch black once I left the entrance. Traveling through the cave required rock scrambling down to the base of the cave, which was a bit challenging during my visit because the rocks were wet. As this is an otherwise easy hike, the difficulties of working my way through the cave were the main reason this hike did not receive an easy rating. However, the thrill of wandering through underground passageways with underground streams was well worth the challenge.

Balconies Cave
Gaps in the talus above allowed light to stream into the lower reaches of the cave and I soon exited the cave altogether after passing through another gate marking the cave's lower exit. Returning into the daylight, I was back in a narrow, rocky canyon alongside West Chalone Creek. As I followed the trail further down the canyon, the walls of the canyon widened and I passed through some pleasant woodlands until reaching a junction with the Balconies Cliffs Trail and Old Pinnacles Trail at just over a mile from the trailhead.

Exiting Balconies Cave
I took the Balconies Cliffs Trail on the return leg of the loop. While this trail was quite nice, it unfortunately did not live up to my unrealistic expectations: I was hoping for a trail that would visit the top of the Balconies Cliffs, but this trail just followed the base of those huge cliffs. The Balconies Cliffs Trail had the only steep uphill stretch of this hike, which came on the initial third of a mile of the trail as it ascended from the bottom of the canyon up to a chaparral covered bench just below the mighty bluffs of volcanic rock that form the Balconies. The trail arrived at a high point at 1.5 miles just below the cliffs that had excellent views of both the high cliffs themselves and of Machete Ridge across the canyon.

At the foot of the Balconies
After passing the 1.5 mile mark, the trail began to gently descend back into the canyon. Machete Ridge and the High Peaks of the Pinnacles provided excellent scenery to the south; this stretch of trail provided the best views of the park's namesake rocks on this particular hike. The final descent back down into the canyon was quite steep but short and the Balconies Cliffs Trail rejoined the Balconies Trail to complete the loop at 1.9 miles. Back at this junction, I turned right and followed the Balconies Trail gently uphill back to the trailhead.

Pinnacles National Park
The Balconies Loop is an enjoyable way to experience the west side of Pinnacles National Park and visit a unique talus cave. However, I can't recommend this hike over visiting the High Peaks, whether on the Condor Gulch-High Peaks Loop or whether accessing that area via the Juniper Canyon Trail. If you want a less strenuous alternative to those High Peaks hike though or if you simply are driving by on US 101 and don't have time for a longer hike, then this can be a fun way to sample a bit of what this fairly new national park has to offer.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

North Chalone Peak

The Pinnacles High Peaks
8 miles round trip, 2050 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Pinnacles National Park entrance fee required

From 3305-foot North Chalone Peak, the highest point in California's Pinnacles National Park, there is a sweeping view encompassing not only the national park's namesake rock formations but also the rounded, chaparral-covered peaks of the Coast Range and the farmland of the Salinas Valley. The hike to the fire lookout-topped summit passes by Bear Gulch Reservoir and a collection of rock pinnacles. While scrambling through the High Peaks is the hiking highlight of Pinnacles National Park, the trail up North Chalone Peak is quite scenic and comes a close second. This is one of the nicer inland hikes on the California Central Coast and sees far less traffic than the more popular High Peaks hike at Pinnacles.

Pinnacles National Park is generally quite pleasant during late fall, winter, and spring, but can be extremely hot in the summer, surprising visitors from the Bay Area. While foggy San Francisco is often in the 50s or 60s Fahrenheit during the summer, temperatures here regularly exceed 100 during the summer. Temperatures in the 70s and 80s can be quite common even during winter. I hiked North Chalone Peak on a sunny December day when the highs were above 70.

From the Bay Area, I followed US 101 south past Gilroy and then exited for CA Highway 25 south. I followed CA Highway 25 for 32 miles past the town of Hollister along the San Benito River to the well-marked turnoff for the east entrance of Pinnacles National Park. Here, I turned right into the national park and then followed the main park road past the entrance station and visitor center to its dead end at the head of Bear Gulch. Coming on a December weekday, I was able to park in the highest lot at the end of the road; however, there's only enough room for about 10 cars here, so most visitors will have to park slightly further downhill by the Bear Gulch Nature Center, which adds a half mile round trip to the hike. During busy weekends, hikers may have to park at the visitor center and ride a shuttle over to the Bear Gulch Trailhead.

