Posted by: David and Deirdre Hayward | July 17, 2010

Pinnacles National Monument

July 8th 2010

Distance: 4.3 miles   Elevation gain: 1,215′

Ever since reading an article in the L.A. times about ten years ago, I have wanted to visit the Pinnacles. Of course, that article was extolling the magnificence of the spring time flowers – and it’s now the middle of summer. Still the description of the terrain had also captured my imagination. The park is about 265 miles from home, but here we are motoring down the 101 on our way back from San Francisco and a mere 12 mile diversion will take us there. As we approach the turn off in Soledad, I nervously watch the car thermometer – about 72 degrees, not too bad. The Pinnacles are just visible behind the more typical rolling hills. They are the eroded remains of an ancient volcano, this part of which has been dragged northwards as the Pacific plate grinds along the San Andreas fault.  Condors have been also been released here and there are now more than 20 in the park. The road in is narrow but well paved –  zero traffic however. Eventually we reach the Chaparral Ranger Station and obtain our free parking receipt courtesy of our senior pass – being old is not always bad (usually, but not always). We park in the large, almost empty, lot. A last glance at the thermometer shows 78 and it’s midday. There’s a light breeze but not much prospect of any shade.

Juniper Canyon

We suit up and set out along Juniper Canyon.  The trail is delightful as it follows along the dry Juniper Creek. However, it’s almost flat and I know we have 1,200′ of elevation gain ahead somewhere. We begin to see and enter the rocky formations, their weathered profiles vaguely reminiscent of Bryce Canyon.  The gentle elevation gain blends into more severe switchbacks and with the sun beating down the going becomes hard work.

Switchbacks ahead!

We reach a junction for the Tunnel Trail, but given the heat and the long drive we have ahead of us, we decide to do a shorter loop than originally planned and continue on the Juniper Canyon Trail. The Tunnel Trail will be our return. More puffing and sweating up another series of switchbacks eventually sees us on a ridge where several trails meet – there are even some bathrooms – but no shade for lunch. Here we meet a couple from Ohio who have come up from the opposite side. They oblige with a photo of us.


We take in the stunning view but don’t loiter for long, heading off to look for shade. We take the High Pinnacles Trail, marked steep and narrow (we will shortly find this to be a true characterisation!). The trail climbs a little before dropping slightly to reveal a shady nook beneath an overhanging rock. First shade all day and perfect for lunch.

Phew! Shade.

After a few minutes, another couple arrive and jokingly accuse us of stealing their shade. Well we ain’t moving. We must look bedraggled as they comment how nice it is to see folks like us (i.e. old farts) out here on the trail. True they look much fresher than us as they continue on their way around the larger loop. Somewhat, but only somewhat, refreshed we continue. No it isn’t all down hill from here. We now face the “steep and narrow” section that winds through the heart of the high peaks.

Steep .....

This is really fun and it is even a little cooler on this side. We climb over and around “pinnacles” aided by steps cut into the rock and handrails on the steeper bits. Even so, it’s a squeeze in some places.

.... and narrow

 The view to the east on this side is extensive and here, actually in the pinnacles, my expectations are more than realised. Eventually the trail does begin a downward climb and we reach the upper end of the tunnel trail. A brief descent brings us to the tunnel – some twenty yards blasted straight through the rock. An abomination really, but oh it’s so beautifully cool in here. As we re-emerge into the heat, a woman approaches from below and almost collapses into the shade of the tunnel. That makes us feel better! It must be in the 90s she gasps. She is a regular hiker here. We chat for a while and leave her resting on the floor of the tunnel.  A little farther on we meet the junction we passed on the way up and follow our original footsteps down to the canyon and the car.  We are mercifully parked in the shade. I steal a quick look at the thermometer and it is 90 degrees – in the shade. We visit the ranger station where Dee buys a postcard. I am so hot and sticky I am reluctant to touch anything and I feel as if the ranger is daring me to do so. A family enter and the distraction gives me the chance to look at a couple of books on the Pinnacles. The restrooms here are nice, allowing for a wash and change of clothes before we face our remaining four-hour drive. Just 12 miles back on the freeway the temperature is back in the seventies. Dee is reading from the park pamphlet about spring and fall being the best time to visit. On a weekend in spring it may be necessary to use the overflow parking lot – not on a weekday in July I can assure you! Nonetheless, this park ranks up among California’s best!


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