Timpanogos Falls (Mount Timpanogos Wilderness, UT)

Timpanogos Falls, Mount Timpanogos Wilderness, June 2022

Below the imposing massif of Mount Timpanogos (11,749’)—the second-highest peak in northern Utah’s Wasatch Range—lies a wonderland of aspen groves, cascading streams, and verdant meadows, many of which are a stone’s throw from the popular, 20-mile Alpine Loop Scenic Byway. Ambitious day hikers can set out to tackle Mount Timpanogos (or “Timp” as it is lovingly known) on a strenuous out-and-back hike, while others are likely to be satisfied with a more modest walk amid the impressive scenery in the shadow of the mountain. One such shorter hike is the 2.4-mile out-and-back to Timpanogos Falls, a set of tumbling waterfalls situated near the base of Primrose Cirque, a glacier-carved valley on the east flank of Timp. A moderately difficult ascent leads to a pair of reachable waterfalls, with pleasant views back east toward the North Fork of Provo River and the Sundance area.

Map of Timpanogos Falls hike, Mount Timpanogos Wilderness, Uinta-Wasatch Cache National Forest; created using alltrails.com

The hike

The out-and-back hike follows a portion of the Mount Timpanogos Trail, one of two primary access routes to the summit of the high peak, and begins at the Mount Timpanogos Trailhead (a.k.a. Aspen Grove Trailhead)—a large parking lot situated just inside the eastern entrance station for the Alpine Loop ($6 daily; NPS annual passes accepted). (Note: There are in fact two trails that begin here, including a slightly longer jaunt to nearby Stewart Cascade.)

Start of Mount Timpanogos Trail

Hikers will find the Mount Timpanogos Trail back near the entry to the parking area: the well-trodden path heads west toward the imposing eastern face of Mount Timpanogos, climbing up a set of steps then traversing a level meadow with open views. Return to the shade as the trail passes a trail map, sign, and TERT station on the right. (Note: TERT stands for Timpanogos Emergency Response Team.)

Opening views of Primrose Cirque and Mount Timpanogos

Continuing through the woods on a wide, graveled trail, hikers will pass under a canopy of maples, Douglas firs, aspens, and others, with the low hum of passing cars gradually becoming more muted off to the right. At 2/10 mile, the route bears right at a trail sign; the trail clearly used to push left, but no longer. Minutes later, hikers will pass a short bridge over a seasonal stream, then push on to a set of two switchbacks, the first notable ascent of the hike.

View toward Mount Timpanogos and the waterfalls

At 0.35 miles, the Mount Timpanogos Trail diverges from the Lame Horse Trail, and visitors should bear left at the junction, quickly entering Mount Timpanogos Wilderness for the first time. Ahead, as the heavy woods recede into thick but petite brush, one can see a series of cliff faces and, at least in spring and early summer, two waterfalls: a tall drop and a shorter, closer tumble downstream. Only the latter of the two, however, is easily accessible from the trail, and the main attraction—what is loosely known as Upper Timpanogos Falls—remains out of sight, tucked behind a bluff, for now. (Note: The Mount Timpanogos Trail continues up above the higher, distant falls, but reaching it would require a significant detour through brush with no discernable trail.)

Waterfalls visible from the trail (the main falls is hidden from view)

Curiously, as the trail steadily climbs in the direction of the falls, the dirt path is intermittently replaced with faded asphalt, a reminder of a time when local residents, starting in 1912, completed the annual “Timp Hike”: a summitting tradition that lasted six decades until being discontinued due to trail over-use.

Looking back down Primrose Cirque, hikers can see as far as the North Fork Provo River drainage and North Fork Ridge, with more lowland hills beyond. Just out of view, behind Elk Point to the right, lies the Sundance area—of skiing and film festival lore.

View down to valley and Sundance area

After gaining nearly 600 feet in what feels like a steady but manageable climb, the Mount Timpanogos Trail approaches the lower portion of Timpanogos Falls (sometimes called First Falls) off to the left. By waterfall standards, this is perhaps a mere cascade, but the twisting flow is pleasant enough to warrant a short but steep side trip down to its base.

First (lower) falls

Many hikers turn around here, but it is well worth continuing the extra ¼ mile to the much more impressive upper falls. From the lower falls, the onward trail cuts back northeast, beginning a steady climb that treads away from the creek. But soon enough, after rounding a switchback, the path cuts back west, and Upper Timpanogos Falls comes into view—this higher spray tumbles straight off a cliff and empties into a pool surrounded by steep sides.

View of Upper Timpanogos Falls (down left) and inaccessible falls above

After first spotting the falls, it is about 1/10 mile to the base, where hikers can get rather close to the waterfall. The falls are quite impressive, one of the best in northern Utah, and well worth the moderately challenging climb. Once ready, return the way you came—or, if continuing on to Mount Timpanogos, bear right and continue switchbacking up Primrose Cirque to Emerald Lake and the summit.

Approaching Upper Timpanogos Falls
Upper Timpanogos Falls

The 2.4-mile out-and-back to Upper Timpanogos Falls should take most hikers about 1-2 hours and can be combined with some of the area’s other day hikes (such as the trek to Timpanogos Cave) for a nice outing in the Wasatch Range.

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Timpanogos Cave Trail & Cave Tour (Timpanogos Cave National Monument, UT)

Timpanogos Cave, Timpanogos Cave National Monument, June 2022

Nestled high above American Fork Canyon in northern Utah’s Wasatch Range, three limestone caves—connected today by man-made tunnels—are the prime attractions of Timpanogos Cave National Monument, a popular park in the Salt Lake City/Provo area. Discovered around the turn of the 20th century, the three caves were placed under federal protection in 1922 and can now be explored as part of an hour-long guided cave tour. But there is a hitch: not only are reservations often required to secure your spot on the tour, but reaching the cave system requires a 1.4-mile one-way hike, gaining nearly 1,100 feet in elevation. At the end of the trail, hikers are greeted by a park ranger, who regulates timed entry to the three caves.

While the hot daytime temperatures and relentless ascent leave many visitors sweating and out of breath, entry to the marvelous caves gives hikers new life: inside is a cool (average 45 degrees) and wet wonderland of colorful stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, cave popcorn, and many other common features of a limestone cavern environment. The ranger-guided tours are informative and well worth the price of admission ($12), and the out-and-back trail includes outstanding views down American Fork Canyon to Utah Valley. Budget at least 3-3.5 hours for the round-trip journey, including the cave tour.

Timpanogos Cave Trail map

The hike

Timpanogos Cave National Monument is a short drive from the major metropolis of Salt Lake City and nearby Provo and located about two miles up the popular drive known as the Alpine Loop Scenic Byway. Entering from the west, visitors heading only to the cave can bypass the entrance station at the mouth of American Fork Canyon. (Note: However, visitors who seek to recreate elsewhere along the 20-mile drive should pay the $6 entrance fee—or present an America the Beautiful national park pass.) Parking at the monument can be tight, but the steady flow of visitors in and out of the area generally yields availability most of the day.

Visitors without a cave tour reservation can try to acquire one at the Visitor Center, while all others can present their online tickets via smartphone at the base of the Timpanogos Cave Trail. Hikers have 1 ½ hours to complete the 1.4-mile trail to the cave entrance (the start time on your ticket denotes when one should begin hiking), which should be plenty of time for most visitors. Being a very popular trail for visitors of all ages, there are several benches and “fitness checkpoints” along the way to assist with the challenging climb. The path is also paved and without steps the entire way—but the significant incline prevents the Timpanogos Cave Trail from being wheelchair-accessible.

Before departing, check in with the ranger outside for a security briefing, in which visitors are encouraged to bring plenty of water and to be on the lookout for rattlesnakes and rockfalls. The latter are a common occurrence along the route: look for yellow and red lines lining the middle of the trail, marking sections where you should not stop and congregate due to heightened rockfall risk.

The frequent crowds—including both cave tourists and locals who use the hike as a regular fitness challenge—make the Timpanogos Cave Trail far from a solitary experience. But the nature around you is splendid: the hike ascends through more than a half-dozen rock layers, and the ubiquitous flora—including Douglas fir, Boxelder maple, Rocky Mountain juniper, and Gambel oak—provide some decent shade even on a hot day. The views down into American Fork Canyon and Utah Valley improve as you climb, with several nice overlooks along the way.

