Walking San Benito: Fall Back on the Pinnacles North Wilderness Trail

This is the fifteenth in a series of articles in which local adventurer Jim Ostdick will introduce readers to the many walking opportunities throughout San Benito County.
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Everybody knows that the real “fall back” date this year is November 5, when we set our clocks back one hour, right? For this article, I decided to fall all the way back to last March instead. The original plan for this week was to hike one of the Pinnacles National Park trails. Due to the recent blazing hot temperatures and an injury to my hiking buddy, I elected to wax poetic about a two-hour out-and-back hike we took on the North Wilderness Trail several months ago on a sunny, cool springtime day.

Note: this hike can be done as a 9.3 mile loop if you want more of an endurance challenge and some awesome, remote park scenery. If you decide to take that one on, though, bring plenty of water and snacks and check in advance to see if the Balcones Caves are open. If the temperatures are in the nineties, I would caution against it for most casual hikers.

This is an easy out-and-back hike for most folks. Walk as long as you want and then turn around back to the truck. Starting from the Old Pinnacles Trailhead parking lot, walk northwest on the Old Pinnacles Trail a half mile or so to the intersection with the North Wilderness Trail, then head north along the North Fork of Chalone Creek. In the spring, water in the creek will sing to you as you move upstream along the gentle grade. There are good views of the trademark pinnacles to the west and for the most part, the trail is simple to follow, marked in places with flags and cairns. Follow the tread along the creek and keep your eyes peeled.

Those famous pinnacles are volcanic in origin, eroded into spires by repeating freeze and thaw cycles over several thousand millennia. They formed from highly explosive (high silica content) flows that slowly cooled and were topped off by layers of pyroclastic breccias and tuffs. The latter formations are studded with angular pieces of broken rocks that provide excellent handholds for the many climbers seen frequently in the park. In places, wind and water have eroded the rocks enough to loosen and remove some of the clasts and leave behind eerie, pockmarked holes, perfect for inserting the toes of climbing shoes.

Residents of San Benito County sooner or later learn the unique geological importance of our area’s one and only national park. Situated on the western side of the famed San Andreas Fault, the volcanic rocks of Pinnacles match in great detail those found on the eastern side of the fault near Gorman, CA, approximately 315 kilometers (196 miles) to the southeast. Both eruptions have been dated at ~23.5 million years old. From these data, along with the knowledge of the relative motion of the opposite sides of the fault, geologists can gauge the approximate rate of movement along the San Andreas: 1.34 centimeters (0.53 inches) per year. Ain’t this fun?

Even if you are not fascinated by the park slowly creeping up here like Grandma Moses all the way from southern California, there is plenty to look at along the North Fork Chalone Creek. In the spring, we saw lots of poppies and larkspur, as well as some really entertaining and healthy-looking lizards. Biologists say that male lizards do push-ups and head bobs to attract attention and claim territory. What I want to know is do female lizards roll their eyes, tell them to knock it off, and get their little tails to work? Male biologists are silent on that issue.

My personal favorites in the Pinnacles National Park wildlife kingdom are the mariposas, the beautifully colored butterflies that are livin’ the dream, sampling the heady nectar of the Chalone Creek wildflowers. What a life, ladies and gentlemen, what a perfectly stressless life – a peaceful, fluttering childhood extended indefinitely under the blissful, gentle California sun. Want to relax? Go watch a butterfly on the North Wilderness Trail.

And please, my friends do not litter.

The Pinnacles National Park east entrance is located 32 miles south of downtown Hollister, the San Benito County seat. For a location map of Pinnacles National Park, please click here.

You can obtain a brochure that includes trail maps when you check in at the park’s Visitor Center, located inside the campground store.

Jim Ostdick

Jim Ostdick is a retired Earth Science teacher and travel writer. A resident of San Juan Bautista since 2005, Ostdick's primary interests are California geology, energy conservation, outdoor recreation, and human-powered travel. He is the author of Palomino and the Dream Machine: A Retired Dude's Bicycle Tour Around the Lower Forty-Eight United States (, 2015) and Palomino Nation: My 2016 Crazyass Walk Across America (, 2017). [email protected] Palomino Dream blog Palomino and the Dream Machine Palomino Nation