Monday, December 7, 2015

Trail heads to heart of newest national park

Vista from High Peaks Trail. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

High Peaks Trail
winds through
ancient pinnacles

Topo map of High Peaks Trail.
Day hikers can explore an otherworldly landscape of pinnacles, spires and monoliths on the High Peaks Trail at America’s newest national park.

The route loops about 5.15 miles when combined with other trails in California’s Pinnacles National Park. Formerly known as Pinnacles National Monument, the wilderness area became a national park in 2013.

For the most part, the trail is narrow and steep with about a 1,300-feet change in elevation. The payoff is a number of great panoramic views and a walk through a geological wonderland.

To reach the trailhead, from King City, Calif., drive northeast on Country Road G13 then go left on Calif. Hwy. 25. From there, turn left onto Calif. Hwy. 146/Chalone Creek Road then left/west onto the park road for the Bear Gulch Day Use Area. Park at the day use area lot, which sits at about 1260 feet elevation.

You can make the hike a full loop by taking Bear Gulch Trail in the day use area east through Bear Gulch. The trail parallels an intermittent creek and the park road until reaching Bench Trail in about 0.75 miles.

Born east of L.A.
Head north on Bench Trail alongside an arroyo, crossing the park road to the day use area. After 0.6 miles, you’ll reach the junction for the High Peaks Trail.

Turn left/west onto the High Peaks Trail. You’ll quickly gain elevation, eventually passing a knob that tops out at about 2380 feet. After about 1.3 miles, the trail intersects with the Condor Gulch Trail. Continue going straight/east.

The trail soon curves south around Hawkins Peak, which tops out at 2720 feet to the southeast, then enters the Pinnacle Rocks. In about 0.4 miles is a junction with Tunnel Trail; continue on the High Peaks Trail, heading south.

You’re now on the backbone of the Pinnacles, weirdly shaped monoliths and spire rock formations, all the eroded remnants of volcanic action that occurred 23 million years ago along the San Andreas Fault, which runs through the range. At that time, this part of the world was about 195 miles to the south, near what is now Lancaster, Calif., where matching rock has been found on the opposite side of the San Andreas.

Condor country
As gazing up at the pinnacles, you may spot giant birds flying about. They probably are the rare California condor, which has a wingspan of up to 9-1/2 feet. Decades ago when efforts were made to repopulate the West with the endangered bird, many were released here.

Spotting a condor will be easiest on this stretch, which includes the trail’s high point of about 2570 feet elevation.

After about 0.6 miles, the route passes the intersection with a connector to the Tunnel Trail. Continuing on the High Peaks Trail, you’ll begin the descent out of the Pinnacle Rocks through chaparral-covered slopes back to Bear Gulch. Along the way you’ll pass Scout Peak, whose summit is at 2605 feet to the southwest.

From there, the trail veers east. In 1.1 miles, it passes junctions for side trails leading to Bear Gulch Reservoir, the Monolith rock formation, and Moses Spring.

The last leg of the trail curves northeast and in about 0.4 miles ends at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.