Timpanogos Cave Trail (1.4 mi. to cave entrance)

The trail to the caves begins past the hike information sign, ringing the parking lot for a short while before cutting back left and rising through a dense thicket of firs. After a second switchback, the route settles into its westerly tread and rises alongside the first of several rockfalls—don’t stop during the sections marked by red and yellow lines, painted onto the asphalted trail. The beginnings of the hike lie in the multihued rock layer known as the Mutual Formation, an amalgam of sandstones, shales, and quartzite deposited some 600 million years ago. Just past the first apparent rock slide (hemmed in by a retaining wall), hikers pass under a black and orange cliff that is characteristic of this layer.

At about 2/10 mile, hikers reach the first of several “fitness checkpoints,” spots to stop for a drink of water or perhaps rest on a trailside bench. From here the path immediately courses around a left-hand bend. A minute later, the route cuts left again at a hairpin turn, and an information wayside discusses the local geology, outlining the nine rock layers that compose this section of the broader Mount Timpanogos (11,752’), a behemoth that is the ninth-highest peak in Utah and second-highest in the Wasatch Range.

View northeast across American Fork Canyon

From here the trail proceeds up a right-hand switchback, then edges along rock faces to the first of two tunnels, at about 4/10 mile. A few steps beyond, there is a bench and a nice overlook with views down American Fork Canyon toward Utah Valley and Provo. Hikers are now about one-quarter of the way to the cave entrance.

Soon the Timpanogos Cave Trail leaves the Mutual Formation behind and rises into the Tintic Quartzite, a largely chalky-colored layer composed of sand deposited along a shallow sea around 540 million years ago.

Pass through a second tunnel at around ½ mile, then take in the view at the overlook with two waysides—one on past mining and another on the slanted quartzite cliffs. One can see the remains of old mining roads and structures along the opposite wall of the canyon. Many of the early European settlers of the area sought to tap the various ores of the Wasatch Range, although the difficulty of transport stunted the emergence of large mining operations.

View across the canyon from a point about 1/2 mile up the trail

The views improve as the trail rises further, weaving in and out of steep drainages and approaching the second “fitness checkpoint” at 6/10 mile. From here the trail enters the Ophir Formation, a grayish layer of siltstone and shale. After passing under a high rock wall of Ophir, the bedrock changes again, this time to Maxfield Limestone. But this does not last long as the rocks change yet again, settling on the slightly thicker Fitchville Formation. Here there lies an “unconformity”—a break in the geological record where some known layers are conspicuously missing.

View down American Fork Canyon toward Utah Valley

It is another 1/10 mile to the next layer—the Gardison Limestone—as well as an abrupt left-hand bend, a bench, and the final “fitness checkpoint.” Hikers are over halfway to the cave entrance by this point.

Thereafter, the Timpanogos Cave Trail ascends five sunny switchbacks and passes the one-mile mark. After a partly exposed section with hand railings (not necessary but available), the trail passes another bench and two additional waysides, including one on local tree varieties. It is a short walk from here to the trail junction at 1.3 miles, where the route from the cave exit comes in from the left. Bear right, continuing up toward the cavern entrance.

Final switchbacks past the restroom

Rising ever higher, the onward path rounds two more switchbacks and passes a pit toilet on the left. At some point the trail passes into the Deseret Limestone layer (where the cave is located) and edges upward to a tunnel and finally the covered waiting platform for cave tours. Just beyond is the cave entrance—with a locked door opened only by the rangers—and an area called “The Grotto,” a partly covered area where there is bench seating and a detailed map of the cave system.

Cave Tour (0.3 miles)

Here one waits for the start of the Cave Tour: early arrivers may be able to jump on an earlier tour if available, but the ranger-guided walks are limited to 16 people each. The modern cave entrance is a modest passage, with two steel doors, situated just under the oblong-shaped natural entrance above. The first small room, where attendees are given a short security briefing again (the upshot: don’t touch anything in the caves!), is the most likely spot to view Townsend’s Big Eared Bats, the local variety of Chiroptera (but don’t count it – sightings are relatively rare).

Entrance to Hansen Cave and start of Cave Tour

After shutting a second door behind you, the tour makes a brief foray through Hansen Cave, which was the first of the three caves discovered. Mormon pioneer and local logger Martin Hansen discovered the cave while following mountain lions tracks in October 1887; he went on to explore the length of the cave and offered tours of the site for a handful of years before they were no longer profitable.

The cave runs west from here for about a football field’s length, but the standard tour covers only a portion of it. The entry chamber, known as the Organ Pipe Room, features a relatively high ceiling and nice examples of flowstone—a calcite-studded terrace formed from water running through the cavern’s mineral deposits.

Flowstone in Hansen Cave

Time in Hansen Cave is very brief, with visitors quickly ushered through a set of doors marking the transition into the next cave. Given the close proximity of Hansen, Middle, and Timpanogos Caves (and awkward natural entrances of the three caverns), the National Park Service found it easier to connect them via man-made tunnels.

The tunnel eventually gives way to a long but narrow passage that is entirely natural, the result of a fault line running through Middle Cave, the second cavern on the hike. Duck your head as the protruding cave walls ebb and flow, and then pass over a shallow pool known as Middle Cave Lake.

Several smaller examples of stalactites, stalagmites, and columns can be found in Middle Cave, but the headliner is the aptly-named Big Room, where the tour stops for a decent while. Here the calcite walls erupt in an elaborate display of flowstone.

Flowstone in the Big Room, Middle Cave

Adjacent to the Big Room is another area called Coral Gardens, which features impressive stalactites and extensive cave popcorn. The smooth surface of the floor is evidence of a recently-dried pool.

Coral Gardens

After Coral Gardens, the tour proceeds downhill through two doors and the Timpanogos Tunnel, another man-made passage connecting Middle Cave with the largest and most impressive Timpanogos Cave. This final cave was first discovered in 1913—but quickly lost again, only to be “rediscovered” again in 1921. The discovery helped advance efforts at preservation, leading to the designation of Timpanogos Cave National Monument in 1922.

After exiting the tunnel and entering Timpanogos Cave, hikers are greeted by many stalactites, including one likened to a chipped tooth, where the base has clearly broken off. After traversing another pool (called Hidden Lake), the route climbs an initial set of stairs and passes perhaps the most famous attraction in the caves: a multi-ton stalactite—largest in the monument—known as the Great Heart of Timpanogos.

Great Heart of Timpanogos

Just beyond, the trail splits, with tours taking a brief detour left before returning to the junction and proceeding up the staircase ahead. The diversion culminates at the Chimes Chamber, a diverse room featuring many different cave formations, including draperies (a.k.a. “cave bacon,” stalactites, stalagmites, cave popcorn, and wily, delicate features known as helictites.

Chimes Chamber

From Chimes Chamber, tour participants will retrace their steps and return to the junction, then bear left and climb a staircase until reaching the Camel Room, named for an outcrop that looks a bit like the animal. There are also some nice stalactites and columns in the chamber.

Camel Room
Drapery (a.k.a. “cave bacon”)

From here the route rises again and then drops down a staircase with tight passages, skirting two flowstone features known as the Cascade of Energy and Caramel Falls, the latter appearing to ooze with a brownish sludge.

Caramel Falls

Thereafter the remaining portions of the cave are relatively narrow tunnels (with several limestone protrusions seemingly perfectly placed to bang you in the head). Just before exiting the cave, hikers can look right to see the natural entrance to Timpanogos Cave. Upon exiting a final door, visitors are greeted again by the warm sun, although tempered slightly by a shaded pavilion.

Timpanogos Cave Trail (1.5 mi. to Visitor Center)

Now back out in the light, hikers pick up the paved Timpanogos Cave Trail again, this time snaking along ledges and below rock faces until an open area with a few switchbacks and fine views down American Fork Canyon. Enjoy the various overlooks, then proceed back down to the one and only trail junction; here the path merges with the trail up to the cave entrance, and the rest of the hike involves retracing steps from the ascent. This time, however, the going is much easier, with much of the time spent cheering on the much slower uphill hikers.

Views down American Fork Canyon from the exit route
American Fork Canyon and Utah Valley

All told, the stem-and-loop—including the full Timpanogos Cave Trail and the cave tour—clocks in at around 3.2 miles total. The park suggests budgeting at least 3-3.5 hours for the round-trip, although speedy hikers are likely able to complete the entire journey in less time.

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Lost Coast Trail – Wheeler Camp to Little Jackass (Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, CA)

Wheeler Beach from Lost Coast Trail, Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, May 2022

Even as the northern half of the 53-mile Lost Coast Trail has become one of the hottest destinations for California backpacking, the stunning southern half—in Sinkyone Wilderness State Park—is much less visited. This is in part due to the difficulty of access and rough condition of the trail through the state park. But hearty visitors are rewarded with stunning beaches, ample wildlife viewing, and terrific redwood groves.

