Walking San Benito: Pinnacles National Park Chalone Peak Trail

This is the twenty-second 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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The hike to North Chalone Peak in Pinnacles National Park is all about the views. My advice? Stop frequently and drink in the long vistas in every direction, ridge after ridge of stunningly colorful volcanic boulders, plunging ravines, uplifted and eroded spires – the whole magnificent, sprawling landscape sparsely covered in juniper, madrone, and pine. Described as “strenuous” in the park brochure, the nine mile round trip from the Bear Gulch parking lot is definitely a challenge. But who is to say that you have to do every bit of it to have fun? Want to visit the tower up on the peak? Go for it if you like, or go as far as it suits you if not. The views along the way are just as rewarding as those from the tower. Bring plenty of water and snacks no matter what you decide.

Winter is a great time to take this hike, especially on a weekday when crowds are sparse. The cool morning yields to pleasant temperatures in the midday sun. Like many of the hikes in the park, this one begins and ends in the parking lot near the Nature Center at Bear Gulch. Clean restrooms and a drinking fountain are right next to the trailhead and maps can be found at the kiosk by the Nature Center. My hiking buddy Mike and I opted to skip the Bear Gulch Cave this time, taking the Rim Trail around and up to the Reservoir. Conditions were perfect to photograph reflections in the calm, still water.

The Chalone Peak Trail begins on the far side of the dam, edging up toward the iconic Three Sisters pinnacles, a favorite with skilled climbers. Mike pointed out another formation across the trail which appeared to be smiling at nothing in particular, or maybe everything in general. I christened that one “Baby Brother.” Of course, you are free to improve on that if you like.

The wide, well-groomed trail climbs steadily up through the chaparral, robbing your lungs of any spare air, reminding you to breathe deeply and to pace yourself. Very soon you get what you came for – fantastic overlooks down into the boulder-strewn, jagged countryside for which the park is named. Off in the distance, you can see the long, linear trace of the San Andreas Fault slicing horizontally across your view, dividing the peaks and plateaus of the far-off Diablo Range from the canyons and spires of the Pinnacles. You wonder, amazed that this place where you are standing was once far away to the southeast near Neenach, close to Lancaster. What patience and dedication it took the thousands of geologists who worked for decades to understand this crunched up puzzle we call California.

Along the way, we began to notice thin, delicate vines winding up the gnarled branches of the junipers and madrones. These vines bore some kind of odd-looking flower (we thought) that was straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. What the heck is this? A truffula tree from The Lorax? I took a photo of it for future reference and subsequently learned it was a seed pod of sorts from a Clematis vine. Later in the year, these vines will sprout beautifully colored flowers along the trail. If you happen to be there for that event, please send me a picture.

Just about the time when you need a snack and your hips start to ache a little bit on this hike, you look up at the horizon from the trail and see the North Chalone Peak tower way, way up there. You still have a little more climbing to do if you want to take that I-was-there picture. Full disclosure: Mike and I did this hike three years ago, before either of us was a full-fledged Medicare recipient, and the close-up picture included here is from that hike. This time we stopped short of the peak and settled for a seven-mile hike with twenty-mile views. That was fine by me. I had my mind set on sitting on the rocks by the Bear Gulch Reservoir, admiring the reflections, and scarfing down my peanut butter and banana sandwich.

I highly recommend this hike if you feel like stretching your legs and seeing the park from on high, but be please careful about doing it in the summer time. You will need a wide-brimmed hat, plenty of water, and lots of salty snacks. If I was doing this walk in July or August, I would definitely use a sun umbrella to keep my cool.

Enjoy! And please, my friends do not litter.

For a location map of Pinnacles National Park, please click here.  To read all the BenitoLink "Walking San Benito" articles by Jim Ostdick, use "Walking San Benito" in the website search box.

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