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Road Trip Day Two: Pinnacles NP – Hiking Old Pinnacles and High Peaks Trails Loop

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It was cold last night! I finally passed out a few hours before sunrise – I think – but couldn’t stay in the sleeping bag because I had a lot of hiking to do. I packed up the Tepui tent early and was at the trailhead by 0730.

I wanted to see most of Pinnacles National Park in one hike so I made a loop out of the Old Pinnacles Trail and the High Peaks Trail.

It ended up being almost 9.5 miles and took me 4.5 hours, stopping plenty of times for photos.

Click on the photo to open the hike data in Gaia GPS

The camera gear selection

I used the same camera setup as the day before, bringing my tripod – along with a headlamp and flash – for the caves I was expecting to explore on this hike.

I again used the Peak Design hand clutch for the entire hike.

I have a very “run-and-gun” style and I don’t want to stop to dig a camera out of my backpack. That’s why I love the hip bags, and also use Peak Design’s Slide Strap with Capture Clip to secure my camera to my shoulder straps. The hand strap worked for a short hike yesterday, so I thought I’d try it for a much longer hike.

This trail looked fairly mild with little to no technical terrain, so walking with a camera in hand should have been fine.

hand clutch

The strap did great. Yes, I carried the X-T1 in my hand for almost ten miles and over four hours!

The camera could securely hang from my hand but wasn’t hanging loose. I didn’t even know it was there. My hands never cramped and there was no chaffing after 9.5 miles. The strap is very soft, easily adjustable, and the edges are smooth.

I certainly wouldn’t want to do this with a DSLR & 70-200mm zoom for damn sure, but an APS-C mirrorless camera with mid-range zoom and wide prime worked just fine. I attached my telephoto zoom when I got into condor country and the camera was still comfortable to hold while hiking.

The Old Pinnacles Trail and High Peaks Trail Loop

This loop trail really lets you see the best of Pinnacles National Park in the least amount of time. The trailhead has very little parking and is at the end of Highway 146 from the east entrance to the park.

The beginning of the trail is mostly flat to mildly climbing through a mix of oak and pine.

old pinnacles trail
old pinnacles bridge
old pinnacles trail

After the initial, gentle climb you’ll get to a chaparral bench with some great views down the valley and up to The Balconies, an impressive cliff face popular with climbers.

I descended the other side of the ridge, back into some shady pine down to a riverbed. From here, a little detour takes you to Balconies Cave. You’ll definitely need some light to get through the low ceilings and small spaces.

I didn’t see any of the Western Mastiff bats that make this cave home; there’s also a colony of Townsend’s big-eared bats in the Bear Gulch cave.

old pinnacles
the balconies
old pinnacles trail
balconies cave
balconies cave
balconies cave

I doubled back to the Old Pinnacles Trail and kept walking towards the Chaparral parking area and trailhead. The walk from here is flat and open.

Staying to the left before getting to the parking lot takes you up the High Peaks Trail, a four-mile trail taking you up to Pinnacle Rocks and Hawkins Peak.

The trail from here is mostly exposed and through chaparral. It was starting to get hot at this point, and the number of switchbacks only made it feel hotter. And it was only April – no thanks in August! On this whole loop, most of the 1,670′ climb occurred in the first couple miles of this section. The views are absolutely worth it though.

old pinnacles trail
pinnacles rocks

And don’t forget to look up! If you’re looking down at your feet and just powering through the climb, the giant shadows of condors circling overhead will remind you to look up.

I wish I had my telephoto zoom attached earlier, instead of the wide-angle prime for the landscape shots. I missed some really close-up photo ops of these rare birds flying nearby.

They certainly are ugly birds, but they have an impressive comeback story and can be mesmerizing to watch. The only photo I could snag of these giant birds is the one below.

The end of the hike is a nice, rewarding downhill to the parking lot under oaks and along grassy hills.

california condor
high peaks trail

After getting back to the car – where a number of cars were waiting for me to vacate for my parking spot – I continued the drive to San Luis Obispo through some beautiful farmland.

I made a quick detour through Fort Hunter Liggett to check out Mission San Antonio de Padua. This was the third mission started by Father Junipero Serra, founded in 1771. It’s also where the first wedding took place in California in 1773.

The mission has been beautifully restored and is a wealth of interesting history.

california farm
mission san antonio de padua

Thanks to my last-minute travels and lack of planning opportunities, I was forced into a hotel this night. Campsites along the central California coast, on a Friday night in late April, are impossible to find without reservations. I’d get lucky the next night though!  I did find some beach time in the evening with a stop at Morro Rock before heading to the hotel.

morro rock surfing

Craig D.

Sunday 27th of May 2018

My favorite image is the switchback with highlight pine. I very much appreciate that you don't obsess over golden hour (etc) shots but you work to get nice images to document your excursion. I think I too often get stuck thinking I can only shoot for sunrise/sunset, and I'm not that great at it then. Might be that learning and developing our skills in the mid-day, often when we are out and about but lighting isn't ideal, we might get even better at those golden hour times when the light composes for us. I should work on that. Thanks. dc

John Peltier

Monday 28th of May 2018

Thanks for the feedback! If I waited for the golden hour all the time I'd never make it anywhere. Golden hour shots have amazing light and get all the love on Instagram but there's plenty of other situations to test/practice your skills in.