In a previous post, I covered some logistics of covering this section and described the 7.6-mile section connecting Needle Rock Visitor Center with Wheeler Camp. In this post, I cover the next 3.6-mile stretch between the black sand beach at Wheeler and the next camp at Little Jackass Creek, another challenging section that can be covered as an out-and-back day hike from Wheeler or part of a broader through-hike from Needle Rock (or farther north at Mattole or Shelter Cove) to Usal Beach. Little Jackass boasts a beach that is arguably even more spectacular than Wheeler—and is a frequent landing pad for a variety of seabirds, sea lions, and harbor seals.

Map of Lost Coast Trail – Wheeler Camp to Little Jackass Camp, Sinkyone Wilderness State Park; created using alltrails.com

The hike

Sinkyone Wilderness State Park’s Wheeler Camp—a 7.6-mile hike in itself from the Needle Rock Visitor Center—boasts access to a serene and lonely blank sand beach set in a scenic gulch below Jackass Ridge. Campsites are spread out over a 2/3-mile stretch, from the beach to the edge of the School Marm Grove of giant redwoods, with few bad sites in the bunch. The most popular option—if one can brave the frequent wind—is to camp just off the beach itself, where Jackass Creek slithers around the sand and empties into the ocean.

Jackass Creek as it moves into the Pacific Ocean at Wheeler

This description of Wheeler to Little Jackass thus starts from the beach, where hikers should look for a thin trail heading south along a berm perched several feet above the tidal flat. The path quickly gains height, coming precariously close to a 15-foot drop on the right, before rising to an open gulch with a few stone and concrete remnants of the logging community that once dominated this drainage until its closure in the mid-20th century. Views from here to the beach and mouth of Jackass Creek are terrific and get even better as the Lost Coast Trail winds southward.

Just above Wheeler Beach

The onward route passes through dense thicket, some of the worst on this heavily overgrown trail, starting in thistle and other coastal scrub before rising to a layer of ferns and Douglas firs. After skirting an initial ravine, the steep trail switchbacks up a verdant hillside, with another terrific view back to Wheeler at around 0.45 miles. The subsequent climb feels like something straight out of Jurassic Park: a thick jungle of head-high undergrowth, with lush fern-studded slopes beyond.

Lush ravine along the Lost Coast Trail
View down to Wheeler Beach

The relentless climb, one of several on the route, eases a around the one-mile mark, where hikers can take a spur trail heading right, out to a ridgetop above Anderson Cliff, an imposing, near-vertical bluff that drops nearly 700 feet to the Pacific Ocean. The northward vistas to Wheeler Beach—with the Bear Harbor, Shelter Cove, and King Range in the distance—are simply jaw-dropping, some of the best along the entire Lost Coast. Be extremely careful though—as there is no barrier between you and a death-inducing drop to the rocks and coast below.

Awesome view north from Anderson Cliff

After returning to the main trail, bear right and drop down through a Douglas fir forest, followed around 1.4 miles by the first of a couple meadows of coastal scrub with some limited views of the ocean. All throughout, the thicket is dense—although the treefall obstacles are not nearly as frequent as the Needle Rock to Wheeler section. After rising to a low notch, the trail drops again through another meadow—follow the trail hugging the edge of the woods.

Climbing the Lost Coast Trail

From here the Lost Coast Trail begins a sharp and brutal ascent, skirting around a woody drainage and switchbacking up to a point more than 1,000 feet above sea level. The summit crest, at about 2.5 miles, leads into an equally steep descent, dropping out to a woody finger of Jackass Ridge, then sharply cutting left and resuming the downhill into the deep-cut Little Jackass Creek drainage.

Lupine along the trail

Once out of fir layer and down into the coastal scrub, the thistle returns, but hikers are rewarded with their first unobstructed view down to the beach at Jackass Creek. Thinner than Wheeler, the beach here is nonetheless similar, with a stream feeding into the ocean cove with high waves.

View down to Little Jackass Beach

Finally, the trail descends away from the ocean and passes an outhouse on the right. Take a hard right here, passing the pit toilet, to continue toward the beach, about 2/10 mile from the Lost Coast Trail. Like at Wheeler, there are multiple campsites here, with the best situated just off the tidal flat. The beach at Little Jackass is notable for being a sanctuary for sea lions and harbor seals, as well as a multitude of seabirds, such as pelicans, ospreys, and sandpipers. Lucky visitors may spot migrating whales out to sea.

Beach at Little Jackass Creek

Even though the distance is relatively short (3.6 miles), many hikers may seek to camp at Little Jackass because the onward route is even more challenging. Others may push to the next camp at Anderson Gulch and Usal Beach. Day hikers must return the way they came, back up 1,000 feet and down again to Wheeler, finishing a challenging 7.2-mile out-and-back.

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Lost Coast Trail – Needle Rock to Wheeler Camp (Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, CA)

Wheeler Beach, Lost Coast Trail, May 2022

Traversing one of the few stretches of the California coast without a paved road, the Lost Coast Trail has become an enormously popular backpacking destination known for its striking cliffs, black sand beaches, redwood groves, and frequent wildlife sightings (seals, Roosevelt elk, black bears, ospreys, and many others). Curiously enough though, the vast majority of visitors keep to the northern half of the 53-mile trail, traversing a 25-mile section that connects Mattole and Black Sands Beach via the King Range National Conservation Area. Wilderness permits for this section are highly competitive and difficult to obtain, with group sizes capped at three people. However, the southern half of the trail, situated largely in Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, is a very different story: the up-and-down path—overgrown and very strenuous but strikingly beautiful—is deserted much of the year. Weekday visitors are likely to have beaches and clifftops all to themselves, and there is little red tape beyond a small parking fee.

The 27-mile southern section can be subdivided into four parts, including, from north to south: (1) a roughly 8.5-mile jaunt from Hidden Valley/Shelter Cove to Needle Rock Visitor Center; (2) an approximately 7.5-mile trek from Needle Rock to Wheeler Camp; (3) a 3.5-mile stretch between Wheeler and the beach at Little Jackass Creek; and (4) a final connection between Little Jackass and Usal Beach (7.5 miles). This post covers section 2, describing a one-way hike that culminates at the spectacular beach camp at Wheeler, a former logging community that has long since returned to its natural state. (Note: The subsequent section connecting Wheeler with Little Jackass is described in a second post.) Hikers may cover this section as part of a longer through-hike (from Mattole or Shelter Cove to Usal) or as an out-and-back that would make for a very long day hike but a reasonable 2- or 3-day backpack. Expect very rugged conditions, with a very overgrown trail and extensive elevation gain and loss. This is not a beginner’s hike—but highly rewarding for those willing and able to brave the Sinkyone Wilderness.

Map of Lost Coast Trail – Needle Rock to Wheeler Camp, Sinkyone Wilderness State Park; created using alltrails.com

Sinkyone Wilderness: A Brief Introduction

Sinkyone Wilderness State Park has the perhaps unique distinction of being a California state park with declining visitation (with the possible exception of Usal Beach, described as a “basically lawless” party zone with a “long history of misbehavior”). The number of annual visitors to the Needle Rock Visitor Center and the nearby Bear Harbor area are a mere fraction of its total a mere decade ago. This is in large part due to the very limited facilities and deteriorating condition of the roads and trails.

For example, although most maps (including Google) continue to suggest a drivable route between Needle Rock and Bear Harbor, this 2.7-mile stretch has been closed to vehicles for more than eight years. Now it is a hiking route—and the best-maintained trail in the park at that. The rest of the Lost Coast Trail, from Bear Harbor to Usal Beach, is one step above a bushwhack: there is indeed a trail, but it is faint, heavily overgrown, and full of obstacles, including fallen trees and dense patches of thistle.

What was once a busy logging area in the mid-20th century has been reclaimed by the diverse flora and fauna that has long populated the Lost Coast. Even the reach of state park personnel is limited: aside from occasional patrols and a part-time volunteer at Needle Rock, there is little permanent presence of park officials. On a Tuesday in late May 2022, when we were leaving Needle Rock along the rough Briceland Road, we had to remove a thin tree some 40 feet long that had fallen across the one and only path out of the area. Neither the volunteer at Needle Rock nor the maintenance ranger we ran across later knew about the obstacle, suggesting we were the only ones to traverse the road that day.

