Hiking Pinnacles National Park

The High Peaks - Hiking Pinnacles National Park
Jennifer traverses the half mile narrow section of the High Peaks Trail. The shallow steeps are carved into the rock face.

The only way to fully experience this ancient volcanic landscape is by hiking Pinnacles National Park. While the park’s official hiking map lists 13 hiking trails I would say that they can be boiled down to four loops and one out-n-back trail. I refer to these five hiking trails as the small loop, the medium loop, the long loop, Chalone Peak Trail, and the North Wilderness Trail. Each of the trails explores amazing areas of this unique weathered landscape.

How Long Do I Need to Hike Pinnacles National Park?

Map for Hiking Pinnacles National Park
A map of the five major trails for hiking Pinnacles National Park.

Most if not all the trails could be fully explored in a weekend. If you are pressed for time, we highly recommend hiking the Small Loop and convert the Large Loop and Medium Loop into one trail. This would be accomplished by starting at the Bear Gulch Parking area and hike up the Condor Gulch Trail (medium loop). This intersects with the Large Loop at the High Peaks Trail and returns to the Old Pinnacles Trailhead where you can catch a park shuttle back to Bear Gulch. Alternatively, you could hike all three loops in one giant figure-8.

The Small Loop (AKA: Moses Spring-Rim Trail Loop)

  • Trailhead: Bear Gulch
  • Type: Loop
  • Recommended Direction: Clockwise
  • Rating: Moderate
  • Total Distance: 2.2miles
  • Trailhead Elevation: 1,277′
  • Highest Elevation: 1,710’
  • Recommended Time: 1.5 hours
  • Required Gear: Headlamps
Bear Gulch Cave Waterfall
One of the two small waterfalls to be discovered inside the Bear Gulch Cave.

The Small Loop consists of a part of the Bear Gulch Trail, the Moses Spring Trail, Bear Gulch Cave Trail, and the Rim Trail. The loop explores one of the more impressive and easily navigated talus caves. The Bear Gulch Cave is my favorite cave in Pinnacles National Park. It is the longer of the two caves open to the public and it has a small stream flowing through it with two small waterfalls. The talus structure of the cave is very apparent on each end as huge boulders float above the trail wedged into the gap. The trail through is well established but can be wet and headlamps are needed/required. This cave is located just over 1-mile from the parking lot. This also allows for it to be easily explored closer to dusk when the bats emerge from their slumber.

Beyond the Cave

Rim Trail - Hiking Pinnacles National Park
Jake takes a selfie on the edge of the Rim Trail while hiking Pinnacles National Park.

Beyond the cave, the loop climbs to the Bear Gulch Reservoir, which is a beautiful lake with small jagged peaks rising out of the water’s edge. After taking in the reservoir the trail then loops back to the parking lot on the Rim Trail which meanders along the ridgeline overlooking the gulch where the cave is located. This part of the loop has some truly stunning overlooks before it descends back towards the parking lot.

The Medium Loop (AKA: Condor Gulch – High Peaks Loop)

  • Trailhead: Bear Gulch
  • Type: Loop
  • Recommended Direction: Counter-Clockwise
  • Rating: Difficult (Park lists it as Strenuous)
  • Total Distance: 5.3miles
  • Trailhead Elevation: 1,277′
  • Highest Elevation: 2,578′
  • Recommended Time: 3.5 hours

The Medium Loop consists of the Condor Gulch Trail, part of the High Peaks Trail, and a section of the Bear Gulch Trail. The loop climbs the Condor Gulch Trail with views of the jagged Pinnacles above. There are opportunities to spot Condors while ascending the trail but for us, they were flying far above. The Condor Trail ends when it intersects with the High Peaks Trail.

The High Peaks

The Pinnacles Terrain
Looking down on the Condor Gulch Trail from the High Peaks Trail.

