Pinnacles National Park, formerly known as Pinnacles National Monument, is home to a collection of sky-pointed spires which provide a challenging hiking experience as well as scenery that further proves how diverse the natural landscape of California truly is. As there are no roads within Pinnacles National Park, the only way to tour these impressive structures is by foot through narrow, but well constructed, trails that lead from the East or West Entrances. Although not the longest trail in the park, the Condor Gulch Loop provides the best views of the spires and the rich natural landscape surrounding the park. Although only five to six miles (depending on if visitors take the side trip to Bear Gulch Reservoir), the trail does climb impressively in elevation making for one of the most challenging courses in Pinnacles.
|Trail Length:||5.3 to 6 miles||City/State:|| Paicines,
|Elevation:||1,325 feet gain
||County:||San Benito||Dogs Allowed:||No|
There are no roads that run through Pinnacle National Park, so getting to the trailhead is essentially just as easy as making it to the park's East Entrance. From Highway 101, visitors can take Exit 281 just past King City and follow Country Road G13 north until it dead ends into Route 25. Turn left and follow the road until Route 146. After making another left, road signs will lead hikers to the park entrance which features a campground and general store. From here, it's a short walk to down the trail to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area and the Condor Gulch Loop trailhead.
After the hike begins at Bear Gulch Day Use Area, it won't be more than a couple of feet before hikers come to a fork in the path. Both ways head to the same place, essentially but one provides more value than the other. Right continues on to the High Peaks, while left will take hikers on a short side trip to Bear Gulch Reservoir before heading to the peaks. On the path towards the reservoir, there are yet two more opportunities for side trips, both very short but interesting. One is up to Moses Springs and the other is into Bear Gulch Cave. Although, Bear Gulch Cave is only open in the summer, it is one side trip that should not be missed even though hikers can only explore the cave so far before it narrows out too much.
Continuing less the a mile along the trail after the Moses Springs and Bear Gulch Cave side trips, the reservoirs comes into view among the surrounding desert scrub landscape. Hikers should follow the trail as it veers to the left and traces the edge of the reservoir. During peak months, visitors are likely to see a number of people here having picnics and generally hanging out as the valley has some great views of the High Peaks in the distance. However, it is much too soon for hikers to stop for a break, there is still a long way to go.
The trail will eventually leave the reservoir valley, meandering up through the rocky, scrub-laden hills. While the trail seems to flatten out for a bit, at the Rim Trail Junction the climb ramps up significantly. The Rim Trail heads down into another valley and around the High Peaks, but hikers will want to keep right on the High Peaks Trail that, at a glance, presents an arduous climb. This is one of the toughest sections of the trail as it tackles 850 feet of elevation in just over a mile and a half. Not only is it strenuous, this section of the trail can be slick if it has recently rained. Hikers should take their time during the steep climb in elevation and enjoy the widening views of the surrounding areas.
After about a mile, the scrub of the landscape begins to transform into a world of tall and strangely shaped monoliths that thrust out of the landscape. Hikers will pass through carved out rock tunnels and journey on through this awe-inspiring landscape on a series of switch backs until they reach the lofty junction near Scout Peak. There is a conveniently placed bathroom here for hikers that need it, but even more stunning is the view of the south end of the High Peaks.
From here, hikers will begin to cross the backbone of the Pinnacles which is thankfully less of a climb that the previous section of the trail. Those who are lucky may meet some other folks lingering on this section of trail with their eyes to the sky. The Condor Gulch Trail is where conservationists come to track the endangered California condors that are released here as part of a captive breeding program. Those who happen to spot a condor instead of their watchers should consider themselves extremely lucky and treat the near extinct animal with respect.
Turning right at Scout Peak and heading north across the peaks, hikers won't have much wiggle room as the trail narrows out quickly and continues to gain elevation gracefully. Occasionally the trail will sharply gain in elevation or narrow out as it traces a wall of a peak, but there are carved steps and the occasional railing to erase the crossing. The scenery of the surrounding area is some of the most incredible in California. Traversing through the cluster of peaks is like walking through a mouthful of shark teeth. The occasional break in the peaks will also reveal the vast views beyond from the high perch that hikers walk.
Hikers will want to stay right at the Tunnel Trail junction where the height of the peaks will begin to gradually lessen until they hit the Condor Gulch Trail. Taking a right here will leave the amazing peaks behind and lead to the last leg of the trail loop. The trail gradually loses elevation, but on its way shows off some the southeasterly views of the area that makes taking the loop so worthwhile. For this last leg, the peaks will slowly fade away to chaparral-covered slopes until it returns to the scrub land and ends back where it began at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area.