For our Saturday (June 1) hike, we wanted to explore the Pinnacles formations from the east side of the park. The logical choice was to hike to at least the overlook on Condor Gulch Trail. Several options presented themselves to us: we could drive to the trailhead or we could hike there from the campground. We could do the trail as an out-and-back or we could link it to other trails as a grand loop. Ultimately, we decided to hike to and from our campsite, linking Bench Trail, Bear Gulch Trail, Condor Gulch Trail, and High Peaks Trail into a marvelous 8.8 mile hike with a 1,350 foot elevation gain.
We set out around 7:45am on Bench Trail, which connects the campground to all the other trails in the park. The first section of Bench Trail followed both Sandy Creek and the park road into the heart of the park, passing by grasslands in various stages of restoration.
A black-tailed deer crossed the trail in front of us, but it bounded out of site before I could capture an image. The loveliest part of Bench Trail zigzagged through oak savannas in the valley between mountain ridges.
Oak savanna eventually gave way to the dry bed of Chalone Creek as the High Peaks came into view. The trail was close to the road at this point, passing the Peaks View parking area.
At a junction, we turned left onto Bear Gulch Trail. In the protected canyon, the temperature dropped, and we entered the riparian zone created by Bear Creek. In sharp contrast to the dry chaparral we’d just left, the plant life was suddenly so lush that it included large ferns.
As we hiked up Bear Gulch Trail, we were steadily gaining elevation. It wasn’t too steep, but ultimately this part of the trail would rise 290 feet. The walls though grew steeper on either side of Bear Gulch before we emerged into a wider grassland area.
We entered the Bear Gulch day use area, including a string of cabins in the riparian zone that provide employee housing for the park. A parking area provides access to various trails.
We had a snack, used the restroom, and were ready for the hike up Condor Gulch Trail, which hugs a ridge opposite the High Peaks before eventually ending at a junction with High Peaks Trail. The first portion of the trail is fairly moderate. We were passed by a young woman with a Google backpack who stopped every so often to take photographs (although not as often as we did). Later, Sean wondered if she may have been a Google employee there on official business.
We rounded a curve into a narrower portion of Condor Gulch beneath the overlook point. The trail began to gently switchback. High above us, Turkey Vultures soared around the High Peaks. We pulled out our binoculars to have a look, now that we knew the difference between vultures and condors. Then a much larger bird joined the vultures. It had a bright pink head and white triangles on the underside of its wings. It was unmistakably a California Condor.
As we stood watching the condor, another hiker came up the trail. We offered him our binoculars, and he was able to get a good look before all the birds slowly soared out of sight behind the High Peaks.
We continued up the trail to the overlook as the switchbacks got more insistent, but still nothing compared to Juniper Canyon Trail the day before.
We pressed on as the trail steepened and turned west in a wide, switchback-free arc around a ridge. The trail became increasingly sun-exposed, but the views were sweeping.
The view east from the upper section of Condor Gulch Trail
The trail had climbed out of a wooded zone into scrubby chaparral. As we approached the top of the ridge, both Sean and I felt shaky. It was our most intense steady climb at Pinnacles. We rested and snacked on Kind bars at the top of the ridge. To the east was a panoramic view of the High Peaks. With our binoculars, we could see hikers on the High Peaks Trail (which we’d hiked the day before) beneath the formations.
As we pressed on to the uppermost part of Condor Gulch Trail, Sean captured the hike on video.
Video: Sean M. Santos
Condor Gulch Trail and High Peaks trail connect, about 0.6 miles west of the junction between High Peaks and Tunnel Trails, at two ridges forming a T. Since we had hiked the High Peaks the day before, we turned right to begin our descent on High Peaks Trail.
Soon we came to the easternmost part of the ridge. The trail ran along the top while the land sloped gently down on both sides and out in front of us, before dropping away steeply on all three sides. It was grassland dotted with trees, not too different from the savanna at the lower elevations. We both felt that it was not unlike an orchard.
Video: Sean M. Santos
Even though its impact was gentler than the High Peaks or Trunk Bay or Hoh Rainforest, it struck me as one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen.
The sense of beautiful place up on the ridge was highlighted by the abundant Violet-Green Swallows soaring, swooping, and darting all around us. I could have watched them for hours.
After the “orchard,” the trail descended steeply in a series of switchbacks. I did not envy the hikers we passed ascending the trail.
Soon we were at the junction with Bench Trail. We turned right to return to the campground.
Along the creek bed was another riparian zone with rich foliage, birds, and wildflowers.
The sun was high in the sky as we returned along Bench Trail, retracing our steps from the morning after completing the loop. Even in the heat, the air was alive with bees, butterflies, and birds.
Soon we were back at Pinnacles Campground, crossing the bridge over Sandy Creek beneath our campsite. It was now 12:20. The hike took a little over 4.5 hours.