Take a hike: High time to celebrate Pinnacles National Park

The Fresno BeeMarch 22, 2013 

— If the striking volcanic formations that give America's 59th national park its name seem out of place, well, it's because they are.

The spires and crags are actually what remain of an ancient volcano that rose up 23 million years ago and 195 miles away near present-day Lancaster. Over time, tectonic plates split the volcano and carried the western chunk northwest along the San Andreas Fault.

Why they ended up here, among the rolling, chaparral-covered hills, is a question only a higher authority can answer. But after taking time to explore the surroundings, you'll be glad they did.

There are several ways to link Pinnacle's High Peaks area and one (or both) of its famous cave systems. Most hikers start at Bear Gulch. I prefer to hike in from the bottom of the hill, along Chalone Creek, and avoid the busy trailhead.

The first step is getting on the Bench Trail, which runs along the creek, and taking it to the foot of the High Peaks Trail. Now starts the climb. The next 2 miles are all uphill, but at least you're full of energy.

Heading up the switchbacks can be taxing. So stop, turn around and appreciate the ever-expanding view. It'll be motivation to keep going.

After much climbing, the trail crests and you're on top of a hill surrounded by oak trees. When I did the hike Monday, tiny wildflowers lined the trail.

Next, the High Peaks come into view. That's where you're headed. Stay right at the trail junction and before long you'll be on a ridge looking directly across at the tallest spires. This is the best area to spot one of Pinnacles' most famous residents, the California condor.

Trail signs for the next section are marked "steep and narrow," and you'll soon find out why. As the trail snakes its way up and down massive rock formations, handrails and chiseled footholds make the passage possible. (You'll also have to lean and duck your head.) Emerging from the rocks onto a ridge, it's time to head downhill. The next 1.5 miles are simply glorious: weaving down the hillside and passing numerous rock outcroppings.

At the next trail junction, it's time to make a choice. Go left and head directly to Bear Gulch -- just a half-mile downhill -- or veer right and check out one of Pinnacles' most famous attractions, Bear Gulch Cave.

Home to a colony of Townsend's big-eared bats, Bear Gulch Cave is closed from mid-May to mid-July and partially closed for longer periods. Be sure to bring a headlamp, because it gets awful dark in there and you'll need your arms free to negotiate the narrow passageways.

If you're a bit claustrophobic (like me) you'll be happy to get through the cave. From there, it's a half-mile to the Bear Gulch parking area and another mile to the Bench Trail. Fortunately, it's all downhill.

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