Pinnacles National Park Highpoint Trip Report

North Chalone Peak (3,304 feet)

Date: August 22, 2013
Author: Dan Baxter

I had summited North Chalone Peak before decades ago as a Boy Scout while it was still just a National Monument. This year, however, Pinnacles became our newest National Park. If that wasn't incentive enough to go back, I recently learned that its neighbor South Chalone Peak (unclimbed by me) was also a Wilderness Area highpoint. Besides, it's only 120 miles from my house. So in the heat of summer off we went on a two night camping trip.

Note that there are two entrances to the park, both on highway 146. However, it is NOT a through road. One must decide to enter either from the west side and Salinas Valley (any one read John Steinbeck's "Of Mice And Men"? where Lenny agrees to have rabbits on their envisioned farmstead?), or the more popular east approach along highway 25 which literally goes down the San Andreas Fault in Bear Valley. We chose the east side, which has the park's only campground and is nearest to both the popular Bear Gulch Caves area and to the Chalone Peaks.

I had forgotten how much wildlife was in the campground! We saw hundreds of California quail. They were EVERYWHERE. It seemed a rare moment in the day when at least a couple were not in view. Great horned owls roosted in the tree above our tent. Individuals, small groups and herds of deer browsed with abandon throughout. A flock of turkeys hung out by the campground's free swimming pool. A roost of a hundred turkey vultures warmed in the morning sun next to the pool. A family of raccoons walked through our camp. Coyotes abound. My bird list was impressive. Unfortunately, I missed the condor which many in the camp saw fly overhead.

There is a road that goes right to the top of North Chalone Peak which comes in from the west side highway 146. It must be used when the lookout tower is active, because it is in great shape. It is not drivable by the public, however, and it crosses private land before entering the park. I know nothing more about this road, which doesn't even show up on the park map. We took the legal and very scenic route the trails in and around the Bear Gulch Caves area followed by the Chalone Peak Trail.

The trailhead is at road's end in Bear Gulch. There are soon three different options the High Peaks/Rim Trail (which we did not take), the Bear Gulch Cave Trail (our route) and the Moses Spring Trail (our descent).

The caves are a must-see, as it winds though a complex of impressive talus caves. We did fine even in the occasional near darkness without the "required flashlight". The caves are closed part of the year when the endangered Townsend's big eared bats are roosting.

The return along Moses Spring Trail was also delightful and not to be missed as it clung to the cliffs above the chasm of caves. One overhang looked like it belonged in Mesa Verde.

It is only 0.2 mile to the first junction, then another 0.7 mile through caves or chasm until one reaches Bear Gulch Reservoir, a small narrow body of water which is the park's only lake. From there one begins the generally gradual climb up the Chalone Peak trail to North Chalone Peak itself.

It was hot, and I saw few birds. There was bear scat filled with manzanita berries everywhere. Many cool rock formations are seen enroute.

The Chalone Peak Trail is 3.3 miles long. Towards the end one climbs a nicely done ladder over a fence and then the trail joins the aforementioned road to the top. Another ladder surmounts a locked gate, immediately past this is the trail to South Chalone Peak on the right.

The lookout tower is in great shape but on our visit was locked. The views from its base are impressive the verdant farmlands of the Salinas River Valley to the west, Big Sur and its peaks to the south (and on this day the wildfire smoke plume from Hunter-Leggitt military reservation), the San Andreas Rift Zone and the San Benito County highpoint beyond to the east, and of course the pinnacles themselves.

The trailhead is at 1,350 feet elevation. The summit is 3304 feet high, hence a 1,944 foot net elevation gain of 1,944 feet. There is no significant elevation drop enroute. We spent seven hours on this hike, including a side excursion to South Chalone and lots of cave exploring.