South Wilderness Trail (Pinnacles National Park, CA)


South Wilderness Trail, Pinnacles National Park, August 2019

Every national park has one: a trail that, despite lacking any particularly notable beauty, exists seemingly to be hiked only by those seeking the satisfaction of completing every trail in the park. In Capitol Reef National Park, a former focus of this blog, it is the much-maligned Old Wagon Trail. In Pinnacles National Park, it is the pleasant but underwhelming South Wilderness Trail. Starting part way down Pinnacles Highway on the east side of the park, this winding track follows a seasonal stream through thickets of valley oaks and features distant views of Mount Defiance and Chalone Peak, two of the highest mountains in the Gabilan Range. The flat and easy Bench Trail connects Pinnacles Campground with the start of the South Wilderness Trail.

South Wilderness Trail Pinnacles hike information

South Wilderness Trail Pinnacles map

Map of South Wilderness Trail, Pinnacles National Park; created using (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The Bench Trail, which provides access to the South Wilderness Trail, takes off from the southwest corner of the Pinnacles Campground, just beyond Group Sites 133 and 134. (Note: To access, walk or drive through the RV area and continue to the end of the road; the rest of the campground through the brush to the south.) A single trail sign marks the start of the wide path that weaves through a thicket of shrubs. After 1/10 mile, the path reaches a gate and trail information board. Continue past the gate, with an open field on the right. In the sunny sections, one can see Mount Defiance (2,657’) straight ahead; however, the main Pinnacles area—the High Peaks—is obscured from view.


Bench Trail, with Mount Defiance beyond

Roughly paralleling Pinnacles Highway, the road noise never really dissipates along the Bench Trail. By 4/10 mile, the path buts right up against the road; in fact, there is an interpretive wayside along the trail that discusses road traffic and efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

At 6/10 mile, the Bench Trail intersects a gravel fire road heading south. Bear left on the road, then continue straight as the Bench Trail continues off to the right around 70 yards later. This area is one of the prettiest of the hike, with towering valley oak trees providing temporary shade.


Towering oaks along the fire road

After following the fire road for about ¼ mile, look for a signed single-track bearing off to the right: this is the South Wilderness Trail. Following this spur, the modest wash that was on the left gives way to a much larger one on the right: Chalone Creek, which is likely to be mostly—although not completely—dry in summer. Amid a smattering of gray pines and open fields, the trail drops to cross Chalone Creek at about the hike’s one-mile mark.


Opening along the start of the South Wilderness Trail

Follow the faint path up the valley, keeping the creek on your left. At 1.1 miles, two tall pines and a sycamore provide shade on a hot day. Shortly after, the trail runs right up to the base of the hillside on the right but does not climb it, staying in the low floodplain of Chalone Creek.


Climbing up along the banks of Chalone Creek

After a half-mile of flat and pleasant hiking, the trail suddenly veers right and climbs 10-15 feet abruptly; here the creek runs almost right up against the hillside, requiring hikers to gain height to clear the terrain. Traversing an elevated bench, the path skirts a side ravine at about 1.8 miles, then the South Wilderness Trail ascends again, following the narrower canyon as it bends right. Chalone Peak (3,304’), the highest point in Pinnacles National Park, is now visible ahead. After this brief interruption, the trail descends back to the floodplain.


Chalone Peak in the distance

As the path encounters a dry, sandy basin at around 2.25 miles, the trail becomes more difficult to follow. Generally, however, it is wisest to simply follow the dry stream bed (a corollary of the main Chalone Creek to the left) as it meanders through the brush. Occasional rock cairns mark the way. At 2.4 miles, the trail crosses another stream bed where the trail continuation is easier to discern. Finally, the path returns to the woods, briefly following the banks of the creek, then climbs to a grassy area with views of the mountains.

About 2.6 miles from the trailhead, the South Wilderness Trail crests a hill, revealing a turn in the canyon to the right. After a brief downhill, the trail abruptly ends at 2.9 miles at a barbed wire fence, with private property beyond. It is possible to follow a social trail continuing along the fence on the right, but there is little to gain, so this is—for all intents and purposes—the terminus of the hike.


End of the South Wilderness Trail

The views from this area are decent: the chaparral valley continues southward, at the base of a series of sloping peaks on the right. None of this hike, however, is overwhelming, and hikers are likely to be captivated less by grandeur than by relief that the trail has ended. Of course, it’s a 2.9-mile return journey to the trailhead, back the way you came. At least a series of nice oaks, pines, and sycamores provide some relief from the hot sun. All told, the out-and-back clocks in at around 5.8 miles, a hike that should take 3-4 hours. The elevation gain is rather negligible, although there are some climbs and dips that make this a potentially moderately difficult hike.

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Bear Gulch Cave – Rim Trail Loop (Pinnacles National Park, CA)


Bear Gulch Cave Trail, Pinnacles National Park, August 2019

Sporting one of California’s finest talus caves and shoreline access to a picturesque, rock-hewn reservoir, the Bear Gulch Cave Trail is one of the most popular hikes in Pinnacles National Park. Here a jumble of boulders, so large and tightly-packed that it blankets the ground with darkness, forms subterranean passages home to a resident colony of big-eared bats (though rarely seen). Beyond the reservoir, rock outcrops and excellent views of Bear Valley, the High Peaks, and the broader Gabilan Range entertain visitors returning to the trailhead via the Rim Trail, capping off a short, 1.5-mile loop. (Note: Bring a flashlight for the cave, and check at the Visitor Center to ensure that the caves are accessible. Upper Bear Gulch Cave is generally open for only a short window in late March and late October and thus excluded from this description. The lower cave is usually open year-round except between mid-May and mid-July.)