The hike consists of a two distinct portions of uneven length: the first part of the hike involves getting from the Bear Gulch Trailhead to Bear Gulch Reservoir, for which there are three trail options: the Rim Trail, Moses Spring Trail, and Bear Gulch Cave. I'm going to described a hike that utilizes the Moses Spring Trail but you should feel free to choose any option or to mix and match options for your outbound and return trips. Each of the options is roughly the same length and- considering that you'll already be doing over 2000 feet of elevation gain to get to North Chalone Peak- the elevation gain difference between the options is negligible. However, do note that you'll need a flashlight to navigate through Bear Gulch Cave and that the cave is often closed May through July to protect a colony of nesting bats. The three options converge at Bear Gulch Reservoir; from there, a single trail leads 3.3 miles to the abandoned fire lookout atop North Chalone Peak.

From the Bear Gulch Trailhead, I hopped onto the Bear Gulch Trail, a dirt single track trail that immediately ascended into a narrow canyon with steep cliffs rising to the right side of the trail. About 200 meters into the hike, I came to a trail junction: here, the trail for the High Peaks split off to the right. The right fork led to the Rim Trail option for reaching Bear Gulch Reservoir, but I chose to take the left fork, which reached the reservoir by the Moses Spring Trail.

The Moses Spring Trail wandered along the flat bottom of Bear Gulch for a while, traveling up the wooded canyon surrounded by great andesite cliffs. The trail passes by some popular rock climbing spots here: the Bear Gulch area is a favorite among rock climbers who come to Pinnacles for the park's extensive collection of exposed, vertical rock outcrops. At 1/3 of a mile from the trailhead, I came to a second trail junction. Here, the trail into Bear Gulch Cave led straight ahead along the bottom of the canyon, while the Moses Spring Trail split off to the right. At the time of my hike, a locked gate at this junction barred entry into the cave: the cave is closed each year from May to July and may occasionally be closed at other times of year as well. I've hiked through Bear Gulch Cave in the past and its very enjoyable experience, so I encourage you to do so (with a flashlight!) if it's open. Since it was closed during my visits, I continued on the Moses Spring Trail instead. 

The Moses Spring Trail ascended to the right from the floor of Bear Gulch and then followed the base of the cliffs rising above the canyon. The scenery here was quite dramatic: massive andesite cliffs rose vertically from the trail and sometimes were overhanging, especially in a stretch of trail that seemed to have been blasted out from the cliffs. The trail passed Moses Spring, which was just a trickle during my visit. The cliffside trail had great views of the massive talus that had collected below in Bear Gulch to form the Bear Gulch Cave. Unlike karst caves that are eroded into limestone underground, Bear Gulch Cave was formed from rockfall: it is simply a network of passageways left after massive talus blocks fell into and filled narrow Bear Gulch. At a few spots, we were able to look down through cracks in the talus into Bear Gulch Cave itself.

Bear Gulch
As we entered the massive talus jumble, the trail crossed the talus itself, winding from massive boulder to massive boulder as it cut across to the other side of the canyon above Bear Gulch Cave. Here, I passed a junction with a connector trail leading down to Lower Bear Gulch Cave. While not delivering the full Bear Gulch Cave experience, this stretch of Moses Spring Trail did still deliver a fun and scenic journey through the talus, passing through tunnels blasted in the rock and culminating in a stretch at the upper end of the gulch where the trail rejoined with the Bear Gulch Cave Trail at a junction beneath massive, overhanging boulders. At this junction, I took the left fork and followed a narrow staircase that led out of the talus-filled gulch and to the top of the dam holding back Bear Gulch Reservoir.

