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Balconies Loop

Balconies Trail to Balconies Cliff Trail to Balconies Cave Trail
2.4 miles; 1.5 hours; easy to moderate
Flashlight recommended

It’s hard not to be frozen, stopped by the force of beauty, the contours, colors and scale of Pinnacles’ mountaintop spires up close. But if you’d rather ramble than climb, a tour through the lowlands carries its own wild charm. This one winds through a deep canyon and into the dark shambles of Balconies Cave. It’s a fairly easy, well-shaded hike, more a lasso than a loop, and a good one to take later in the day when it’s too hot for some of the park’s sun-exposed ascents.

Balconies Trail splits from the a Chaparral parking lot on the west side of the park and turns north, following Chalone Creek past valley oaks hung with lace lichen and the occasional juniper. Mugwort and miner’s lettuce grow along the path next to the creek bed in spring. By midsummer, the channel is bleached and bone-dry.

Carabiner signs point to some of Pinnacles’ uniquely precarious climbing routes along the way. You can often hear climbers before you see them, tapping the holds and cobbles to check their anchoring. From below it’s easy to sense the quivering thrill as they plot their next move. But it’s best to take care and bring a crash pad if you want to join in some light bouldering, as much of the rock flakes and can easily pull loose.

A posted map shows the layout of nearby climbs and, shortly after, the trail splits to begin the loop. You can choose the arc of your adventure, turning left through the canyon or right, down to the caves. The Balconies Cliffs Trail wends along the canyon side, in the shadow of Machete Ridge. All around and above, stones curve and crook in a puzzle of erosion patterns shaped by the wind. Eventually you’ll return to the basin of the canyon, past massive walls of colored rhyolite, and connect with the Balconies Cave Trail.

These talus caves were formed when earth-rattling boulders loosened and crashed down from above, wedging themselves in the narrow chasm and blotting out sunlight from the space in between. A rotating cast of bat species inhabit the caves, but you’re less likely to see one hanging from the pitched ceiling here than in the larger Bear Gulch Caves on the east side. (Photo by Garrett McAuliffe)

Inside, the stone is cool and damp and rubbed smooth. Light your way and climb past the trickling stream. Cool air drifts through the tunnel pushed along with a whisper. The rush of full darkness may provoke some hoots and giggles. But it’s worth joining the cave in silence for a spell. In places you’ll need to crawl under overhangs and scrunch your way through the pinched walls. When you emerge, the light is blinding. But colors return quickly, and you can take time to explore the rock tumbles and climb boulders bigger than your house before returning the way you came along the west fork of Chalone Creek.

—Garrett McAuliffe

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