Bear Gulch Cave Trail Rim Trail Loop Pinnacles hike information

Bear Gulch Cave Trail Rim Trail Loop Pinnacles map

Map of Bear Gulch Cave – Rim Trail Loop, Pinnacles National Park, created using (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The moderately difficult circuit hike begins and ends at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area in the eastern section of Pinnacles National Park, situated at the end of Pinnacles Highway, roughly 3.3 miles from the Pinnacles Visitor Center. (Note: Continue past the Bear Gulch Nature Center, which serves as the starting point for the more strenuous Condor Gulch-High Peaks Trail Loop. Parking is somewhat limited at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area; if there are no spots, backtrack to the Nature Center and park there, then follow an easy, wide path through a picnic area for ¼ mile to reach the trailhead.)


Start of the trail heading up to Bear Gulch Cave

From the trailhead, follow the well-worn and obvious path southward; this is technically the Moses Spring Trail. (Note: A trail sign offers updates on the status of cave closures.) The trail begins by climbing through oak woodlands, leaving the base of Bear Gulch behind. At 1/10 mile, hikers enter a narrow canyon with shaded walls of breccia and the characteristic boulders that form the dark caves ahead. After climbing through a rocky notch, the drainage widens again, revealing a lush riparian landscape, a relative rarity in a park dominated by dry chaparral.


Bear Gulch Canyon

Bear left at the first trail junction, where the High Peaks Trail comes in from the right. (Note: This will be your return route.) Following a dry creek bed upstream, the Moses Spring Trail cuts through a short tunnel at ¼ mile climbs to a large boulder with open views up-canyon. The rhyolite outcrops here take on a gray-orange hue, with occasional splotches of red and yellow. Just beyond, stay left at the trail fork, starting up the Bear Gulch Cave Trail.

At 4/10 miles, the trail passes through a narrow slot, passing a high alcove on the right. Just beyond, a trail sign (“Caution Flashlights Required Low Ceilings Slippery When Wet”) marks the start of Lower Bear Gulch Cave. Don your headlamps here and prepare for cooler temperatures as you enter the spooky darkness.


Entrance to Lower Bear Gulch Cave

After passing under an initial low overhang, the ceiling rises to around 40-50 feet, and the trail traverses a short bridge over Bear Creek, which is likely to be dry much of the year. Bear Gulch Cave began as a basic canyon, formed by faults and fractures in the igneous rock. Yet over time the narrow slot filled with massive boulders, forming a dark ceiling above. Green lichen blankets the walls, shielded from the menacing sun and soaking up the rare rains that reach Pinnacles a handful of times per year.


Dark channel in Bear Gulch Cave

Continuing through the thin channel, the cave gets darker and darker, and a hiker’s staircase provides onward passage. Metal railings assist with the climb and provide security from the sheer drops into the dimly-lit cracks below.

Clearing a set of chockstones, the ascending stairs end at a dark passageway with a fork: the continuing trail to Upper Bear Gulch Cave heads right (but is closed most of the year). Unless you are lucky enough to visit when the upper cave is open, you will be forced to exit the cave through a narrow slot to the left.


Another trail fork awaits once you emerge back into the sunlight at around ½ mile. Heading right leads to a popular climbing area (Discovery Wall), as well as the continuation of the Moses Spring Trail, which skirts the top of the cave. Head left at the junction, continuing as the Bear Gulch Cave Trail bounds up a hillside, then through another narrow notch above the upper cave.


Canyon above Upper Bear Gulch Cave

Don’t put away your headlamp yet, however, as there is another dark passage to come. After spending about 125 yards in the open, the trail descends again into a second cave, this one not as dark or long but perhaps equally scintillating. The trail passes over the creek again, with huge chockstones barely suspended above the ground.


Passing under a huge chockstone

At 6/10 mile, the path emerges back into the sun, climbing a staircase through a gully lush with vegetation. The man-made wall above acts as the dam for the Bear Gulch Reservoir, situated at the top of the steps.


Exiting the second cave, up to the reservoir

While man-made lakes are usually nothing to write home about, the striking setting of Bear Gulch Reservoir—rimmed by hefty boulders and walls of natural stone—makes for a picturesque sight. Frogs, fish, and dragonflies frequent the area (as well as a troupe of rather aggressive squirrels, accustomed to human interaction), and the reservoir is a popular lunch spot for families visiting the park.


Bear Gulch Reservoir

Once ready, either head back the way you came, down through the two caves, or take the fork heading to the right, following the Rim Trail back toward the Bear Gulch Day Use Area. This scenic route ascends a rocky slope, passing two large monoliths on the right. As views of the reservoir dissipate, vistas down Bear Gulch to the northeast open up.


Towering monoliths along Rim Trail

After passing a vertical drop into a chute on the right, the trail levels off and heads north toward a set of rock outcrops; the big thumb-shaped stone on the right is called Teaching Rock and has excellent views east to Bear Valley. Up to the west are the towering precipices of the High Peaks.


Teaching Rock along the Rim Trail, with Bear Valley beyond

Beyond is a downhill section that hugs the rim of Bear Gulch Canyon, followed by a spur right to the top of the Discovery Wall pitch at the one-mile mark. Stay left, descending further and passing a toadstool-shaped rock on the right. At 1.05 miles, hikers will reach a trail junction that is easy to miss; take a hard right on the High Peaks Trail, heading downhill into a side gulch. The decline picks up as hikers pass another spur on the left, this one leading back toward the cave and the base of the Discovery Wall climbing area.


Peering down into Bear Gulch from Rim Trail


Looking down into Bear Gulch

Round a sharp, right-hand bend into the ravine at 1.2 miles, then stay on the main trail as a spur on the left leads to the “Tourist Trap” climbers’ area. Finally, after a series of switchbacks, the High Peaks Trail enters the main gully again and connects with the initial turn on the Moses Spring Trail. Stay left and follow the well-worn path back down through the oak woodlands to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area.


Descending to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area

Hikers should allot around 1.5-2 hours for this moderately difficult hike.

Extra credit

More ambitious hikers can combine the Bear Gulch Cave hike with the more strenuous Condor Gulch – High Peaks Trail Loop, which offers the park’s best panoramic views of the namesake pinnacles. See here for a full trail description.