Taking a left onto the High Peaks trail the first half mile is relatively wide and flat with beautiful sweeping views to the west side of the park. The second half mile on the High Peaks Trail is nothing short of spectacular as it climbs over the very top of Pinnacles National Park. Not only is this section of trail where we saw most of the California Condors, but it is also a joy to hike unless you have a fear of heights.

At times the High Peaks Trail ascends footholds carved steeply into the rock. At other times it has you nearly crawling under rocky overhangs while straddling a cliff face (there is a metal railing). The views through this section are unparalleled within the rest of the park. While this vertigo-inducing section isn’t for everyone, we loved it. We also saw young children (not recommended) as well as elderly adults slowly making their way across. If cautious this trail is achievable by most people. There is a bypass called the Tunnel Trail for those with vertigo or small children.

Returning to Bear Gulch

Pinnacles Rocks
One of the many rock formations that standout on the terrain of Pinnacles National Park.

Once safely on the other side of the jagged peaks, the trail once again widens and comes to the Juniper Canyon Trail intersection (part of the Long Loop). The only trail-based restroom in Pinnacles National Park is also located at this intersection. To complete the medium loop continue on the High Peaks Trail to the left and descend back towards the Bear Gulch area. For much of the descent, the Bear Gulch Reservoir can be seen in the distance. About half a mile from returning to the parking lot the trail intersects with the Rim Trail which could be taken to the right to add in the Small Loop or the North Chalone Peak, making for an even longer adventure when hiking Pinnacles National Park.

The Long Loop (AKA: High Peaks – Balconies Cave Loop)

Hiking Pinnacles National Park
One of the larger pinnacles found on the descent of the Juniper Canyon Trail.
  • Trailhead: Old Pinnacles Trailhead or Chaparral Trailhead
  • Type: Loop
  • Recommended Direction: Clockwise
  • Rating: Difficult (Park lists it as Strenuous)
  • Total Distance: 10miles
  • Trailhead Elevation: 1,055′
  • Highest Elevation: 2,578′
  • Recommended Time: 5 hours
  • Recommended Gear: Headlamp

The Long Loop consists of the Old Pinnacles Trail, Bench Trail, High Peaks Trail, Juniper Canyon Trail, Balconies Trail, and the Balcony Cave or the Balconies Cliffs Trail. The trail is one of the few that has a trailhead on the west side of the park (Chaparral Trailhead), but we will describe the trail from the more common east side (Old Pinnacles Trailhead). No matter where you start from, this is an epic and amazing journey and we highly recommend it when visiting Pinnacles National Park. 

Starting the Long Loop

Waterdrop Flower
We found the initial hillside on the climb up the High Peaks Trail to be covered in wildflowers.

Leaving the Old Pinnacles parking area the trail starts out flat heading north along the east bank of the West Fork Chalone Creek before crossing over it via a well-made footbridge and then turning back to the south on the opposite bank. Don’t get too comfortable as just over 3/4 of a mile the trail comes to the High Peaks Trail juncture. Turning right the trail ascends steeply for two miles through several long switchbacks as it ascends to the top of the Pinnacles. The trail is steep but beautiful.

High Peaks Trail

The High Peak Pinnacles
Looking over the peaks of the Pinnacles from the High Peaks Trail.

At about 3 miles on the High Peaks Trail, it passes by the Condor Gulch Trail and joins the Medium Loop before ascending to and through the steep, challenging, and beautiful section at the very top of the Pinnacles. This section of the Long Loop is shared with the Medium Loop and isn’t for the faint of heart but there is a bypass on the Tunnel Trail for those who are averse to cliffside trails.

Juniper Canyon Trail

Once on the other side of the high peaks, the trail intersects with the Juniper Canyon Trail. This is the only area with a vault toilet. Descend the Juniper Canyon Trail as it switchbacks back down from the mountain highs to the west side of the park.

