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North Chalone Peak

Pinnacles National Park

April 22nd, 2015

8.1 miles
2070 vertical feet
Total Time: 5:49

Starting elevation
1292 feet
Max elevation
3317 feet

Rating: 7/10

Directions: From San Jose, take 101 south to Gilroy. Take Highway 25 south for a little over 40 miles (through Hollister), then turn right toward Pinnacles National Park (east entrance). If you are using a phone or GPS for directions, make sure you are going to the east entrance, as there is no road through the park to the west entrance. There is a $10 per vehicle fee at this time (2015). If you can, park in the small day use lot at the end of the road. If that is full, park in the much larger lot about a quarter mile from the end of the road.   View Driving Map

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GPX File

The last time I visited Pinnacles, in 1997, it was still a National Monument. Pinnacles became a National Park in 2013, though I don't think much has changed.

We arrived a bit past 11am and paid for parking at the visitor's center. Then we went to the small day use parking lot at the end of the road, where we were lucky enough to get one of the last 3 parking spots. It filled up shortly after we arrived. On a weekend, forget it; you'll almost certainly have to park in the large lot a quarter mile from the trailhead.

While we were getting ready, we could see raptors high above. Then we headed up the trail. Very shortly we turned left (the right fork heads to High Peaks). We made sure to follow all the trail signs as there are many spur trails for rock climbing access. Just be sure to follow the signs toward the reservoir. You can take either the caves route or the Moses Spring Trail. We chose to take the Moses Spring Trail.

Rock climbers near the start of the hike

Looking at the view behind us

There are numbered signposts along the way; I'm sure there's a corresponding nature pamphlet that's available at the visitor's center. While we didn't take the cave route, we did have to walk through a short tunnel, and squeeze under a particularly narrow space. And then we climbed the very narrow staircase (with a very low metal railing) up toward the reservoir.

The trail goes under this overhang

Then up the stairs

Shortly after reaching the top of the steps, we could see the reservoir below us. A group was already there, having lunch. We walked past them and found a spot just off the trail to take in the view and have lunch ourselves. As we did so, a large group of young rock climbers walked back across the top of the dam toward the trailhead. While we saw almost no one on the trail to the reservoir, we saw a lot of people at the reservoir, and then would only see 2 people past the reservoir.

Bear Gulch Reservoir

A squirrel looks on

Looking back at the dam

After lunch we continued along the trail toward North Chalone Peak. It's a pretty well-signed and maintained trail. The main issue with the trail is that there is almost no shade the entire way after the reservoir. The spring sun was warm enough to drain us a little; I can't imagine what it's like in the summer (probably unbearable).

View from the North Chalone Peak Trail

View from the North Chalone Peak Trail

View from further along the trail

As we climbed (a very gradual climb), we gained better and better views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. After climbing steadily for a while, we spotted the lookout on the top of North Chalone Peak, southwest of us. Painted light green, it's easy to spot.

More views

More views

Norht Chalone Peak (second from the left) is clearly visible with the lookout tower on top

We crossed a gate to continue on the trail. Normally, hikers just open the gate to pass through; in this case, the sign said to use the wodden stile instead. Having never actually heard of the term before, this left us a little confused, but eventually I figured it was another term for ladder (in fact, it is "an arrangement of steps that allows people but not animals to climb over a fence or wall"). Apparently the fence was constructed in 2003, is 24 miles long, and its purpose is to keep pigs out of Pinnacles.

Looking down at the farmland below

The trail soon joins a dirt road and started to climb more steeply. We crossed another gate (using stiles to get over), then passed the trail to South Chalone Peak. The South Chalone Peak trail an unmaintained trail, though it looks like it would be fairly easy to follow. It would add about another 3.2 miles to the trip.

The road after the second gate is probably the steepest part of the hike. As we climbed, we gained better views of the farmland below us to the west. Shortly, we reached the base of the lookout. The lookout is closed. There are bathrooms nearby (in a separate stone building). There are views from the edges in all directions.

South Chalone Peak from the north peak

Panoramic view looking east from the top
(Click image to view full size)

View to the east

Lookout tower

While we took a snack break and took in some of the views, we saw raptors above us. One in particular circled above us several times. I got out my camera and took as many pictures as I could. I can clearly make out a "13" tagged on one of his wings, I'm guessing for tracking/scientific purposes. At one point he came down so close that we could hear a swoosh in the air as he flew by.

Raptor number 13

Raptor flying toward the farms

After enjoying the air show and our break, we headed back down. Since the grade was easy and the trail in good condition, it was pretty easy descending. We covered the roughly 4 miles back in just under 2 hours. As we approached the reservoir, I spotted a small animal trotting to the brush. I think it was a fox, but I'm not sure. It was reddish brown, long, about the size of a fox. Unfortunately it disappeared before I could get my camera ready.

Another view of the farmland

View on the way back

View on the way back

Bear Gulch Dam

Heading down the stairs

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