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Top 10 Hikes in 2019


Crabtree Falls Trail, George Washington National Forest, April 2019

2019 has come and gone, and it was an excellent year for hiking. Over the course of the year, I added 43 posts to Live and Let Hike and notched nearly 150,000 site visits (81,000 visitors). As always, the travel was diverse, spanning hikes and scenic drives from 13 states (plus the District of Columbia), including California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Due to a cross-country move, the primary focus of the blog shifted from the Washington, DC area to northern California. The move itself allowed me to visit several neat spots in western Virginia; traverse Abraham Lincoln’s old stomping grounds in Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky; hike in stunning Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming; and meander through Idaho and Nevada to the west coast. Other highlights include a Memorial Day trip through western Maryland and Pennsylvania, several great jaunts in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, day trips in the San Francisco Bay Area, and overnight visits to Pinnacles and Yosemite National Parks in California.

The top five most visited posts on Live and Let Hike in 2019 were, as usual, holdovers from previous years, mostly from hikes in Utah: (1) Top 10 Hikes in Capitol Reef National Park’s “Frontcountry”; (2) Top 10 Hikes in Capitol Reef National Park’s “Backcountry”; (3) Appalachian Trail to Annapolis Rocks and Black Rock (South Mountain State Park, MD); (4) Chesler Park Loop Trail, including Joint Trail (Canyonlands National Park, UT); and (5) Capitol Reef Hiking Guide.

Of the top-viewed trails posted in 2019, however, all were concentrated in the mid-Atlantic: (1) Sharp Top Trail (Jefferson National Forest, VA); (2) Crabtree Falls and The Priest (George Washington National Forest, VA); (3) Marys Rock via Panorama (Shenandoah National Park, VA); (4) Hogback Mountain Loop (Shenandoah National Park, VA); and (5) Jonathan Run Trail and Sugar Run Falls (Ohiopyle State Park, PA).

Following the tradition of previous years, see below for a list of the top ten best hikes I completed in 2019. It was exceedingly difficult to pick this year, but the below list aims to capture a diverse set of hikes with epic views, stunning waterfalls, sharp canyons, alpine lakes, and serene woodland groves.

  1. Jonathan Run Trail and Sugar Run Falls (Ohiopyle State Park, PA)

In spring, the twin waterfalls along Jonathan Run in Pennsylvania’s Ohiopyle State Park are spectacular, forming high-volume cascades through a dense thicket of rhododendrons and deciduous woodlands. Venturing further into the Youghiogheny River Gorge, hikers can visit the secluded Sugar Run Falls, capping off a 1.8-mile one-way hike.

See my post on July 7, 2019 for a full trail description.


Jonathan Run Trail, Ohiopyle State Park, May 2019

  1. Purisima Creek Redwoods Loop (Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve, CA)

Although paling in size compared to the much-larger redwoods in California’s Muir Woods National Monument or Redwood National Park, the second-growth trees at Purisima Creek Redwoods are so dense and ubiquitous that hikers will feel enchanted nearly the whole length of this 10.5-mile circuit. Climbing above the trees also offers splendid views across the Santa Cruz Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Easily accessible from the Bay Area.

See my post on October 12, 2019 for a full trail description.


Purisima Creek Trail, Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve, August 2019

  1. The Channels via Brumley Mountain Trail (Jefferson National Forest, VA)

Defying conventional wisdom that slot canyons exist only in the American Southwest, the area known as The Channels (or “Great Channels”) in southwest Virginia features a labyrinth of sandstone sluices tucked away near the summit of Brumley Mountain. Along the 3.25-mile journey to the slots, enjoy panoramic views of the middle Appalachians, dotted with green pastures and lush forest.

See my post on August 5, 2019 for a full trail description.


The Channels, Jefferson National Forest, July 2019

  1. Mount Diablo via Eagle Peak and Mitchell Canyon (Mount Diablo State Park, CA)

This scenic but arduous summit hike in California’s East Bay is not for the faint of heart: the route climbs more than 3,200 feet in elevation over the course of six miles. Once atop Mount Diablo, one of the Bay Area’s highest peaks, follow a series of winding paths back down through the area’s characteristic chaparral into Mitchell Canyon, completing a 13.2-mile loop.

See my post on January 1, 2020 for a full trail description.


Deer Flat Road, Mount Diablo State Park, September 2019

  1. Lamoille Lake via Ruby Crest Trail (Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, NV)

The Ruby Mountains in northeast Nevada may be unknown to all but residents of the Silver State, but the spectacular array of ragged peaks, alpine lakes, and glacial-carved canyons rivals the scenery of the Sierras or Rocky Mountains. This 4.4-mile out-and-back hike to Lamoille Lake offers a teaser of this amazing area, featuring high moraines and sweeping views down Lamoille Canyon.

See my post on October 12, 2019 for a full trail description.


Ruby Crest Trail, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, August 2019

  1. Condor Gulch – High Peaks Trail Loop (Pinnacles National Park, CA)

The High Peaks Trail climbs through the heart of Pinnacles National Park in central California, exploring the maze of towering spires that serves as the habitat for a group of endangered California condors. Connecting with the Condor Gulch Trail forms a 5.1-mile loop, the best of Pinnacles, the closest national park to the San Francisco Bay Area.

See my post on January 5, 2020 for a full trail description.


Condor Gulch Trail, Pinnacles National Park, August 2019

  1. North Dome Trail, including Indian Rock (Yosemite National Park, CA)

The North Dome Trail in Yosemite National Park offers perhaps the area’s best views of iconic Half Dome, plus a spectacular look down Yosemite Valley and Tenaya Canyon. This 10-mile out-and-back hike traverses pine woodlands and granite ridges, and a short spur leads to the park’s only named natural arch at Indian Rock.

See my post on December 31, 2019 for a full trail description.