The Chaparral Area

Located just over 6-miles along the journey the Chaparral parking area has restrooms and picnic tables making it a great spot for lunch or a snack. The Long Loop leaves the Chaparral area of the park on the Balconies Trail as it follows a wash and then into another gulch.

Spelunk or Climb?

Jennifer's Headlamp - Hiking Pinnacles National Park
If you intend to explore the talus caves when visiting Pinnacles National Park be sure to bring a headlamp.

At just over 7 miles on the trail, the path arrives at a juncture to the Balconies Cave Trail and the Balconies Cliff Trail. The cliff trail climbs steeply to the north and is recommended for those averse to bouldery terrain or dark caves. The Balcony Cliff Trail bypasses the caves by climbing over the area and adds about 140’ of elevation gain to the journey. The cliff trail is scenic with nice areal views of Machete Ridge and the gulch, but we recommend taking the caves if you are physically able and have a required headlamp.

Balconies Cliff Trail
Looking back down at the Balconies Cliff Trail from the top of the pass.

Balconies Caves

Balcony Cave - Hiking Pinnacles National Park
To enter into the Balcony Cave one must crawl under the massive boulders that create the talus cave.

The Balconies Caves are several short talus caves. The caves are mostly dry, unlike the Bear Gulch Cave on the east side of the park. The first section requires crawling underneath several large boulders wedged into the crack in the earth. I was praying that the San Andres fault didn’t slip as I shimmied my way through. This short cave emerges into a boulder field where the path ahead can be hard to discern. Look for the white arrows painted on the rocks to find your way into the next longer and darker section of the cave.

The second section descends somewhat vertically through a rocky narrow shaft into a wider dark talus cave that then descends even further into the earth to a larger open room where faint light penetrates from the outside world. There is a small creek here as the cave begins to remerge into a greener section of the park. Beyond the cave, the trail follows the creek requiring hikers to cross over it before reaching the intersection for the Balconies Cliff Trail on the other side.

Back on the Old Pinnacles Trail

Once reconnecting with the Balconies Cliff Trail the main loop trail now continues as the Old Pinnacles Trail. It follows the flow of the West Fork Chalone Creek as it and the trail slowly descend for the final two miles of the journey. This area is more forested than the rest of the trail and a great place to spot deer on the way back to the parking lot.

Chalone Peak Trail – Hiking Pinnacles National Park

  • Trailhead: Bear Gulch
  • Type: Out-n-back
  • Rating: Strenuous
  • Total Distance: 9miles
  • Trailhead Elevation: 1,277′
  • Highest Elevation: 3,291′
  • Recommended Time: 4 hours
Bear Gulch Reservoir
The picturesque Bear Gulch Reservoir provides water to the facilities in Pinnacles National Park and is a great place to grab a snack on hike up Chalone Peak.

North Chalone Peak is the highest point in Pinnacles National Park. The trailhead is located at Bear Gulch but follows the Small Loop Trail to the Bear Gulch Reservoir before heading south towards North Chalone Peak. There is even an unmaintained trail from North Chalone Peak to South Chalone Peak.

North Wilderness Trail

  • Trailhead: Old Pinnacles Trailhead or Chaparral Trailhead
  • Type: Loop
  • Recommended Direction: Counter-Clockwise
  • Rating: Strenuous (unmaintained)
  • Total Distance: 9.3-miles
  • Trailhead Elevation: 1,055′
  • Recommended Time: 4.5 hours

The North Wilderness Trail explores the rugged terrain to the north and west side of the park. It is an unmaintained trail and it shares part of the Long Loop on the return. This would be a great trail for experienced hikers with good trail finding skills who are seeking the path less traveled.

Hiking Pinnacles National Park

Hiking Pinnacles National Park
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Whether you have only half a day or a long weekend there is much to be discovered by hiking Pinnacles National Park. Come prepared with headlamps for exploring the talus caves and be prepared with plenty of drinking water for seasonal hiking conditions. This is a small but unique National Park with low visitation making it one of the best places to explore in California.

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