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.

No comments:

Post a Comment