North Dome Trail, Yosemite National Park, September 2019

  1. Bradley Lake, Taggart Lake, and Beaver Creek Trail Loop (Grand Teton National Park, WY)

This moderately difficult, 5.8-mile circuit in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park traverses the glacial moraine at the base of some of the world’s most precipitous mountains. Bradley and Taggart Lakes offer chances to dip your feet in chilly alpine waters, while the hillsides are dotted with diverse flora and fauna.

See my post on September 2, 2019 for a full trail description.


Bradley Lake, Grand Teton National Park, August 2019

  1. Death Canyon Trail to Patrol Cabin (Grand Teton National Park, CA)

The inviting meadows and charming cascades of the Death Canyon Trail belie this hike’s foreboding name, although the steep climb into the Teton Range makes for a strenuous outing. Features include terrific views of Phelps Lake, seasonal waterfalls, the rushing waters of Death Canyon Creek, and an old patrol cabin that serves as a turnaround point for this 7.8-mile out-and-back hike.

See my post on August 28, 2019 for a full trail description.


Death Canyon Trail, Grand Teton National Park, August 2019

  1. Crabtree Falls and The Priest (George Washington National Forest, VA)

It often takes something unusually special on the eastern seaboard to match the beauty of hiking in California or the Mountain West. Virginia’s Crabtree Falls, however, which is the highest set of cascades east of the Mississippi, is that special. This 9.6-mile out-and-back hike follows the seemingly endless flow of high-volume falls for nearly two miles before climbing to an excellent vista of the Blue Ridge Mountains at The Priest.

See my post on May 29, 2019 for a full trail description.


The Priest, George Washington National Forest, April 2019

Honorable Mention:

Posted in California, East Bay, George Washington National Forest, Grand Teton National Park, Jefferson National Forest, Moderate Hikes, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Pinnacles National Park, Santa Cruz Mountains, Strenuous Hikes, Virginia, Wyoming, Yosemite National Park | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Condor Gulch – High Peaks Trail Loop (Pinnacles National Park, CA)


High Peaks Trail, Pinnacles National Park, August 2019

Originally the work of volcanoes 23 million years ago, the rocks of today’s Pinnacles National Park were moved, upended, chiseled, and weathered by water, wind, and the infamous temper of the San Andreas Fault in central California. The result is a wild paradise of formations, boulders, spires, and talus caves, less than a two-hour’s drive from the San Francisco Bay Area. Perhaps the best hike in the park is the 5.1-mile Condor Gulch-High Peaks Trail Loop, including the famed Steep and Narrow section, complete with railings and footholds to assist hikers up and down chunks of red-grey breccia. Excellent vistas abound, extending north across the Gabilan Range, east across the San Andreas Rift Zone, south to Chalone Peak, and west over Salinas Valley to the Santa Lucia Range. Look for California condors, the rare and massive birds that inhabit the Pinnacles area.

Condor Gulch High Peaks Trail Pinnacles hike information

Condor Gulch High Peaks Trail Loop map Pinnacles

Map of Condor Gulch – High Peaks Trail Loop, Pinnacles National Park; created using (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The hike begins from the Bear Gulch Nature Center parking area, situated three miles up Pinnacles Highway from the Pinnacles Visitor Center in the eastern section of the park. (Note: It is also possible to access the High Peaks Trail from the west, starting at the Chaparral Parking Area.) Pinnacles was recently redesignated from a national monument in 2013, and park visitation has grown as a result. Parking at the Nature Center is relatively limited, so arrive early in the morning to secure a spot. (Note: If hiking in summer, when temperatures in the High Peaks can reach well over 100 degrees, definitely start this hike very early.)

Condor Gulch Trail (1.7 miles)

From the Nature Center, cross Pinnacles Highway to the north to catch the start of the Condor Gulch Trail, your primary approach route to the High Peaks area. Cross a short bridge over a seasonal streambed, then cut left as the trail begins to ascend the right-hand hillside. Oak trees and gray pines dot the hillside on the left, as the Condor Gulch Trail parallels a paved service road in the valley below. At 250 yards, the trail rounds a side ravine, then continues to climb at a mild pace. By 3/10 mile, the path puts the road behind and enters what feels like raw wilderness: craggy hillscapes with towering spires ahead.


High Peaks from the Condor Gulch Trail

Around ½ mile, the incline steepens, then rounds a right-hand bend, following the northern fork of Condor Gulch toward the High Peaks. The amphitheater of rocks comes into full view around a switchback at ¾ mile. Round a pair of switches then continue northwest along the route to the Condor Gulch Overlook at the one-mile mark.


High Peaks from the Condor Gulch Trail

The high pinnacles ahead of you 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.


View down Bear Valley

Past the overlook, the trail cuts sharply to the east, climbing the hillside away from the High Peaks. Rounding a left-hand curve reveals a terrific view down Bear Valley to the east. To the south, the scrubby tip of Chalone Peak (3,304’), the highest point in the park, appears on the horizon. Heading westward and northward again at about 1.25 miles, the chalky trail climbs an open ridgeline with views of the Pinnacles returning on the left. At 1.7 miles, the Condor Gulch Trail ends at a junction with the High Peaks Trail heading east-west. Bear left, toward the High Peaks. By now you have gained over 1,000 feet in elevation, the bulk of the gain for the hike.


View south toward Chalone Peak (3,304′)

High Peaks Trail to Juniper Canyon Trail, including Steep and Narrow Section (1.3 miles)

The next mile on the High Peaks Trail is a pure joy, marked by panoramic views and fun climbs in the heart of the Pinnacles formations. Previously blocked from view, unobstructed overlooks to the north open up: below is the deep canyon carved by Chalone Creek, which extends northward into the Pinnacles wilderness. To the northeast, one can see across Bear Valley and the rift zone to the mountains of Real de las Aguilas beyond.


Northward view from High Peaks Trail


Pinnacles of the High Peaks

The trail continues to hug the north-facing slope as it climbs mildly into the heart of the High Peaks. The fluted cliffs of the Balconies area appear in the valley below, fronted by the fins of Machete Ridge. As the trail approaches a towering shark’s tooth formation at 1.9 miles, views open up in both directions: north across the Chalone Creek Valley and south toward Bear Gulch and Chalone Peak.

