High Peaks Trail, one of the gems of Pinnacles National Park

The Civilian Conservation Corps built many miles of trails throughout our western national parks and forests during the 1930s. Some of the very best efforts of these young men can be enjoyed today in the High Peaks area of Pinnacles National Park.

The corps constructed “pigeon hole” steps in order to ascend the dramatic escarpments and installed handrails (but didn’t overdo it) along high ledges. While hikers wary of heights might want to hike elsewhere, those not predisposed to acrophobia will relish the adventure of hiking into the High Peaks area.

High Peaks Trail, one of the gems of Pinnacles National Park
High Peaks Trail, one of the gems of Pinnacles National Park

One of the Pinnacle’s best hikes is a circuit through the High Peaks area that begins from the visitor center in the east side of the national monument. By combining a couple different trails you can climb brushy ridges, penetrate oak-dotted gulches, and get great views of–and from–the Pinnacles.

High point, both literally and figuratively, of the hike is the High Peaks, a reddish-orange collection of cloud-piercing crags. Stair-steps carved into stone aid your ascent of the High Peaks.
My favorite hike to Condor Gulch and High Peaks is a 5.2 miles round trip loop with 1,400-foot elevation gain.

Condor Gulch Trail, which leads to the High Peaks, is also the first half of the 3.8-mile long Pinnacles Geological Trail. Those hikers interested in lava flows, plate tectonics, the nearby San Andreas fault and the 23 million-year-long geologic story of the Pinnacles will be fascinated by this trail.

Directions: From Highway 101 in King City, take the First Street exit and travel a mile north through town to Highway G13. Head east on the highway (called Bitterwater Road in Monterey County and King City Road in San Benito County) 15 miles to a junction with Highway 25. Turn left (north) and continue 14.2 miles to Pinnacles Highway (146). Turn left and drive five miles to the Pinnacles National Park Bear Gulch Visitor Center.

The hike: Signed Condor Gulch Trail ascends one mile up a slope blanketed with manzanita, ceanothus and chamise to a viewpoint. Take in the view upward of the towering Pinnacles and the view downward of the park visitor center, then continue the stiff ascent on a series of switchbacks. A long 0.75-mile climb leads to a ridgecrest junction with High Peaks Trail.

The trail’s right fork heads east back down toward the Chalone Creek picnic area, but you turn left toward the High Peaks, whose jagged spires frame views of Chalone Creek Valley and the Balconies Cliffs area of the west side of the national park. After 0.6-mile of travel, the path splits; a right branch leads to a meeting with Jupiter Canyon Trail and passage to the west entrance of the park while our left branch enters the maze of Pinnacles.

Occasional hand rails and steps hewn into the stone help you negotiate the steepest sections of the High Peaks Trail. After surmounting two sharp ridgecrests, this thrill-a-minute, 0.6-mile section of trail delivers you to a saddle and a junction with Juniper Canyon Trail.

At the saddle is a restroom constructed of rock and a bench from which you can take in the spectacular view.

It’s all downhill from here as High Peaks Trail rapidly descends a long, brush-covered ridge. Near the bottom, in Bear Gulch, pass rock climber access trails, join Moses Spring Trail and continue through a long picnic area back to the Visitor Center.