The state of Sinkyone, of course, is welcome for those seeking a true wilderness experience, far from signs of civilization. The ranger we met outside the park told us that he been calling for trail maintenance to be done, to no avail, for more than six years—but then he quickly reconsidered and smiled: perhaps it’s better that way—to keep the Lost Coast “lost” after all.

The hike

Getting to and from Sinkyone’s Needle Rock Visitor Center, where this 7.6-mile section of the Lost Coast Trail begins, is half the battle. After a long and winding drive on Briceland Road, the road turns to dirt at a spot called Four Corners. From here it is only 3.3 miles to Needle Rock, but it is a slow slog: potholes and jagged rocks abound, with the track turning into a muddy, impassable mess after heavy rainstorms. Four-wheel drive is not necessarily required, but high clearance is a must; while possible to traverse, I would not recommend taking your average sedan down to the road (we handled it in a Subaru with 8’’ clearance).

The drive down to Needle Rock is beautiful, weaving in and out of fern- and fir-studded ravines, with occasional views down to the coast and open blue ocean. The final stretch cuts through an open brushy area, passing a barn on the right and ending at a small parking area across from the Needle Rock Visitor Center. This information station is staffed part of the year, and hikers are asked to pay a small fee for backpacking: $5 per person per night (be sure to bring cash!).

The visitor center and parking area are situated on a grassy shelf a little less than 200 feet above the coastline, with excellent views north toward the King Range and Shelter Cove. Needle Rock was once home to a small dairy farm, as well as a store, hotel, and even a school. There was also a logging railroad running from Bear Harbor to nearby Piercy, California—until it was irreparably damaged in the 1906 earthquake. After plans in the 1960s of establishing a monastic community here fell through, the Needle Rock area was incorporated into Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, which was established in 1977. A major push by environmentalists saved the remaining redwoods in the area from being logged in the 1980s, with activists raising funds to purchase 3,000 acres of land from the Georgia-Pacific Lumber Company. This territory was then gifted to the park.

Today, there is a modest visitor center, several campsites, and a beach at Needle Rock. Briceland Road is closed past Needle Rock—and has been for years; this marks the start of the Lost Coast Trail section heading south. The stretch between Needle Rock and Bear Harbor is considerably better-established than subsequent sections, with the trail following the old double-track road along coastal bluffs.

Pacific Ocean from the Lost Coast Trail

After an initial open section with coastal views, the Lost Coast Trail quickly rises into a forest dotted with spruce and firs. In spring, wildflowers abound, including California poppies, lupine, Indian paintbrush, wild morning glory, penstemon, monkeyflower, buttercup, and Douglas iris. (Note: red columbines become visible later in the hike.) After rounding a couple shady ravines, the trail comes to a highly eroded cut at 4/10 mile, where part of the soil beneath the road has vanished into the ocean below. The bluffs along the Lost Coast are very fragile and sensitive to erosion—the result originally of seismic activity along the San Andreas Fault, situated just offshore around here.

Descent between Needle Rock and Bear Harbor
Views north to King Range

Continue on to another ravine, this one with a flowing tributary (at least in winter and spring) that is easily crossed. Proceed up a steep incline, rising higher into the forest, then descend a scenic downhill with coastal vistas to Chamisal Mountain, Shelter Cove, and the King Range to the north. The trail heads toward a pair of two coastal humps and then bears left along a quiet drainage out of sight of the ocean. The drainage reveals itself to be Flat Rock Creek, a waypoint marked with a small worn-down sign. This is the most reliable water source before Bear Harbor, about 1.3 miles away.

After crossing the modest stream, the trail crosses a meadow of coastal scrub and then ascends somewhat sharply to clear a point on the right that is marked on maps as High Tip. Soon the path descends again, with views along the coast to a sea stack called Morgan Rock. The V-shaped cut in the distance is Wheeler Beach—the destination for this leg that is nonetheless still a little less than six miles away.

Views to Morgan Rock and the Lost Coast headlands

Dropping down another scenic slope brings hikers parallel to another outcrop, just out to sea, called North Rock. Look back to the north for a view of a pair of natural arches, carved by the relentless waves crashing against the eroding cliffs. Drop again to clear an alder-lined ravine, then follow a long meadow, protected from the ocean by a line of fir-topped hillsides.

North Rock
Arch and wildflower views

At 2.4 miles, the trail comes upon a surprising sight: a pair of pit toilets on the left. The now-overgrown field on which you stand was not so long ago a dirt parking area, the terminus of Briceland Road. Orchard Creek Camp is also here—named for the drainage running through the area. However, camping here is far less scenic than Bear Harbor just ¼ mile farther.

Pushing on, the wide track suddenly ends, replaced by a narrow single-track that pushes through dense brush, a teaser of what is to come. After crossing Orchard Creek, continue southeast along the broader Railroad Creek, entering a eucalyptus grove—a clear sign of former human development. These non-native trees were planted en masse across much of the state after the mid-19th century. The trail along here roughly follows the railbed that was once used to haul lumber, culminating at Bear Harbor just beyond. There are few traces of it left—but there are a few concrete slabs that serve as a reminder of the once-bustling logging enterprise.

Eucalyptus grove near Bear Harbor

It is a short walk from the eucalyptus to Bear Harbor Camp, a multi-site campground with picnic tables and fire pits. This camp often fills up on holiday weekends, such as Memorial Day and 4th of July, but is relatively sparsely used the rest of the year. At 2.7 miles, a spur trail leads right, over a bridge, to the small beach at Bear Harbor. Here there was once a wharf that was used for loading lumber onto offshore schooners.

Bridge to Bear Harbor

Some hikers, especially if arriving late in the day, may opt to overnight here at one of the sites at Bear Harbor. Several pretty camping spots are within striking distance of Railroad Creek and the beach, with spring wildflowers producing striking colors all around.

Those pushing on to Wheeler, however, are less than halfway, with the most challenging terrain to come. The sign at the junction to Bear Harbor beach is partly correct: it is indeed about 4.5 miles from here to Wheeler, but the sign indicates 4.5 miles to “Little Jackass Creek,” which is in fact the next destination beyond Wheeler (about 8 miles from here). So the distance is right but the destination incorrect…

Trudging through the thicket

Immediately after the junction, hikers will notice a significant deterioration in the quality of the trail. The path is quickly overtaken by dense brush, including blackberry bushes and assorted greenery but also thistle and some poison oak: wearing pants (and perhaps long sleeves) is a must. The subsequent ¾ mile is one of the roughest stretches of the hike, beginning with the thicket, then, especially after crossing a modest stream, rising a slope with several downed trees. Avoiding the obstacles requires some backpacker jujitsu: clambering over or ducking under fallen trunks in several places.

Tree obstacle along Lost Coast Trail
More obstacles along the route

The trail beyond the stream is free of thistle but very steep and full of tree obstacles. Take your time, rising amid the firs and ferns, gaining about 250 feet in elevation—with five switchbacks—before levelling off briefly. The ascent resumes shortly thereafter but is milder and relatively free of fallen branches, and there are some obscured views down to the coast below.

Continue along the west-facing hillside until it begins to drop eastward, clearing a beautiful gully known as Duffy’s Gulch. The decline brings one past the first old-growth redwoods of the hike: mammoth titans that were somehow spared during the logging spree of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The sporadic stands in this drainage take on the name J. Smeaton Chase Grove, named for a famous nature writer and traveler who explored much of California around the turn of the century. The scenery at the point where the Lost Coast Trail crosses the creek is simply sublime: moss-laden oaks mix with ruddy redwoods and a carpet of ferns, punctuated by the gently tumbling stream. This is one of the prettiest spots on the entire hike.

Creek crossing in Duffy’s Gulch in the midst of J. Smeaton Grove

After the creek, the climb resumes, steadily treading upward toward the coastal bluffs. At 4.9 miles, the path crests a ridge, with a short spur heading right for seaside views. After a brief open and brushy section, the trail returns to the woods and climbs again, with the understory growing thicker. Pass a redwood patch at about 5.5 miles, then ascend very sharply up to a thin highline. The trail soon passes the highest point on the Needle Rock-Wheeler section, roughly 900 feet above sea level.

As the Lost Coast Trail begins another descent, it passes two depressions on the left that are filled with immature redwoods. Soon after, there is another surprising uphill, this one cresting at about 750 feet, following at last by the long, final descent to Wheeler Camp and the beach. As a small drainage feeds into a larger one, hikers pass through School Marm Grove, another impressive clutch of redwoods.