The trail reaches a brief downhill as it skirts the western slopes of Hawkins Peak (2,720’), the tallest of the High Peaks. A high saddle at the two-mile mark offers a picturesque window view of the Balconies between two bulky outcrops.


The Balconies and Machete Ridge from the High Peaks Trail

From here it is back uphill, switchbacking to the left at 2.1 miles. By now one can spot the Jawbone Parking Area in the western section of Pinnacles National Park down below. To the west, across Salinas Valley, is the hefty Santa Lucia Range; the Pacific Ocean is just on the other side of these mountains.

After cresting a high point at 2.2 miles, the trail drops along the western flank of the High Peaks, reaching a trail junction. Here the Tunnel Trail—providing access to the Chapparal Parking Area to the west—comes in from the right. Stay left on the High Peaks Trail, entering the Steep and Narrow Section.

This section begins mildly, cutting through a narrow notch between high walls of breccia. Then the trail drops downhill before reaching another ascent with the trail’s first set of railing-assisted steps. Here the trail appears to climb straight up the steep spine of a rock outcrop; but the metal rail and deep-dug footholds make for a relatively straightforward climb. After the first railing section comes a second one, almost right away: this one is shorter but requires ducking one’s head to avoid clonking it on the bulging overhang above.

The High Peaks Trail then descends a set of steps before resuming the ascent again at 2.6 miles. Looking east, one can spot the Condor Gulch Trail snaking its way up the hillside below. After cresting a hump, the trail somewhat confusingly splits; stay right on the better path. This leads to the third and final railing section, a downhill that requires some concentration but again is rather safe and straightforward.


Peering down the third railing section

After a switchback left, a steady uphill leads to a right-hand bend. By now you are back on the ridgeline, with sweeping views to the west. The Steep and Narrow Section ends at about 3.0 miles, following a sharp descent to a high saddle with a bench and pit toilet. This is also the junction with the Juniper Canyon Trail, which enters from the right. Ahead is Scout Peak (2,605’), one of the highest in the park.


Looking west toward the Jawbone and Chapparal Parking Areas

High Peaks Trail to Bear Gulch Nature Center (2.1 miles)

From here, follow the High Peaks Trail left as it begins a steady descent down a series of short switchbacks. The trail settles into a side canyon emanating from Condor Gulch, leaving the High Peaks in the rear view. The winding wiggles end at around 3.4 miles with a pair of switchbacks, now choked with vegetation, including sporadic manzanitas. The subsequent route passes through a short tunnel and follows a relatively level ridgeline with open views to the south.


View of Bear Gulch area and Chalone Peak from the High Peaks Trail

At the four-mile mark, the High Peaks Trail encounters a double mushroom-shaped outcrop on the left, then descends amid desert scrub into the Bear Gulch Area. Stay left at the trail junction at 4.4 miles; by now, crowds are likely to pick up as the trail enters the popular area around Bear Gulch Cave. At 4.5 miles, stay left again as a climbers’ access route heads off to the right. Then round a left-hand switchback, staying right again at the next climbers’ access spur. At 4.7 miles, bear left when the High Peaks Trail merges with the Moses Spring Trail, in the belly of Bear Gulch. From here it is a short downhill to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area. (Note: Hikers can bear left on the Rim or Moses Spring Trails to visit Bear Gulch Cave and the Reservoir to the hike, adding about a mile to the loop.)

Once at the popular trailhead and picnic area, follow the trail continuation across the road. The wide path passes a number of picnic tables, with the seasonal creekbed on the left. Follow this trail for about ¼ mile back to the Bear Gulch Nature Center, where your car awaits.

The 5.1-mile Condor Gulch-High Peaks Trail Loop is a moderately strenuous circuit that requires around 3-5 hours to complete. Avoid on hot summer afternoons: note that the temperature in the High Peaks is 10-20 degrees warmer than the temperature in Bear Valley.

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

Mount Diablo via Eagle Peak and Mitchell Canyon (Mount Diablo State Park, CA)


North Peak Trail, Mount Diablo State Park, September 2019

At 3,849 feet, Mount Diablo is one of the highest and most prominent peaks in the San Francisco Bay Area and perhaps the most well-known mountain in the East Bay. Taking its name from a linguistic accident in the early 19th century, this “Devil’s Mountain” makes for a very long and imposing climb for modern peak-baggers. Sure, most visitors reach the top with little effort, simply by following the winding Summit Road to its end. But that’s no fun…instead, ambitious hikers starting at Mitchell Canyon Staging Area in Mount Diablo State Park can reach the summit by way of an arduous but extremely scenic 13.2-mile loop. Along the way, ascend Eagle Peak (2,369’) and Bald Knob (2,645’) before looping around to the summit, where hikers can reward themselves with an ice cream sandwich at the summit store. On the way back down, traverse high ridgelines and descend the length of Mitchell Canyon to return to the trailhead. This is a very difficult hike with more than 3,200 feet in elevation gain; fit and experienced hikers only, and do not attempt in the summer heat!

Mount Diablo via Eagle Peak Mitchell Canyon hike trail summit information

Mount Diablo via Mitchell Canyon Eagle Peak map

Map of Mount Diablo Loop via Eagle Peak and Mitchell Canyon, Mount Diablo State Park; created using (Check out the PDF version and interactive map)

The hike

Mount Diablo State Park has an incredibly dense network of interconnecting trails, so there are of course multiple avenues for reaching the summit. However, perhaps the most commonly chosen option for climbing base-to-peak is to start at the Mitchell Canyon Staging Area in Clayton, California, a short drive from the nearby suburbs of Concord, Martinez, and Walnut Creek. Gates at the Mitchell Canyon area open at 8 am, and there is a $6 parking fee. The Mitchell Canyon Visitor Center is open weekends only (8-4 summer; 10-3 winter).


