Juniper Canyon Loop

Read on if you like Pinnacles National Park, volcanic spires, strenuous hikes, California condors.

Juniper Canyon Trail to Tunnel Trail to High Peaks Trail (steep and narrow section) back to Juniper Canyon Trail
4.3 miles; 2 to 3 hours; strenuous, with an elevation gain of 1200 feet

Who needs a magic beanstalk? This steep climb takes you to Pinnacle’s own giants in the sky, circling the heart of the park’s volcanic formations. On hot days, it’s best to start this one early before the afternoon sun bakes into the rocks. The hike is well marked and easy to follow, with handrails and footholds chiseled into the stone to aid your progress. You can reach it from either entrance, but it’s a more direct ascent from the west side.

Park beyond the west entrance (find directions on the Pinnacles page) at the Chaparral Trailhead parking lot if you can, or in the overflow lot just before. The grand spectacle of the Pinnacles begins before you can even park your car. Ahead are the titanic spires and stone fins of the Condor Crags—a forbidding rise you’ll soon be romping about 1200 feet above. Juniper Canyon Loop begins through rugged meadow, a sanctuary of chaparral and chipped stone, past the 2000-foot rock face of Resurrection Wall on the right. Away from the picnic area, it’s easy to escape the noisy packs of school groups and families and lose yourself in this ancient, otherworldly expanse.

A mile in, the trail begins to steeply switchback up the mountainside, past rocks chunked and crumbling, volcanic stone bumpier than Braille. At each turn, it’s one sublime vista after another, with stunning sights of the valley below and spires above. Wind-withered digger pines cling to the scree of open hillside, fried granite sparkles, and swaths of pink rhyolite band the cliffs. For a rest or snack, drop into a boulder’s shady nook or a copse of California buckeye.

You can spend all day marveling at the geology and the flora that ekes out a living in this dry land. A mosaic of lichen radiantly colors the rock in places—splotches of raspberry, nasturtium, lime green and ochre against the dun cast of stone, and those are just a small sampling of the more than 200 types of lichen that exist throughout the park.

At the first fork, you can turn left through the Tunnel Trail or go right. Either way you take, there’s another fork a half mile ahead. Follow signs for the High Peaks Steep and Narrow section. If you’re feeling your oats, there are plenty of opportunities to scramble off trail and explore an overhang or rock pinnacle surging skyward. A few dozen California condors call the park home and, once in a while, can be seen soaring on the high currents in search of carcasses. At the top you’ll reach a garden of stone, endless wildness and grandeur stretching to the horizon on all sides. Big, sloping stone bumps rise out of the dry mountain chaparral. Beyond lie the Chalone Peaks and distant outline of the Santa Lucia Mountains.

After you’ve had your fun scrambling around and surveying the sky for rare birds, it’s time to return to the trail. There’s an outhouse where the Steep And Narrow section reconnects to Juniper Canyon Trail. Skip back down the mountain, past the crags and rocky spires. (Solid choice for the décor of eons, don’t you think?) Views change constantly and capture the striations and shapes and bend of the pines. If you’re still around in the evening, sunset casts a rosy glow off the western face of the pinnacles, a departing blush to the day’s humbling glory.

—Garrett McAuliffe

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