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Photo Spot 59: Pinnacles National Park – High Peaks Trail North

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Five years back, I posted the national parks photo spot series of blog posts, each describing a favorite location in each national park. Since then, Pinnacles was designated our 59th National Park, so here is an update to the series.

Pinnacles National Park, our latest, is a little-known gem that rewards with a diverse terrain that fosters exploration. I find it remarkable that such an isolated, wild, and quiet area exists only 1.5 hours away from the metropolitan San Francisco Bay Area. A variety of subjects await your exploration: spectacular rock formations, expansive vistas, rare talus caves, a reflective body of water, an abundance of wildflowers in the spring, and dark skies.

Pinnacles is one of the smallest national parks at 41 square miles, but because there are no roads crossing through it, you have to explore on foot, making it seem larger. The trails in the park range from easy to strenuous. There are few interesting views from the roads leading to the east and west entrances, which are connected only by trails. I recommend a loop starting from the Bear Gulch Day Use Area, up the Condor Gulch Trail, down the High Peaks Trail, with a detour via the Moses Spring Trail and the Bear Gulch Cave Trail. There is much to see along the loop which visits several highlights of Pinnacles National Park, however in the spirit of the “Photo Spot” series, I will focus the descriptions on a location that presents the best view of the rock formations after which the park was named. This is just my opinion, of course, but I have hiked all the trails in this small park.

At 1.7 miles from the trailhead, the Condor Gulch Trail joins the High Peaks Trail to traverse the heart of the Pinnacles rock formations. The whole loop is 5.3 miles with 1,300 feet of elevation gain. The most famous and spectacular section is the Steep and Narrow, a 0.7-mile central section of the High Peaks Trail along the ridge that has handrails and footholds etched into the rock. However, from that section, you are too close to the pinnacles for good views.

My two favorite spots for photographing the rock pinnacles from the High Peaks Trail are a few hundred yards north of the junction with the Tunnel Trail. Finding the best views requires scrambling a short distance on both sides of the trail. Having scouted such a location south of the trail on a previous outing, I started on the trailhead 2 hours before sunrise to catch the first light coloring the High Peaks with an orange glow. On the opposite side of the trail, there is a great view of the south face of the Balconies, which catches some light at sunrise and sunset in the winter. In all seasons, the Square Block (a formation that looks like a tower with square angles to the north) and the pinnacles below are beautifully lighted at sunset.

The area on the other side of the High Peaks, near the junction with the Juniper Canyon Trail that leads up to Scout Peak also offers excellent views of the High Peaks at sunset. Those two locations offer the most impressive views in the park, but to be there at the best times of the day requires a fair amount of hiking in the dark on the way up or down. The High Peaks is the best place to observe one of the park’s 30 California condors—each of which sport a large numbered label under its wing—as they soar above the ridge, especially in the early morning and early evening.

Winters offer comfortable temperatures. Some wildflowers open as early as January, although the peak blooming season is from March through May, which is justifiably the most popular time in the park. Most of the trails have no shade and summer temperatures often exceed 100°F, but occasional afternoon storms project great light. In October and November limited pockets of cottonwood, blue oaks, and sycamores bring autumn foliage to the park.

High Peaks is one of seven locations described in the Pinnacles chapter of Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey through America’s National Parks.

More images from High Peaks North
More images from Pinnacles National Park

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