Mitchell Canyon Staging Area

Mitchell Canyon Staging Area to Eagle Peak (2.8 miles)

After stopping by the Visitor Center for maps and information, lace up your boots and get ready to embark on the start of a long and arduous journey to the summit and back. Begin by following the Mitchell Canyon Fire Road, passing picnic tables on the left, and head through the metal gate. After just 100 yards, bear left on a dirt track called Oak Road, which leaves Mitchell Canyon behind and climbs out onto a grassy hillside with views north toward the town of Clayton and the stairstep Clayton Quarry, carved into the slopes of Mount Zion (1,635’), situated just outside the park.


Looking back north from the start of the Mitchell Rock Trail, toward Clayton

Stay straight on Oak Road as it passes a junction with Watertower Road at ¼ mile, then turn right around 80 yards later at the start of the Mitchell Rock Trail. Follow this single-track as it ascends through an open meadow, then follows a seasonal streambed through a brushy ravine. At about 0.45 miles, the trail abruptly rounds a right-hand bend, then edges to the west side of the slope to mount Mitchell Rock, the trail’s namesake and a fine viewpoint of Mitchell Canyon and Mount Zion.


Clayton and the Clayton Quarry from the Mitchell Rock Trail

Beyond Mitchell Rock, the relatively level path skirts another pine-studded ravine, then cuts sharply left around a switchback at around the 1-mile mark. From here the trail ascends more steeply, briefly passing under a canopy of oaks. Open views to the north return at about 1.25 miles, followed by a wide bend to clear another gully. At about 1.5 miles, the Mitchell Rock Trail begins to climb sharply up to mount a ridgeline with the first views of Mount Diablo (3,849’) and North Peak (3,557’) to the southeast.


First look at North Peak and Mount Diablo summit

Bearing right, up the ridgeline, the trail passes a pair of stony outcrops called Twin Peaks (1,733’), each of which have fine views of the surrounding Diablo Range. Just beyond, the Mitchell Rock Trail merges with the Eagle Peak Trail; follow the trail to the right, continuing up the ridgeline. The next mile is extremely scenic, with views in all directions: west across Uncle Sam Canyon and Mitchell Canyon to Concord Valley and beyond; north to Clayton and the Carquinez Strait; east over Meridian Ridge and Donner Canyon; and south to the hulking mass of Mount Diablo. The trail is also increasingly rocky, requiring careful footing as hikers climb to the summit of Eagle Peak (2,369’).


View west from Twin Peaks over Mitchell Canyon to Black Point and beyond

Eagle Peak, at 2.8 miles, is a terrific place to stop for lunch or a break, taking in the panoramic views, some of the best of the hike. Although not as high, Eagle Peak is in some ways preferable to Mount Diablo: its summit is more remote and wild, free of roads and stores and parking lots.


View west from Eagle Peak

Eagle Peak to Prospectors Gap (2.1 miles)

Beyond Eagle Peak, the trail begins a rocky descent to a low saddle. While the downhill is welcome after ascending more than 1,700 from Mitchell Canyon Staging Area, shedding 300 feet in elevation to reach the saddle means hikers will have to make it up again as they continue onward to Mount Diablo. After reaching the gap, the trail resumes its ascent amid thick sagebrush. At 3.6 miles, hikers cross Meridian Ridge Road at Murchio Gap (3,330’), where the Back Creek Trail comes in from the left. Continue straight on the Bald Ridge Trail, following the sign for Prospectors Gap Road.


The Bald Ridge Trail begins by ascending through a lovely grove of manzanitas, lush and green year-round. Soon enough, however, the thicket gives way to grasslands and rocky outcrops, and hikers clear Bald Knob (2,645’) at about 3.8 miles. As the trail bobs up and down, the landscape changes again, this time to a scorched area charred by a recent brush fire.


Ascending the Bald Ridge Trail

Beyond this point, the trail ascends in fits and starts through thick woods dotted with bay trees; the shade is welcome on a balmy summer day. At around 4.8 miles, the foliage clears, and the trail leads to an excellent view down Donner Canyon to the north. To the south, hikers get their first good glimpse at the observation tower at the summit of Mount Diablo, still nearly 900 feet in elevation above. Shortly after the viewpoint, the trail descends to Prospectors Gap (2,955’), another milestone on the journey.


View down Donner Canyon, with Clayton, Martinez, and the Carquinez Strait/Suisun Bay beyond

Prospectors Gap to Mount Diablo Summit (1.5 miles)

The Bald Ridge Trail terminates at Prospectors Gap Road, situated between Mount Diablo and North Peak. Bear right on the dirt track, then a quick right again at the start of the North Peak Trail, which connects the gap with the Mount Diablo summit. Rather than ascending Diablo’s precipitous northern slopes, the trail slowly circles around the mountain to the south. Following a steep initial ascent, the grade lessens as views open up to the south and east: the Diablo Range and Black Hills continue for miles into the distance.


Climbing the North Peak Trail

After rounding a corner to the south slope of Mount Diablo, below a rocky spire called Devil’s Pulpit (3,700’), hikers get their first views of San Francisco Bay and the Santa Cruz Mountains beyond. Continuing westward, the North Peak Trail ends with a sharp ascent for around 100 yards, terminating at Summit Road, the first paved road encountered since the trailhead. The sharp bend in Summit Road here is called Devil’s Elbow (3,480’).


View toward the Oakland Hills and San Francisco Bay


Looking up at the Mount Diablo summit

From here, bear right on the Summit Trail, which provides the final approach to the top of Mount Diablo. The trail climbs steeply at first before settling into a more modest grade as it parallels the road below on the left. The Mount Diablo antenna tower is visible ahead.


Climbing the Summit Trail

At 6.2 miles, the path crosses another paved road, which meets up with the main Summit Road just ahead to the right. Bear right on Summit Road, then, just as the road splits into a one-way loop, find the continuation of the Summit Trail, which traverses the shady ridge in the middle. Passing under a canopy of oaks, the trail climbs to pass a communications tower and then empties out into a parking lot: ahead is the Mount Diablo Summit Museum and Observatory.