School Marm Grove

The lengthy downhill ends at about 7.1 miles, where there is a trail sign, another pit toilet, and an open field. This is the start of Wheeler Camp, a camping area with several sites spread out over the course of about 2/3 mile. Those seeking to camp among the redwoods can find a lovely streamside site off to the left, sitting along the banks of the North Fork of Jackass Creek.

Descent to Wheeler Camp through School Marm Grove

Within 1/10 mile, the trail crosses the North Fork (an easy rock-hop) then continues through more brush to another campsite at 7.4 miles. This one has a pit toilet off to the left (the closest to the beach). Cross a second stream—the main branch of Jackass Creek—soon thereafter, then come to an open scrubland with several more sites on the right. It is hard to believe, but this seemingly pristine area was once home to a bustling logging community. The dense tree cover has since recovered, returning the drainage to its near-natural state.

Heading toward Wheeler Beach

The best campsites (unless you don’t like a little wind) are situated at the end of the drainage where Jackass Creek passes through an alder grove and snakes around Wheeler Beach, culminating at the Pacific Ocean. The black sand beach is a fronted by tall cliffs on either side and is a wonderful place to watch the sunset. Campsites can be found along the scrubby upland just above creek level (on both sides of the stream). Here one can watch the sun set over the crashing waves, enjoy a fire (permitted in designated fire pits only), and, if heading farther south the next day, rest for the onward journey to Little Jackass Creek and beyond.

Black sand beach at Wheeler
Looking back up the Jackass Creek drainage

All told, this strenuous hike takes at least 4-6 hours one way, with hiking pace declining significantly after Bear Harbor due to the extensive up and down and many obstacles. Travelers often take a rest day here at Wheeler Camp (or a day hike up to Little Jackass Creek or Sally Bell Grove) or head back to Needle Rock the following morning. Southbound Lost Coast Trail hikers have another 1-2 days ahead of them to reach Usal Beach.

Camp at Wheeler Beach
Sunset at Wheeler Beach
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Chilnualna Falls Trail (Yosemite National Park, CA)

Chilnualna Falls, Yosemite National Park, May 2022

Yosemite National Park is the land of towering waterfalls—although seeing them often comes with a price: contending with throngs of other visitors for the best look at the majestic drops. Yet this is not the case everywhere: lesser-known waterfalls such as Carlon Falls or Foresta Falls draw fewer crowds. So too with mighty Chilnualna Falls, a multi-tiered drop in the Wawona area, near the southern reaches of the park. Here the spring runoff creates thunderous cascades, with the tallest freefalling around 250 feet. The Chilnualna Falls Trail offers access, reaching an initial set of cascades—impressive in itself—before rising steadily to the top of the highest drop two other beautiful torrents. The glen just east of the trail fork at mile four, set just below the final falls, is a magnificent place to have lunch (or perhaps camp) and serves as the turnaround point for the hike.

Map of Chilnualna Falls Trail, Yosemite National Park; created using alltrails.com

The hike

The Chilnualna Falls Trailhead is tucked away in a wooded valley in southern Yosemite National Park that is dotted with scores of vacation homes (a surprising sight in a national park!). From Wawona Road, bear east on Chilnualna Falls Road, situated just north of the Wawona Visitor Center, Wawona Hotel, and crossing of the South Fork of the Merced River. Follow the road for about 2.2 miles, just before it crosses Chilnualna Creek. Here, off to the right, there is a small parking lot that is marked as the trailhead.

Park here, and then walk north to return to Chilnualna Falls Road. Bear right, coming to an intersection with a paved road heading uphill to the left, while the main track turns to dirt and drops down to the creek. This is the official start of the Chilnualna Falls Trail, a narrow singletrack that threads between the two roads.

Hikers need not wait long for rewarding views, with the trail quickly rising to a creek-side section with thundering cascades. Admittedly, the shadows and dense tree cover make photography difficult, but a series of spur trails offer access to the base of impressive drops, with one or two surpassing 20-30 feet. In spring, this place is absolutely booming, with the entire weight of Chilnualna Creek pouring down the hillside. This area is sometimes called Lower Chilnualna Falls.

Cascade at Lower Chilnualna Falls

Head up a steep and narrow staircase, hugging a cliffside on the left bank of the creek, then enjoy the up-close views of the cascades before the trail suddenly swings left around a switchback, moving away from the creek. Hikers will come to a junction at around 0.35 miles, where the stock trail comes in from the left; head right to continue toward Upper Chilnualna Falls.

Hikers have to work considerably harder to get to the upper falls, ascending about 2,000 feet over the course of 3.5 miles. Much of the walk is forested, but the open sections can be very hot in the summer months. As the path rounds a right-hand switchback, hikers get their first good views across Wawona Valley to the south and west. Coursing through a manzanita stand brings hikers to a granite slab, at about 7/10 mile, that offers an unobstructed look at Wawona Dome (6,897’), the most striking granite face in the area.

Wawona Dome

As the hikers enter a thicker coniferous layer, the Chilnualna Falls Trail rises within earshot of the rumbling stream and traverses a minor tributary at about the one-mile mark. For a brief period the route levels off and heads east to return to Chilnualna Creek. A couple spur trails offer access to the stream, making for a nice snack spot.

There is much more uphill to come, however, and the incline picks up considerably after about 1.6 miles. Now a considerable distance from the creek, the route switchbacks up a brushy and forested slope, occasionally offering clear vistas of Wawona Dome and the valley below.

Views to Wawona Dome and valley

It is not until about 2.6 miles that hikers catch their first glimpse of Upper Chilnualna Falls: the highest cataract drops around 250 feet but remains very distant and is partially blocked from view by a protruding outcrop.

Distant view of Chilnualna Falls

The views improve upon crossing another tributary at about 2.95 miles, then the trail settles into an eastward tread toward the falls. At 3.5 miles, the path turns into an epic staircase resembling the famous ledge section of the High Sierra Trail in nearby Sequoia National Park. This final stretch offers excellent views of the valley and culminates at the top of the highest cascade at Upper Chilnualna Falls.

Staircase section
Top of highest drop at Chilnualna Falls

It is very difficult to get a full view of the falls, and only the bravest souls will peer over the edge to the tight gorge below. But one can still enjoy the thundering sound of the falls—as well as a look upstream at a smaller but still mighty drop of around 80-100 feet. This middle fall can be accessed by way of the continuing trail, which approaches the base before cutting left and up a clutch of switchbacks to the top of the cascade.

Middle falls
Middle Chilnualna Falls

Many will choose to turn around at the first two falls, but it is worth pushing on to the trail fork (four miles from the start), which marks the official end of this day hike. Here hikers enter a secluded glen where two branches of Chilnualna Creek meet. Heading off-trail leads down to the confluence, and it is worth exploring a few minutes upstream on the right branch to get a full view of the final cascade: a multi-drop falls that terminates in an inviting pool.

Upper falls

The trail of course continues farther beyond here, rising to cross Chilnualna Creek again above these final falls and connecting with a broader network of trails leading to Glacier Point, the Clark Range, and beyond. But most day hikers will want to turn around at this point, as it is a long and tiring journey back down.

Wawona Valley

After enjoying the falls and glen, return the way you came, dropping back past the booming cataract, down the switchbacking trail, and past the initial cascades. All told, the out-and-back clocks in at around eight miles, plus 2/10 mile or so to and from the parking lot to the trail start. This is not quite an all-day hike, but it will take most visitors the bulk of a day to complete.

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Lower Mariposa Grove Loop (Yosemite National Park, CA)

Mariposa Grove Trail, Yosemite National Park, May 2022

Though not the tallest, nor the widest, giant sequoias—found only in California’s Sierra Nevada—are the largest trees by volume in the world. The largest of three sequoia stands in Yosemite, Mariposa Grove is a top destination for visitors to California’s most popular national park. As with basically anywhere, the best way to explore the grove is to hike—and Mariposa boasts an extensive network of trails that crisscrosses the woody hillside. While perhaps the most majestic sequoias lie farther along at the Upper Mariposa Grove, the far more visited lower grove also boasts some of the world’s largest tree specimens, including the famed Grizzly Giant. This short loop hike traverses a section of Lower Mariposa Grove, visiting many of the most famous trees, and takes roughly 1-2 hours to complete.

Map of Lower Mariposa Grove Loop, Yosemite National Park; created using alltrails.com

The hike

Access to Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove differs dramatically by season. From late November through mid-May, hikers must park at the Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza and then walk two miles—either along the road (closed to traffic) or the more scenic Washburn Trail, which parallels the drive—to the Mariposa Grove Arrival Area. But from mid-May to November, hikers can take a shuttle from the parking lot to the arrival area, making a visit to Mariposa Grove far easier (though significantly more crowded). There are some restrooms and drinking water at the arrival area.

