Dan and Hannah Hike the High Peaks Trail in Pinnacles National Park, California – Part 2 of 2

After hiking through the Bear Gulch Cave, Hannah and I are ready to head into the mountains at Pinnacles National Park – the High Peaks! Click here for the Bear Gulch Cave blog.

Once through the Bear Gulch Cave, we begin the heavy lifting part of our 6.2 mile High Peaks Loop Trail with 1500’ of elevation gain. 

We leave from the Bear Gulch Cave Trail and take the Rim Trail to the High Peaks Trail. We complete our loop by hiking back to the trailhead via the Condor Gulch Trail
The reservoir at the end of the Bear Gulch Cave Trail

Before we hit the High Peaks Trail, we go from the reservoir on the Rim Trail.  I stop for a photo op of the valley with Hannah in the foreground.

One more photo opp before we head into the mountains

Just as we are about to ascend the High Peaks Trail, Hannah realizes she left her gray shirt somewhere back on the trail.  Without hesitation we U-turn it to recover her shirt.  It doesn’t take a genius in the marriage game to figure that eye rolling and complaining about retracing our steps doesn’t score any points with one’s spouse. Nor does it score points with anyone if the one who leaves behind her shirt beats herself up with such self-shaming comments such as How stupid could I be or What a dummy I am?

Looking back toward the Little Pinnacles mountains

No, Hannah and I have learned a lot about succeeding interpersonally. Stuff happens.  Not 0.2 of mile back, we find the shirt and return to our summitting of the High Peaks.

The High Peaks lie ahead

More of the gentle trail to the mountain top

The 1500’ of elevation is mediated by switchbacks and gentle climbs.  There is the feel of high desert with chaparral bushes green from December’s rain. 

And before we know it, we are among the condors (not literally but you get the point). It’s not a tough hike at all; just one foot ahead of the other.  Lunching on our Subway subs (mine tuna, Hannah’s Black Forest Ham), we let the condors and turkey vultures entertain us.

The High Peaks Trail begins

Crossing the High Peaks, the fun begins as we have footholds sculpted out of the rock and handrails to steady our climb.  Without the handrails this trail is un-hikeable, but with them and the footholds, we squeeze through the rocks in places, but in no way is it perilous. 

Steady as she goes
The handrails make all the difference
It’s all very 1500′ above the valley floor.

It’s certainly no Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park in Utah or Precipice Trail in Acadia National Park in Maine. It’s nonetheless satisfying and doable.

At the top we notice a park intern seeking condors holding a small version of the 1960s roof top antenna while a volunteer records the times when they hear the beeps emanating from the chips on the condors flying above.  The antenna detects condors within a five to ten mile radius.  Rangers apply the chips to the wings of young condors by enticing them with a dead calf in an enclosure that then closes the lid remotely once the condors are in.

All condors are tagged with at least one distinct color/number wing-mounted tags for identification in the field. They wear a GPS transmitter, which biologists use to track the condors’ movements while they are not at the nest. The transmitters can be seen on the wing just above the tag number.

Heading back to the trailhead via the Condor Gulch Trail

Once done with the High Peaks Trail we descend on the Condor Gulch Trail back to the trailhead at the Bear Gulch parking lot to complete four hours of hiking under the temperate January sun. We are told hiking in the summer brings temperatures in the triple digits.

Before driving the three hours and forty-five minutes back to Carpinteria, I feast on the second half of my tuna sub with wavy chips and a fine IPA. Hannah and I toast this out-of-the-way hike that we encourage you to consider for your Hiking Bucket list. Pinnacles is a national park for peace and quiet where cell phones do not receive signals.

PS Did you notice the new hiking shirt I am sporting? After seven years, I am no longer wearing my Ithaca College tee shirt. I am now all in on the Monks of St. Joseph’s College outside of Portland, Maine. Our son Will has taken a job in the athletic department at SJC. Go Monks! But what’s with the blue beard monk? I have no idea!

Dan and Hannah Hike the Bear Gulch Cave in Pinnacles National Park, California – Part 1 of 2

Up at 5 AM, Hannah and I drive north from Carpinteria on The 101 through Santa Barbara, later past San Luis Obispo in heavy fog.  The car temperature gauge drops to 40F on a morning when low 70s are in the forecast.  Heading into the very rural, farm country in the lightly-populated mountains of central California for Pinnacles National Park, we fill up in Paso Robles.  Though medium decafe at McDonald’s is still just a dollar, the gas is pricey.  Even so, it’s a small price to pay to be in California in the winter.

Nine AM fog in Paso Robles. We do need gas.

At King City, we head inland on Route G13, then north on route 25 heading to the east entrance to the visitor center.  Nearly four hours after we leave Carpinteria on the central coast, we arrive late morning to the park that is known for its condors.  Immediately in the parking lot, other hikers point out the big birds above us.  Of course, the big birds look quite small 1000’ up in the sky.

From park information
Our loop hike began at the restrooms near Moses Spring Trail. Today’s blog covers the Moses Spring and Bear Gulch Cave Trails.

We learn of the park’s signature hiking loop that includes the caves of Bear Gulch and the mountain tops of the High Peaks Trail.  The hillsides are green from December rain which contrasts nicely with the brown landscapes we have come to expect in this drought-ravaged area each winter; ironically winter is the rainy season in central California. 

Hiking begins on the Moses Spring Trail

You may know that six hundred miles of the San Andreas Fault lies in California; but did you know that today we are directly on it in the Pinnacles?  Fearless, we hike on nonetheless. With massive monoliths, sheer-walled canyons, and boulder-covered caves, we are in hiking paradise.  The caves are where we will start our loop to the top.

Hannah heading toward the caves of Bear Gulch

Encouraged to start with the Moses Spring Trail along Bear Creek by a park ranger, we hike in the shade spotting a woodpecker and delicate blue jay within ten feet of us.  Told to bring a flashlight or use the light on our iPhone, we enter the Bear Gulch Cave later learning it hosts a colony of big-eared bats. 

Thankfully we see not a bat and not a one gets caught in our hair.

The cave is such a pleasant surprise as we duck under boulders above us and squeeze between boulders towards the park reservoir.  The stretches of total darkness last only briefly as light filters in regularly from above.  We do, in fact, need our iPhones.


The steps and the handrails through the cave make the hike easy to negotiate.  We’d take our 7 and 9 year old grandsons, Owen and Max here, but they’d need a few more years on them to climb the High Peaks Trail. Or would they?

The mountain trail lies ahead.

The High Peaks Trail in Pinnacles National Park – Part 2 next week.