The upper entrance to Bear Gulch Cave
After 2/3 of a mile hiking up the Moses Spring Trail, I arrived at Bear Gulch Reservoir. Here, the Moses Spring Trail rejoined with the Rim Trail. At this junction, I took the trail that crossed the dam and then followed the southeast shore of the lake. Bear Gulch Reservoir is not a natural lake- there are no natural lakes in the Gabilan Range- but it is still quite pretty as a small body of water nestled amidst a landscape of craggy rock formations and rounded chaparral peaks. Bear Gulch Reservoir was a Civilian Conservation Corps project during the Great Depression, when the focus was on developing the then Pinnacles National Monument for recreation rather than on preservation.

Bear Gulch Reservoir
Following the shoreline of Bear Gulch Reservoir, I came to some great views of the Monolith, an impressive rock outcrop that rises directly above the dam at the lower end of the reservoir. The North Chalone Peak Trail soon swung away from the reservoir's shores and began heading uphill into a gully. A sign here indicated that the peak was now 3.3 miles ahead.

The Monolith rises over Bear Gulch Reservoir
Over the next half mile, the trail ascended steadily up through a gully lined with rock pinnacles. This was a very enjoyable part of the hike: I passed formations such as the Three Sisters, which was a collection of three closely grouped rock spires, and also saw plenty of unnamed outcrops, including a balanced rock near the top of the gully. Views north down the gully to the the High Peaks area of the Pinnacles improved steadily as I ascended.

Three Sisters
A balanced rock on the Chalone Peak Trail
At 1.3 miles into the hike, I came to a saddle at the top of the gully. From this saddle, there were great views of the dense rocky outcrops of the nearby Little Pinnacles area to the northeast and of the High Peaks that form the heart of the park. The Little Pinnacles is one of the densest collections of these rock spires in the park outside of the High Peaks area and also marks the southern extent of the park's namesake features. How did these spires of volcanic rock arise in the California Coast Range? The Pinnacles actually formed far to the south: the rocks formed 23 million years ago in eruptions of Neenach Volcano, which lies near present-day Lancaster, just north of Los Angeles. Neenach Volcano happened to lie directly on the San Andreas Fault and the larger half of the volcano's rocky remnants were dragged north by the Pacific Plate along with the rest of what's known as the Salinian Block, a section of continental crust that includes the Santa Lucia Range that is now migrating with the Pacific Plate. The San Andreas Fault once ran immediately east of the Pinnacles but has now shifted slightly further east to the valley of the San Benito River. 

The Little Pinnacles
View back to the Pinnacles High Peaks
Following the trail past the saddle, I entered a different watershed. The trail transitioned to a slightly steeper grade as it continued ascending along the slopes of the mountain here, passing a few scattered rock pinnacles. There were consistently nice views here of the Little Pinnacles and nearby Mount Defiance and I caught my first glimpses of the rounded Diablo Range to the east.

The Little Pinnacles
At 1.9 miles, the trail passed through another saddle and came to its first view of North Chalone Peak to the south, which was topped by a fire lookout tower. From here, the trail continued a steady uphill climb, delivering every-improving views of the Little Pinnacles and the Diablo Range. 

Looking over Little Pinnacles to the Diablo Range
The trail leveled out at 2.3 miles for a stretch as it began wrapping around the a local prominence on the ridge. Although the terrain was open and unforested, chaparral vegetation had grown quite tall here, closing out most views. I came to a sweeping viewpoint of the Pinnacles High Peaks at the north end of the ridge at 2.5 miles from the trailhead. This spectacular view encompassed the park's rocky heart and the Condor Gulch and High Peaks Trails that led up into the dense pinnacles. Below, I could see back to Bear Gulch Reservoir, with the Monolith and the Three Sisters cutting clearly recognizable forms near the lake. In the distance, I could see as far as Laveaga and Potrero Peaks, two high summits of the Diablo Range near Hollister. This is the best view of the Pinnacles on this hike as the view from North Chalone Peak is a bit set back from the heart of the rocks.

View over the Pinnacles High Peaks
After leaving the viewpoint, the trail turned to the west and continued a steady ascent along the long ridge leading towards North Chalone Peak. There were continued nice views of the Pinnacles for a while off to the north of the ridge while I caught a couple nice views of North and South Chalone Peaks to the south of the ridge as well.