Mount Diablo Summit Observatory

Reaching your destination—the summit of Mount Diablo—seems a little bittersweet. After several miles of natural and raw scenery, the summit feels a little like Disneyland: the observatory is swarming with visitors, the parking lot swamped, and the museum and Summit Visitor Center clamoring with people seeking snacks and knickknacks. (Then again, an ice cream sandwich at the gift shop is well-appreciated.)


View south down the Diablo Range from Mount Diablo summit


View north to Clayton Quarry, the Carquinez Strait, and the Sacramento River Delta

Yet despite the crowds, the 360-degree panorama from the top is one of the best in the Bay Area: on a clear day, one can see as far north as Lassen Peak and east to the Sierra Nevadas; barring haze or fog, the city of San Francisco, the South Bay, Mount Tamalpais, and the Santa Cruz Mountains can be seen on the horizon to the west. In between are a ragged mixture of peaks and valleys, including the Diablo Range, Briones Hills, and Oakland Hills.


View northeast to North Peak (3,557′)


Another southerly view from the observatory atop Mount Diablo

Mount Diablo Summit to Deer Flat Picnic Area (3.3 miles)

Of course, unless you have a pick-up waiting at the summit, the hike to this point is only half done—although the second half is considerably easier because it is almost entirely downhill back to Mitchell Canyon Staging Area. From the parking area, follow the Summit Trail back down through the oak grove to the split in the Summit Road, then bear left on the spur road leading to the Lower Summit Picnic Area. After passing the picnic area on the right, continue to the end of the road, which ends at a rough blacktop and fenced-off area surrounding an antenna tower. Look for a sign indicating the start of the Juniper Trail, which drops into the woods heading south.

Follow this single-track across Summit Road at 6.9 miles, then continue as the path follows a broad ridgeline westward. At 7.1 miles, hikers reach an informational wayside on greenstone, one of the two dominant rock types forming the south slopes of Mount Diablo (the other is chert). Stay left at the junction with the Moses Rock Ridge Trail at 7.6 miles, then descend sharply to Summit Road and the entrance to Juniper Campground. Bear right on the spur road leading into the campground, passing campsites on left and right.

Follow Deer Flat Road as it passes a campground bathroom on the left, then continue straight as the road turns to dirt, passing through the gate. Stay straight at the junction with the Juniper Trail continuation at the 8-mile mark, following the wide grade as it skirts the west-facing hillside. The subsequent section is one of most scenic of the hike, as the grassy hillsides slope sharply down to the valley below.


Deer Flat Road heading toward Mitchell Canyon

At 8.4 miles, the trail crests a gap in Moses Rock Ridge, with Mitchell Canyon and Eagle Peak visible beyond. Stay left on Deer Flat Road at the trail junction, beginning the lengthy descent into Mitchell Canyon. As the trail sheds elevation, patchy meadows give way to dense thicket; after rounding a series of wide curves, the road reaches a trail junction at 9.6 miles (stay left on Mitchell Canyon Road) and a massive oak tree on the left. Just beyond is Deer Flat Picnic Area, a small but quiet and isolated meadow surrounded by a sea of oak woodlands.


Descending into Mitchell Canyon from above Deer Flat

Deer Flat Picnic Area to Mitchell Canyon Staging Area (3.5 miles)

By now, hikers are likely to have weary legs, with 3.5 miles remaining. The descent into Mitchell Canyon continues, gradually at first, then the drop in elevation accelerates significantly. Bald Ridge and Eagle Peak dominate the landscape to the east, while Olofson Ridge and Black Point (1,791’) form the western flank of Mitchell Canyon. After seemingly endless switchbacks, the trail levels out at about 11.25 miles; Mitchell Creek—a seasonal stream—is visible on the right.


Dropping into Mitchell Canyon

The final two miles back to the parking area are largely flat and easy. Stay straight at the junction at 12.3 miles with Red Road, which bears left into White Canyon to the west. Remain on the main track again 0.4 miles later, when the Black Point Trail takes off to the left. Minutes later, Mitchell Canyon Road crosses the creek bed, and the remainder of the hike follows the right bank. Passing the initial turn to Oak Road on the right—taken many, many hours ago, back at the start of the walk—the hike finally ends back at Mitchell Canyon Staging Area.


Mitchell Canyon, heading back toward the staging area

The entire circuit, a hefty workout, clocks in at about 13.2 miles, with about 3,250 feet in absolute elevation gain/loss. This is a full-day hike for all but the fastest and fittest, yet one that—despite its challenges—is sure to be rewarding.


An added bonus: tarantula season at Mount Diablo in the fall!

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North Dome Trail, inc. Indian Rock (Yosemite National Park, CA)


North Dome Trail, Yosemite National Park, September 2019

Most visitors seeking views of Yosemite Valley from above will drive out to the end of the Glacier Point Road for a fantastic, but crowded, vista. Those looking for a greater challenge with arguably greater payoff, however, should consider the all-day hike out to North Dome (7,542’), which has maybe the best vantage point of Half Dome and Tenaya Canyon in the park. Starting and ending at the Porcupine Creek Trailhead on Tioga Road, the North Dome Trail traverses thick pine forests, climbs granite-topped Indian Ridge, and ends with a descent to the smooth dome perched at the precipice of Yosemite Valley. On the way back, take the short detour to Indian Rock, site of the only known natural arch in Yosemite.

North Dome Trail Indian Rock Yosemite hike information

North Dome Trail Indian Rock Yosemite map

Map of North Dome Trail and Indian Rock, Yosemite National Park; created using (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

There are a few ways to approach North Dome, but the easiest access is from Porcupine Creek Trailhead along the Tioga Road. (Note: Tioga Road is closed in winter/spring.) Parking is sparse at Porcupine Creek, but there is some room on the shoulder and, in a worst-case scenario, there is additional room one mile up the road at Porcupine Flat Campground. From the trailhead, the path descends a wooded slope, following an asphalted road. The asphalt ends at ¼ mile, returning to dirt as the North Dome Trail continues through a mixed conifer forest.


