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Walking San Benito: Pinnacles National Park High Peaks Trail

This is the seventeenth in a series of articles in which local adventurer Jim Ostdick will introduce readers to the many walking opportunities throughout San Benito County.
Bear Gulch Trail sign.jpg
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Bear Gulch Trail tunnel.jpg
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The crown jewel of hiking on public lands in San Benito County has to be the High Peaks Trail in Pinnacles National Park. For ultra-scenic views, close-up examination of pyroclastic volcanic rocks, and heart pounding aerobic exercise, the 5.3-mile Bear Gulch – High Peaks – Condor Gulch loop hike can’t be beat.

Sunny autumn days provide perfect walking conditions at the park. Although you are unlikely to encounter large crowds of people on this featured trail on weekdays, it is always good to see folks from other areas coming to our county to hike. On an early November Tuesday, I met a tech worker named Nick from Philadelphia and three young visitors from the Netherlands on the Bear Gulch Trail, one of whom was studying Physics at Stanford. I was fortunate to hear about his travels and his research as I ate my lunch on the bench overlook near Scout Peak. An extra tangerine from my pack cheered him up and sparked a good conversation. Up on top, I passed a few local couples coming and going, all of whom had one thing in common: brightly shining, smiling faces. This trail makes people happy!

The famous “steep and narrow section” of the High Peaks Trail seems a lot steeper and a little narrower now than the first time I hiked it in the early 1990s. Back then I brought a group of students from the CSU Bakersfield Geology Club to the Pinnacles National Monument and we practically galloped up to the top. I recall the ten year old son of one of the older students trying to climb up the backside of a formation we christened “The Mitt.” It is good to know that The Mitt is virtually unchanged almost twenty-five years later.

In a human lifetime, igneous rocks like these do not change that much. The formations and views have remained essentially the same for millennia. The carved stone steps, arched tunnels, and sturdy metal handrails of the trail are still the same gradients and dimensions as they were when the Civilian Conservation Corps built them in the 1930s. Yet somehow, inexplicably, the puzzling years of this twenty-first century have radically altered my climbing velocity. This arrangement hardly seems fair if you ask me (insert winky face here).

The skies of the Pinnacles are as unpredictable as a 66-year-old’s sciatica. Conspicuously absent on this fall day were any hoped-for dazzling appearances by iconic California condors. I always half-expect to see one of those grand birds whenever I go to the park – that is part of the excitement of going to the Pinnacles – but on this day, I had to be satisfied with the glorious soaring views from the High Peak Trail and the long winding descent down Condor Gulch. No matter what, this hike never disappoints.

The park campgrounds are sparsely occupied mid-week so staying overnight to hike another trail the following day would be a good option if you can manage it.  The night-time weather is starting to get a little nippy now, though, so if you go, be prepared with a good insulating layer beneath you and a cozy sleeping bag liner if you have one. If not, an extra blanket might come in handy. The backcountry is dry and fire danger is extreme. Please check with the rangers, but in general, campfires are not advised. Just bundle up and enjoy nature’s magnificent quiet.

And please, my friends do not litter.

For a location map of Pinnacles National Park, please click here.

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Palomino Dream

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 (Amazon.com, 2015) and Palomino Nation: My 2016 Crazyass Walk Across America (Amazon.com, 2017). jim.ostdick@gmail.com Palomino Dream blog http://www.palominodream.blogspot.com Palomino and the Dream Machine http://amzn.com/B00V7OT70W Palomino Nation http://amzn.com/B075ZR65XL