South and North Chalone Peaks
At 3.1 miles, the trail came to a barbed wire fence that presumably keeps cattle from wandering into the park. The gate at this cattle guard was locked, but there were some wooden slats installed to allow hikers to simply climb over the fence safely. After crossing the fence, the trail made a sharp left turn, heading directly south along the top of the ridge. The trail initially hugged the fence but split off to the right after 200 meters, joining up with an old service road that led from the Salinas Valley up to North Chalone Peak. For the remainder of the hike, I followed the old road uphill. Wonderful views opened to the west of the Salinas Valley, with the Santa Lucia Range rising across the valley and vineyards spread out immediately below North Chalone Peak in the foothills of the Gabilan Range. 

Oaks along the crest of the Gabilan Range
The steepest stretch of the entire hike was over the last half mile as the trail pushed uphill just over 300 vertical feet in that stretch to reach the summit of the park's highest peak. At 3.8 miles, the trail passed a second cattle gate, this one also requiring crossing a barbed wire fence by climbing over the fence on a few wooden slats. Here, the trail also passed a junction of the right side of the road trace for the unmaintained trail to South Chalone Peak before making a final switchback and reaching the summit at 4 miles from the trailhead.

South Chalone Peak and the Salinas Valley
The road trace made a loop around the fire lookout tower at the summit. Unfortunately, the fire lookout tower is no longer functional; in fact, the floorboards of its outer deck have all collapsed already, so it's not possible to go up the structure at all. Luckily, the low-growing chaparral around the lookout tower allowed me to still have excellent views even without the additional elevation boost of the tower, although a power line to the north marred the views just slightly. A marked side trail on the southern side of the summit led to a toilet with a view.

North Chalone Peak is the third highest summit in the Gabilan Range, which starts at Fremont Peak in the north around Hollister and Salinas and ends at South Chalone Peak, just south of where I stood. The Gabilan Range is sandwiched between the longer Diablo and Santa Lucia Ranges, which form the two major crests of the California Coast Range along the Central California Coast. From the summit of North Chalone Peak, I had excellent views of all three ranges. 

Looking north, I could see to Mount Johnson, the highest peak in the Gabilan Range. I could also see all the way to a collection of high peaks in the Diablo Range around Hollister. The Pinnacles High Peaks were visible and I also spotted the top of the Balconies formation in the northwestern part of the Pinnacles, which I had not been able to see earlier; however, the rocks were not as impressive from this angle as from the viewpoint earlier in the hike.

The High Peaks of the Pinnacles and the distant Diablo Range
The Diablo Range filled the eastern skyline and the San Andreas Fault ran through a brown, grassy valley between here and that mountain range. South Chalone Peak lay to the south of North Chalone Peak; beyond that, the Gabilan Range faded out into hills. I could see a great distance to the south along the axis of the Salinas Valley to the distant San Luis Obispo Ranges beyond Paso Robles. I spotted multiple towns in the Salinas Valley below, including King City and Soledad; I could just make out the white form of Mission Soledad to the northwest of the town of Soledad. The Santa Lucia Range rose opposite the Salinas Valley and was dominated by the mile-high Junipero Serra Peak, the range's highest point. California's famed Big Sur coastline lies on the other side of the Santa Lucia Range. To the north, I could see out into Monterey Bay and the city of Salinas at the north end of the Santa Lucia Range. I also caught a glimpse of a part of the distant Santa Cruz Range, which forms the backbone of the San Francisco Peninsula. On this fairly clear day, I could see more than 60 miles to the north and 80 miles to the south.

View across the San Andreas Fault to the Diablo Range
Junipero Serra Peak and the Santa Lucia Range rise above the Salinas Valley
First time visitors to Pinnacles National Park with limited time should concentrate on seeing the High Peaks close up, either on the Condor Gulch-High Peaks Loop or the Juniper Canyon-High Peaks Loop, depending on whether you approach the park from the east or west. Repeat visitors or those with more time in the park can discover more beautiful views of the California Coast Ranges and the pinnacles themselves by doing this excellent and recommended hike to the park's highest peak.