There are several loop hiking options from the arrival area, ranging from 1/3 mile to upwards of 10 miles. A modest choice that covers some of the most interesting and easily-accessible terrain is what I am calling the Lower Mariposa Grove Loop, a 2.6-mile circuit. (Note: This is a longer variant of the 2-mile Grizzly Giant Loop Trail, skipping a section in favor of a more interesting detour to an adjoined pair of sequoias called the “Faithful Couple.”)

The route begins on the Big Trees Loop Trail, a short, paved boardwalk that weaves through an impressive stand of the gentle giants. (Note: However, as of 2022, this hike was closed due to storm damage, which blew down several sequoias, obliterating large swathes of the trail. Hikers are asked to detour by instead taking the road to the Grizzly Giant parking area—used only by park staff and those with disability placards.)

Heading up the Grizzly Giant Loop Trail

Routing clockwise around the loop, bear left at the first junction on the dirt Grizzly Giant Loop Trail, which quickly crosses the road and begins to climb mildly up a woody hillside. The sequoias become sparser in number but reappear after about ¼ mile into the hike, followed by a pair of long switchbacks. Head up the switches, then pass another large sequoia on the right at about 6/10 mile. Off to the left is a water tank used by park staff.

At 7/10 mile, the path approaches a fork: head left on the Perimeter Trail, following the signs of the Faithful Couple. This path is narrower but still relatively mild. Stay right at the fork 1/10 mile farther, then snake up a sloping hillside to another route junction at 1.1 miles. Look off to the right, where there is a stand of young sequoias dedicated to Stephen T. Mather, the first superintendent of the National Park Service.

Young sequoia grove

From here head right on the very wide road: this is the Mariposa Grove Trail and the main thoroughfare connecting the upper and lower groves. The winding path quickly comes between two mammoth pairs of sequoias; the one on the right is jointly called the Faithful Couple: once two different trees, these sequoias have since merged at the trunk. This could be considered a rare sight indeed—although interestingly the slightly smaller sequoias just across the trail to the left are also doing the same thing: fusing together into one body.

Base of Faithful Couple

Stay straight on the trail as it drops gradually, heading east until crossing a modest streambed and tributary of Big Creek. From here it is a short walk south to a four-way junction: bear right, returning to a narrower singletrack path that descends steadily. The highlight of this section is a walk through the trunk of the California Tunnel Tree—an unfortunate sequoia with a base that was hollowed out in 1895 so as to fit stagecoaches. Today it stands as a reminder of how perhaps not to do nature tourism—but it remains somewhat amusing to pass through the trunk and out the other side.

Approaching the California Tunnel Tree
California Tunnel Tree

Just beyond, there is a large sitting area and an interpretive trail map/sign, as well as yet another trail junction. Bear left, heading uphill to the base of the Grizzly Giant, the most famous tree in Yosemite and world’s 26th largest sequoia by volume. It was here, in 1903, that then-President Teddy Roosevelt spent the first of three nights camping with famed naturalist John Muir, a visit that helped inspire Roosevelt to extend federal protection of Yosemite and designate several other national parks.

Looking up at Grizzly Giant

Today, Grizzly Giant stands out for its stout base and stubby branches—many of the latter approximating the size of large tree trunks in themselves. At 209 feet tall and 34,005 cubic feet, the Grizzly Giant is neither the tallest nor the largest sequoia in California—but it is perhaps one of the most peculiar-looking.

Looking back at Grizzly Giant

At Grizzly Giant, hikers will rejoin the masses, many of whom have travelled here as an out and back from the arrival area. Bear right, wrapping around to the tree’s west side, then head right again as the Mariposa Grove Trail diverges from the wheelchair-accessible path and drops down a series of steps. Now heading back toward the trailhead, the route passes a final named set of standing sequoias called the Bachelor and Three Graces. These deep orange trees are some of the prettiest on the hike.

Bachelor and Three Graces in Mariposa Grove

After winding down to the road, cross it and continue on the Mariposa Grove Trail until it reaches the Big Trees Loop Trail again. (Note: As of May 2022, this section remained close, and hikers were to divert onto the road, following it back to the start.) Head straight at the next junction and follow the wide path back to the arrival area through a denser set of sequoias. At last, after about 2.6 miles of hiking, the route ends where one started an hour or two prior.

Head back on the shuttle or Washburn Trail to return to the Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza and parking area. Ambitious hikers could alternatively continue farther up the Mariposa Grove Trail to the upper grove, although hiking in winter/spring (when the shuttle is not running) pushes such a hike to over 10 miles or so.

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Washburn Trail (Yosemite National Park, CA)

Washburn Trail, Yosemite National Park, May 2022

There are many spectacular hiking trails in California’s Yosemite National Park—but the Washburn Trail is not necessarily one of them. Although the two-mile walk through a coniferous forest with some modest views is nice, the purpose of this trail is primarily utilitarian. From mid-May to late November each year, the park runs a shuttle service between the Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, taking hikers from the primary parking lot to the foot of Yosemite’s most impressive sequoia grove. But the shuttle does not operate in the off-season, requiring hikers to either walk along the road or to take the Washburn Trail, a newly-constructed (in 2018) path that roughly parallels the drive. The two-mile connector trail gains around 500 feet with a modest grade, culminating at the Mariposa Grove Arrival Area, the launching point for much better hikes into the heart of the sequoias.

Map of Washburn Trail at Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park; source: https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/upload/WawonaAreaHikeMap.pdf

The hike

Situated just inside Yosemite National Park’s South Entrance, the Mariposa Grove Welcome Plaza boasts a very large parking area and a visitor center that is open seasonally. Park here and walk to the end of the parking lot, where hikers are greeted with a small wooden sign indicating that it is about 1.9 miles to Mariposa Grove, the finest of Yosemite’s three sequoia groves (see also the Tuolumne Grove and Merced Grove) and the top destination in the park outside of Yosemite Valley.

The Washburn Trail, which follows part of an old stagecoach road originally constructed in 1879, is a wide and well-worn path that quickly dispenses with the modern, paved road and drops into a pleasant gully fed by a tributary of Big Creek. Cross a new wooden bridge, then settle into a steady but modest climb, first staying under the shade of the pines and firs but then emerging out into the sunny open after about ½ mile.

Manzanita bush along the Washburn Trail

Along the manzanita-studded slope, hikers gain some decent views south and west beyond the park boundary to densely forested hills. At 1.1 miles, hikers come to a sign indicating there is only 0.8 mile left to Mariposa Grove, and the terrain gets a little more interesting as it passes under rock outcrops, all the while keeping Mariposa Grove Road within earshot.

Views from the Washburn Trail

After some ups and downs, the path eventually settles into a relative flat with a pretty drainage down to the right. Just before the Mariposa Grove Arrival Area, there is finally a sequoia tree on the right: not as large as the others farther east, but impressive nonetheless. From here it is steps to the end of the trail, which ends like it began—at a parking lot—although this time one is now tantalizingly close to the gentle giants of Mariposa Grove ahead.

Giant sequoia tree

With the Washburn Trail adding four miles each way, an onward hike to and from the Upper Mariposa Grove (pushing up to 11-12 miles round trip) may be too much for some, but a jaunt around the lower grove is certainly doable before heading back on the connecter path. All told, budget about two hours for the Washburn Trail section, plus additional time at Mariposa Grove.

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Balconies Cliffs – Balconies Cave Trail Loop (Pinnacles National Park, CA)

Balconies Cave Trail, Pinnacles National Park, March 2022

Talus caves—formed when crashing boulders fall into chasms, flooding the canyon with darkness—are an intriguing feature of central California’s Pinnacles National Park, which boasts two such pseudo-karst caverns. The most popular of the two is Bear Gulch Cave, most easily accessible from the east side of the park. (Note: See my post from 2020 on this exploring this cave.) The other—seemingly even darker and lesser-travelled—is Balconies Cave, situated a short walk from Chaparral Trailhead in the western half of the park. This cave—actually more of a boulder-filled gorge than a true cavern—can be explored as part of a 2.6-mile stem-and-loop hike that combines the cave route with the high-flying Balconies Cliffs Trail. (Note: Balconies Cave is sometimes closed after heavy rains or due to bat activity. Given the darkness of the cave, bring a headlamp/flashlight!)

