High Peaks via Juniper Canyon at Pinnacles

[Pinnacles National Park, CA / Soledad, CA, Nov 26, 2021]

Don’t let Pinnacles’ reputation fool you – this little gem gets busy. The parking lots can fill up quickly on weekends, especially holiday ones. Luckily, we are both early birds so we were on the road just after sunrise.

We knew we were getting close when the road turned into a one-lane road. The landscape just outside the entrance showed signs of recent fire. It looked like a prescribed burn to me since it stopped right at the park boundary.

We had to take photos at the park sign, of course.

We got to the trailhead a little after 8 am and the parking lot was just under half full. Both trails on my list started from this trailhead; we decided to tackle the longer one first. Juniper Canyon trail is about 4.5 miles and takes you to the High Peaks, the rock formations this park is known for. Condors make their home among them and if we were lucky, we’d see some.

The trail starts off flat at first but starts climbing fast. A series of switchbacks had our hearts racing. The parking lot was but a speck below us before we knew it. We were the only people on the trail and took our time taking photos at the marvelous rock formations. The sun was still behind them so we could see the sun rays gradually light up the rocks.

The trail is a lollipop, it’s shaped exactly like one. The first part of the hike, the stem, is the same both ways. The second part is a loop that begins at the top of the stem. We reached that fork in the trail in just under an hour.

The start of the loop part of the trail

We took the left fork, meaning we would do the loop clockwise. Just after the fork was this little tunnel.

Sneak peak of the Salinas Valley as we climb

At the next turn off, we stayed right on High Peaks trail; Bear Gulch leads to the east side of the park.

Soon, we stumbled upon three guys who were just hanging out on the side of the trail. This portion is narrow so I thought it was odd that’s where they chose to stop. We were about to pass them when they pointed out the pair of condors lying on the rocks across from us. They even shared their binoculars. I loved seeing these magnificent birds. It was not warm enough yet for them to take flight but I am still grateful for the sighting.

The words “narrow and steep” do not give the next section of the trail justice. If Angels Landing at Zion in Utah and Moro Rock at Sequoia in California had a love child, this portion of the trail would be it.

The loop is skirting the back of the giant rocks and the trail is ON those rocks. In most places, that means some steps are carved into a rock with a railing – no biggie. But a few of the sections are a bit exposed on one side. On the other side is the rock itself, leaving you a pretty narrow space to squeeze through. In one place, I had to get on my knees and crawl because my pack and hiking poles were dragging against the rock. There are about 6 to 8 sections like this, although only a couple are super narrow. They are short but it gets your adrenalin going and it could be challenge for those with fear of heights.

Once we passed these sections, there was a flat area that overlooked the east side of the park. We could see some trails sneaking up the valley from there. This made for a great spot to sit down and have a snack.

The rest of the loop had some steep sections that required extra attention (poles were helpful). However, once we got back on the stem of the lollipop, we were back on sturdier ground. Now we could see more people coming up the trail! The parking lot was full when we got back to it around 11:30 am. A park ranger made sure cars went back to the visitor center to park rather than idle in the lot waiting for a spot.

The other hike we wanted to do started from this same trailhead. However, we relished the solitude of the morning and decided against starting another hike so late. Plus, we wanted to check out the mission in Soledad and were getting hungry for real food.

Mission Nuestra SeƱora de la Soledad is the 13th of the California missions and was founded in 1791. It is the town’s namesake. It fell in disrepair in the late 19th century but was restored in 1955. The priest’s residence was later recreated and functions as museum.

After the mission, we were on a mission to get some lunch but it turned out to be an ordeal. The first place, a brewery, was not at the address listed on Google. The second one was closed despite being listed as open on Google. GAH! Thank God, we spotted a restaurant nearby that looked open and finally had some grub! We were very hangry at that point!

Once we got back to our little cottage, we were too tired to leave again. For dinner, I feasted on my lunch leftovers, and B ordered in. Another beautiful sunset beckoned us, and so did the hot tub.

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