High Peaks-Tunnel Trail Loop, Pinnacles National Park, California

 

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Last weekend we explored an ancient volcano a couple hours south of the San Francisco Bay area. The ancient volcano was cut into two by tectonic forces about 20 million years ago. Two thirds of the volcano eventually became Pinnacles National Park while the other side of it became the Neenach Formation almost 200 miles south. The side that we explored is on the Pacific Plate, which is slowly drifting north, while the Neenach Formation is on the North American plate, slowly pushing westward. As an active volcano, Pinnacles Volcano stood 8000 feet tall and 15 miles long, located almost 200 miles south of where it is now, where it's other half still stands today. The “Pinnacles” that we encountered were massive fingerlike projections made of dark rocks reaching for the sky, along with rounded rock formations just as massive. These rock formations were caused by the erosion by ice, water and wind.

"Pinnacle" Rocks at Pinnacle National Park, California

"Pinnacle" Rocks at Pinnacle National Park, California

The rocks of Pinnacles National Park, California

The rocks of Pinnacles National Park, California

We started our hike at the Old Pinnacles Trailhead just before 10 am on a warm July morning. Parking was easy to snag at this trailhead when we got there. The initial 2-3 miles of our hike was a gentle uphill, UNshaded and without much rock formations to look at. We got a view of the surrounding mountains as we climbed.

Sharp rock standing tall, Pinnacles National Park, California

Sharp rock standing tall, Pinnacles National Park, California

The rock formations started near the junction of the Condor Gulch Trail and the High Peaks Trail that we were on. The trail took us amongst tall hoodoo-like projections and around huge circular rocks. Soon after the rock formations began, we had to choose between the Tunnel Trail or the Steep-and-Narrow Trail. Having been on a hot hot trail for the first part, we opted for the slightly more shade-sounding route of the Tunnel Trail. We walked under the shade of huge pinnacles downhill. I worried a little as we made our way downhill, because I have learned that there is usually an uphill that accompanies every downhill. Just beyond this downhill section, we came across this trail’s namesake, a welcome respite from the hot sun. A short bridge took us across a narrow canyon overshadowed by massive pinnacles into this respite.

Bridge into the Tunnel at Tunnel Trail, Pinnacles National Park, California

Bridge into the Tunnel at Tunnel Trail, Pinnacles National Park,

California

 

The view from the Tunnel on Tunnel Trail

The view from the Tunnel on Tunnel Trail

True enough, a half mile uphill section of the Juniper Canyon Trail awaited us, connecting us back to the High Peaks Trail which took us to Bear Gulch Day Use Area. On our way there, we saw a few signs indicating areas for climbers.  

Rocks on the High Peaks Trail toward Bear Gulch Day Use Area

Rocks on the High Peaks Trail toward Bear Gulch Day Use Area

If I were to do it over, I would start at Bear Gulch Day Use Area parking, go up High Peaks Trail, to the Steep and Narrow Portion, then back down via the Tunnel Trail. From Tunnel Trail continue on to Juniper Canyon Trail then down High Peaks Trail, making a loop trail of about 6 miles. Or if the Steep and Narrow Trail is of concern, park as close to the Nature Center as possible, start at Condor Gulch Trail, bear left on High Peaks Trail, then go down Tunnel Trail, to Juniper Canyon Trail back to High Peaks Trail for a loop back to Bear Gulch Parking area. These loop trails would cut out the not-so-scenic parts of High Peaks Trail near Old Pinnacles Trailhead and reduce the hike length by about 3-4 miles round-trip compared to the 8-10 mile loop that we did. The views of the massive Pinnacles started just before the Tunnel Trail. *** Spring would be a better time to visit for the wildflowers and cooler temperatures. Bear Gulch Cave Trail is a much shorter trail (about 2 miles round-trip) which we will try at our next visit. It has a cave and reservoir at the end of the hike. Check Pinnacles website for times of Bear Gulch Cave closure (due to bats roosting - cave closed entirely mid-May to mid-July)***

More Rocks at Pinnacles National Park, California

More Rocks at Pinnacles National Park, California

 

Practical Information (as of July 2016):

Directions:  East Side Visitor Center GPS: 36.493545, -121.146646, then follow directions to Bear Gulch Day Use Area for most hikes recommended or to Old Pinnacles Trailhead for the hike that we did. (There is NO through road from the West side of the park to the East side of the park)

Our hike: 8 miles (hot, unshaded) to Bear Gulch Day Use Area (from Old Pinnacles Trailhead via High Peaks Trail to Tunnel Trail to Juniper Canyon Trail to High Peaks Trail towards Bear Gulch Day Use Area); 10 miles to loop back to Old Pinnacles Trailhead, shorter trails available see above***

Trail Map from brochure provided at the Entrance Gate of Pinnacles National Park, CA

Trail Map from brochure provided at the Entrance Gate of Pinnacles National Park, CA

Features: Explore an ancient volcano split into two by tectonic forces, walk amongst and under massive fingerlike rocks along with rocks of many other shapes, walk through a tunnel (or two) dug into these rocks

Entrance fee: $15 or free with Annual National Parks Pass

Reminders: Bring plenty of water (especially on a hot day, no water along trail), hats, sunscreen, snacks, flashlight (if exploring cave), start early

Amenities: water at Bear Gulch Day Use Area (no water on trail), bathrooms, picnic area, Visitor Center at Bear Gulch Day Use Area, shuttle stop at Bear Gulch Day Use Area at certain times of year.

Park Website: Pinnacles National Park

 

Warning: The safety of these adventures are dependent on a variety of factors including but not limited to: terrain, weather, wildlife, hiker skill level, human error, and other foreseen and unforeseen circumstances. Although care has been taken to ensure the accuracy of the information provided at the time of publication, we do not assume any liability for the accuracy and completeness of the information provided.  As such, we will not be held responsible for any harm, injury, and/or loss that may result. Your personal judgement on the safety of each adventure is required at all times. Please use your own discretion and be safe.

 

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