Map of Balconies Cliffs – Balconies Cave Trail Loop, Pinnacles National Park; created using alltrails.com

The hike

The Balconies Loop starts and ends at Chaparral Trailhead, which is the terminus of the California Route 146, running through the western half of Pinnacles National Park. (Note: Access is via Soledad, California and the West Entrance; following a GPS to “Pinnacles National Park” will likely lead one to the east side, which is more than an hour’s drive away!) Arrive early to beat the crowds at Chaparral, which has only a small parking lot – otherwise one will be left to hike further from the Jawbone Parking Area, about ¼ mile away, or even the West Visitor Contact Station, more than two miles back. There are restrooms and picnic tables at the Chaparral Trailhead.

Heading down the Balconies Trail

Both the adjacent Juniper Canyon Trail (see detailed route description here) and the Balconies Trail take off from the southeast corner of the parking area at Chaparral, briefly adjoined as one dusty trail before quickly diverging. Head left on the Balconies Trail as it skirts a scrubby slope and bends northeast, passing under moss-laden oaks. Stay right at the junction at 250 yards (this spur trail leads to the back end of the Chaparral Picnic Area).

Approaching the cliffs along the Balconies Trail
Narrowing canyon along the Balconies Trail

Follow the drainage as it gradually narrows and approaches the edge of the red-orange breccia outcrops—a gateway into the heart of Pinnacles. Pass a spur trail at 4/10 mile leading to the Elephant Rock climbing area, then follow the dirt path as it traverses three short bridges. With the canyon now strikingly slender, pass through a few lovely glens and bear left at the fork at 0.65 miles: this is the start of the Balconies Cliffs Trail.

Looking up at the Balconies Cliffs
High on the Balconies Cliffs Trail

Saving the cave section for last, climb steadily up the cliffs trail, rising to a shelf overlooking the thin canyon, flanked by high walls laced with vertical and horizontal streaks. As the path approaches its high point, views unfold to the broader valley of the Chalone Creek drainage. Up to the left, hikers will see the iconic chimneys of the Balconies, a striking rock face with several climbing routes.

Open views to the Chalone Creek drainage

Soon the Balconies Cliffs Trail drops down and around a minor ravine and reverts southward to the streambed, connecting with the Balconies Cave Trail. Bear right here, embarking on a short and meandering walk through shady glens and narrows to the start of the cave.

Near the entry to Balconies Cave
Entry chockstone

Pass through a gate to enter Balconies Cave, which is traversed in two sections, interrupted by a brief open section. The cave route immediately passes under an imposing chockstone, with the onward path cutting under a low-hanging boulder and up a thin staircase, leading into the darkest section of the cave—so dark, in fact, that one will need a light to see ahead. This area can be slow-going if the cave is crowded, with ramblers needing all four limbs to pull themselves through some moderately tight spaces.

The first cave section culminates with a steep stairstep rise through a small break in the boulder-strewn ceiling, returning to the sunny open expanse. The respite is brief, however, as the onward trail returns within minutes to a second cave, this one much shorter but arguably more spectacular.

Second cave section

A few railings assist with ascents and descents, and the cave ends with a tremendous straightaway, where hikers will pass under a series of chockstones, with the light shining through the crevice to produce an alluring effect that is great for photographs.

Chockstone in Balconies Cave
Boulder jam at the end of the cave

Finally, after about ½ mile on the Balconies Cave Trail, hikers will reemerge from the talus cave and return to the junction with the Balconies Cliffs Trail, coming in from the right. Bear left, following the Balconies Trail for 6/10 mile back to the start of the hike.

All told, this 2.6-mile jaunt will take hikers 1-2 hours, depending on crowds and abilities. Be prepared for dark passages and some modest scrambling along what is one of Pinnacles’ most memorable hiking routes.

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Juniper Canyon Trail to High Peaks Loop (Pinnacles National Park, CA)

High Peaks Trail, Pinnacles National Park, March 2022

So jagged, sharp, and forbidding are the towering spires of central California’s Pinnacles National Park that there is no road able to bisect it, leaving visitors to drive up to the base of the breccia wonderland—and then hike the rest. The High Peaks area, easily the centerpiece of the park, is accessible from both the east and west entrances of Pinnacles—but hikers will have to work for it, slithering through rugged canyons and zig-zagging up sun-soaked slopes to reach the hightops. Once in the High Peaks, travelers are rewarded with far-reaching vistas across the Gabilan Range and ample opportunities to spot the park’s most famous residents: the California condors, reintroduced to the area under careful supervision in the late 1990s. In a previous post, I covered a 5.1-mile circuit hike that approaches the High Peaks from the east—and most popular—side of the park. In this post, I outline an alternative option—a stem-and-loop from the west side of Pinnacles—that rivals the eastern approach in its stunning beauty and, like its cousin, traverses the memorable “Steep and Narrow” section of the High Peaks Trail.

Map of Juniper Canyon Trail to High Peaks Loop, Pinnacles National Park; created using alltrails.com

The hike

This strenuous circuit is steeper but shorter than the Condor Gulch – High Peaks Loop and begins and ends at Pinnacles National Park’s Chaparral Trailhead, which is located at the end of California Route 146 in the west side of the preserve. (Note: Access is via Soledad, California and the West Entrance; following a GPS to “Pinnacles National Park” will likely lead one to the east side, which is more than an hour’s drive away!) Arrive early to beat the crowds at Chaparral, which has only a small parking lot – otherwise one will be left to hike further from the Jawbone Parking Area, about ¼ mile away, or even the West Visitor Contact Station, more than two miles back. There are restrooms and picnic tables at the Chaparral Trailhead.

The Juniper Canyon Trail takes off from the southeast corner of the parking area, just near the entrance to the lot. The initial route is shared with the nearby walk to the Balconies area, which boasts an impressive talus cave and high canyon walls. But the two routes diverge quickly; bear right at the first junction, following a (usually dry) creek bed and entering Juniper Canyon. Ahead, the High Peaks of Pinnacles stand in an imposing clump.

The namesake “pinnacles” are primarily composed of red-gray breccia, a form of volcanic rhyolite fused with fragments of minerals cemented together into a fine-grained matrix. The Pinnacles Volcanic Field took form around 23 million years ago and was thrust upward through volcanic activity along the San Andreas Fault Line. Movement of the plates transported the rock that now forms Pinnacles about 195 miles north from its original birthplace. Over time, the volcanic field began to sink and the rock layers eroded away, leaving behind the hard breccia and other rhyolitic formations seen today.

The initial stages of the Juniper Canyon Trail involve some mild walking through a riparian corridor with some tall trees, including a variety of oaks, cottonwoods, buckeyes, and gray pines. Follow the right flank of the canyon, passing the first rock jumble on the left after about 250 yards. The trail then drops to the streambed, follows it straight up the gut for about 30 yards, then exits again. After briefly following the left side of the waterway, the route crosses back to the right flank. Here one is greeted with a steeper incline, only a teaser of what’s to come.

Riparian area in Juniper Canyon

After around ¼ mile in the woodlands of middle Juniper Canyon, the trail crosses the streambed a final time and begins to climb a slope opposite the Resurrection Wall, a popular climbing spot. Immediately head up two switchbacks, followed by a third in the shadow of a gargantuan boulder that juts out like the bow of a mighty ship.

Views from the Juniper Canyon Trail

From here the Juniper Canyon Trail mounts a rocky crest with beautiful views of the Resurrection Wall and surrounding outcrops. After rounding another corner at about 9/10 mile, one can see north toward the Balconies area and Machete Ridge. The ever-ascending trail then proceeds to conquer about a dozen switchbacks, mounting a chalky slope with thick scrub, before reaching a trail junction at about 1.2 miles.

This is the start of the loop section, and here hikers have a choice: bear left on the squiggling Tunnel Trail or right on the squiggling Juniper Canyon Trail. Either route brings one to the High Peaks, although heading right and covering the loop in a counter-clockwise direction is perhaps a tad easier.

Continuing on the Juniper Canyon Trail, the route edges southward along the base of a series of outcrops, with ledges dropping off to the right. The trail even briefly descends for a bit before resuming a climb, up a set of four switchbacks. At the top lies the Junction Saddle and High Peaks “Comfort Station”—a fancy name for a bench and a pit toilet.

Resurrection Wall from near Junction Saddle

Here at the saddle, three routes converge, and hikers get their first views down to the east side of Pinnacles: down Bear Gulch and Bear Valley and through the Gabilan Range to the next range—Real de las Aquilas—beyond. One can also make out the Condor Gulch Trail, which rises steadily up a sun-exposed slope toward the High Peaks.

Once ready, continue the hike by heading left on a section of the High Peaks Trail that was once charmingly known as the “Fingers Foot Trail” but now takes on a less inviting title: the “Steep and Narrow” section. From here, hikers will climb steep, chiseled steps, duck under overhangs, gawk at the open views, and perhaps spot several condors over the course of the next ¾ mile.

The trail begins by edging along a west-facing slope then cuts over a pass and down to the east flank of the High Peaks, switchbacking down a scrubby hillside with wispy pines and open views to Bear Valley. Soon the path passes a series of fissures on the right, each giving way to a near-vertical drop to the gulch below.

Eastward view from the High Peaks Trail

After rounding a shady bend, the High Peaks Trail embarks on its first of several staircases – this one a relatively mild ascent but right against a bulky outcrop, with a steel guardrail. Thereafter, the trail climbs an abrupt incline that mounts a steep ravine, then rounds to the base of a memorable staircase—this one wedged in a trough with a metal rail.

California condor in a pine tree

From here the path follows a high ledge and then abuts a protruding overhang, with hikers having to duck or lean away from the wall in a couple of places. Then it is down a steep staircase with steps carved into the rock—the handiwork of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which completed the trail in 1933.

Climbing the second staircase
Another stony staircase

Around the corner lies another staircase, after which the trail mellows, descending a modest slope before rising again to a high notch with more views to the north and west. From here it is a short walk, below Hawkins Peak, to the junction with the Tunnel Trail. Bear left here to continue the loop back to Juniper Canyon.

Machete Ridge from the High Peaks Trail

The Tunnel Trail does indeed culminate in a man-made tunnel, but the defining feature of the path is switchbacks, which come in bunches. After seven downhill wiggles, the trail rises to a high saddle overlooking the next drainage. Then it is down several more, moving through three more gaps and dropping to a bridge over a dark chasm. Hikers are greeted on the other side by a 120-foot tunnel carved through a solid rock buttress. The tunnel connects hikers back with the Juniper Canyon Trail, at the end of the loop section.

Tunnel Trail Bridge

From here, hikers must retrace familiar territory, descending the dozen switches back down to the canyon floor. Upon returning to Juniper Canyon, it is about 2/3 mile back to the trailhead, treading in and out of the wash and through the riparian area. At last, after 4.3 miles of hiking—although it feels like much more—the Juniper Canyon Trail ends back at the parking area.

Back at the entry to Juniper Canyon

Like all hikes in Pinnacles, this strenuous stem-and-loop should not be attempted in the brutal summer heat: the temperatures in the High Peaks have been known to surpass 110 degrees. All told, the 4.3-mile hike takes between 3-5 hours to complete.

Posted in California, Pinnacles National Park, Strenuous Hikes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Ridge – Panorama – Bluffs Trail Loop (Andrew Molera State Park, CA)

Panorama Trail, Andrew Molera State Park, March 2022

Traversing a scrubby escarpment above the Pacific Ocean, the Ridge – Panorama – Bluffs Trail is a pleasant 8-mile jaunt in the Big Sur area and one of the best hikes in Andrew Molera State Park. Don’t be fooled by the gads of visitors at the parking area: most are headed for the Molera Ranch House or the beach at Molera Point. The majority of the walk spans more rugged terrain that thins the crowds and opens up the fantastic views: up the coast to Point Sur and across the Big Sur River Valley to the Santa Lucia Mountains. The loop twice offers beach access (along short spur trails) and combines a diversity of flora, including a small patch of redwoods.

Map of Ridge – Panorama – Bluffs Trail Loop, Andrew Molera State Park; created using alltrails.com

The hike

Most trips to Andrew Molera State Park—situated about 25 miles south of Monterey, California—begin at the Creamery Meadow Trailhead, where there is an entrance station and a large gravel parking area. Park here, make your way back past the entrance station, then take a hard right, passing under a white gateway. Follow the wide track, passing the pasture land of Molera Ranch on the left (this field is a favorite of ground squirrels!). At the first right, take the route heading down to the banks of the Big Sur River.

Crossing the Big Sur River

Here there is a footbridge that is only in place in summer; at all other times, hikers will have to ford the chilly but relatively still waters—expect at least ankle- to shin-high levels; there is no way to avoid wet feet here. This is the only river crossing on the hike, however (although one has to do it twice), and the onward trail returns quickly to dry, sunny flats along the northern edge of Pfeiffer Ridge.

Bear right at the fork just past the ford, then follow the Creamery Meadow Trail for about ¾ mile, passing some open patches on the right astride what is largely a rather dull connector path. Things get more interesting after a junction at about 9/10 mile, where hikers should bear left, climbing immediately on the Ridge Trail. The thick scrub fades as the path rises to a low gap and second fork with open views of Pfeiffer Ridge and the surroundings. This is the start of the loop portion of the hike.

Climbing the Ridge Trail, with Cabezo Prieto looming above

Bearing left to tackle the ridgeline first, follow the dirt track as it ascends through scrubby chaparral, steadily gaining height. Look back north for views of Molera Point and the primary beach, with a small cypress stand perched atop a windswept hill near the ocean. More and more of the coastline is revealed as the Ridge Trail rises further: eventually one can see to Point Sur and beyond.

View back toward Molera Point and Beach
Flat section of the Ridge Trail

After about ½ mile of continuous climbing, there is a brief flat that offers views of Pico Blanco (3,709’), a towering mountain that at first glance appears snow-capped—until, upon closer inspection, it is revealed to be a mix of limestone and marble. Pico Blanco is considered to be central to the origin story of the native Esselen people and later came to be mined for its limestone deposits. The peak is not one of the highest mountains in the Santa Lucia Range but perhaps one of the most iconic.

Pico Blanco

By now hikers have gained around 400 feet, but there is plenty more to go. The incline picks up again for about 1/3 mile, then levels and even descends briefly. As Mount Manuel and Cabezo Prieto dominate the skyline to the southeast, the vegetation around the path grows thicker; eventually even the pines, oaks, and bay trees return, with some berry-bearing toyon mixed in. After passing a junction with the (closed) Hidden Trail on the left, there is a gap off to the right with views down to the Pacific.

Brief descent on the Ridge Trail; Mount Manuel off to the left

As the trail heads uphill again, madrones, bays, and oaks make for nice tree cover. After a junction with the South Boundary Trail, at about 2.9 miles, the route passes through a modest redwood grove—not one of the most impressive in the area but pleasant enough. After staying relatively level for around ¼ mile, the Ridge Trail makes a final push, with vistas back north along the coast. At last, about 3.6 miles from the start, the Ridge Trail ends abruptly at a high point under the shade of a large cypress tree. This is a natural spot to stop for lunch or a snack, enjoying the views of the Pacific.

Views of the coast, with Point Sur in the distance

The Ridge Trail may end here, but the Panorama Trail picks up where it leaves off. Follow the steeply-descending path as it bears south and west, hugging the park boundary. At points hikers get elusive views south, down the Big Sur Coast—an area that is frequently socked in with fog.

Southward view along Big Sur Coast
Morning glory in bunches

Thereafter, the trail moves away from the boundary fence-line and drops steadily, down a winding singletrack in full view of the ocean. In spring, the bushes here are dazzling with morning glories. Dropping ever further, the Panorama Trail routs down to a hairpin turn, bears left, and then resumes the descent. The path eventually settles into a relative flat on a shelf below the high ridge but still well above the beach. This windswept area is largely devoid of tall trees.

Dropping down the Panorama Trail

Soon the trail drops to clear a ravine with a small stream, then rises to a junction, where a spur trail leads left and offers access to Molera Beach. Take this brief detour down to the ocean, or continue right, following what is now the Bluffs Trail. In contrast with the Panorama Trail, this path is largely level, passing multihued mounds on left and right, including a set of orange tufts immediately after the junction.

Bluffs Trail
Looking back south – one can see the big cypress on the ridge in the top left

Follow this enjoyable path in a northwesterly direction for 1.5 miles, then rise back to the initial junction, having now completed the loop section. This time bear left and follow the path down to the Creamery Meadow Trail, where hikers should head right. It’s an easy and level walk from here to the river crossing: yes, given the water stands between you and your car, fording again is mandatory. Once back across the Big Sur River, hang a left and walk 1/10 mile back to the entrance station and trailhead.

All told, this hike clocks in at just under eight miles and should take about 4-6 hours to complete.

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