Porcupine Creek Trailhead, the start of the North Dome Trail

At 7/10 miles, the trail, having shed around 200 feet in elevation, enters Yosemite Wilderness and crosses Porcupine Creek, which can have relatively high volume in spring. Rock hop over the creek and follow the trail, now climbing uphill at a modest incline, for another mile to the first trail junction of the hike. Stay right, then cut left at the subsequent junction steps later, following the signs for North Dome.

From this saddle between ridges, the North Dome Trail begins a steeper ascent up the western slopes of Indian Ridge. At 2.2 miles, there is a rock outcrop on the right with the first sweeping views above the trees: one can make out the lower reaches of Yosemite Valley in the distance. From here the trail climbs amid low bushes, then continues southward with some open views on the right of woody Lehamite Creek Valley.


Distant view of Yosemite Valley

The final ascent to Indian Ridge is particularly steep but brief, ending at about 2.9 miles with a trail junction. Here a spur trail to Indian Rock heads left; leave this for your return journey. Continue right as the North Dome Trail traverses the top of Indian Ridge, first downhill, then slightly uphill an over a second hill. At 3.3 miles, the trees give way to pure granite, and hikers get their first views of Half Dome on the left.

At 3.4 miles, the trail cuts abruptly to the left and begins a sharp descent. (Note: There is a well-trodden path also heading straight, which also leads to North Dome, but this is not the official trail.) The main track drops back into the woods (though they are not too thick to block views of Half Dome) then rounds a right-hand bend, heading south again toward the final destination. At 3.8 miles, stay left at an unmarked junction, then continue down the chalky granite slope, with North Dome now visible ahead.


Approaching North Dome

At the 4-mile mark, follow the sign for North Dome, starting the final approach. North Dome is actually situated well below Indian Ridge, so the trail descends sharply over the course of the next ¼ mile. There is a tricky slickrock section at 4.1 miles that requires some to use their hands to slowly crawl down the slope, then the path drops down an east-bound section, away from North Dome, that follows towering granite walls on the left. By 4.3 miles, the trail reaches a low saddle between Indian Ridge and North Dome.


Excellent view of Half Dome

From here it is a short, uphill jaunt to the summit of North Dome, one of the most spectacular—and windiest—viewpoints in the park. The showstopper, of course, is the view of Half Dome (8,836’), its whole face visible straight ahead. Below Half Dome is Tenaya Canyon and the Mirror Lake area, with Clouds Rest (9,926’) beyond. The hulk of granite on this side of Tenaya Canyon to the north is Basket Dome (7,612’).



Half Dome and Mount Star King beyond

To the southeast, on the horizon to the right of Half Dome, is Mount Star King (9,092’) and the vast Yosemite Wilderness. Almost due south are Glacier Point (7,214’) and Sentinel Dome (8,122’). Finally, to the west, Yosemite Valley unfolds, with the back side of El Capitan visible on the right-hand side.


View west down Yosemite Valley


Once you’re ready, head back the way you came, ascending back to the heights of Indian Ridge. Most travelers will return to the trailhead, but those with remaining energy can veer off at the spur for Indian Rock Arch on the right at about 6.8 miles (2.9 miles from the trailhead). It’s a worthy detour: not only is Indian Rock Arch the only named arch in Yosemite, the 20-foot span is perched on top of a ridgeline with stunning views of the surrounding landscape. Climb a modest slope for 3/10 mile, wrapping around to the back side of Indian Rock to reach the arch.


Approaching Indian Rock Arch


Indian Rock Arch

After visiting Indian Rock, return to the trail junction, bear right, and follow the North Dome Trail for about three miles back to Porcupine Creek Trailhead. The North Dome/Indian Rock hike is likely to take most of a day; bring sufficient water and hearty hiking boots for the 5- to 8-hour journey.


North Dome from Yosemite Valley

Posted in California, Moderate Hikes, Yosemite National Park | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ben Johnson-Bootjack Trail Loop (Muir Woods National Monument, CA)


Bootjack Trail, Mount Tamalpais State Park, December 2019

The redwood groves of Muir Woods National Monument, while lovely, have a people problem. Within a half-mile radius of the park’s tiny visitor center, there are scores and scores of visitors. Yet the western stretches of the park—or better yet, the areas belonging to Mount Tamalpais State Park that surround Muir Woods—solitude and wildness are much more likely to be found. This post describes a moderately difficult circuit that covers the popular core of Muir Woods but also its underappreciated upper reaches, beginning and ending at the Pantoll Ranger Station in neighboring Mount Tamalpais State Park. (Note: There are other loop options in the area—such as the Ben Johnson-Dipsea Trail Loop, which is shorter—but the Dipsea is only worthwhile if it’s a clear day, a relatively rarity on the Marin Peninsula.) On a cloudy or foggy day, especially in winter/spring when the waters are rushing, try this wooded but scenic Ben Johnson – Bootjack Trail Loop.

Ben Johnson Bootjack Trail Loop Muir Woods hike information

Ben Johnson Bootjack Trail Loop Muir Woods map

Map of Ben Johnson-Bootjack Trail Loop, Muir Woods National Monument; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

There is clear benefit to approaching Muir Woods from outside the park: visitors can eschew the mandatory parking/shuttle reservation required for those who enter Muir Woods by car. Granted, parking at Pantoll Ranger Station in Mount Tamalpais State Park isn’t cheap—$8 for the day—but doing so will save you the headache of swimming through the masses to enter Muir Woods. (Note: On weekends, Pantoll is often full, but there is nearby parking at Bootjack, Rock Spring, or Mountain Theater.)

From the Pantoll parking area, trails split off in all directions. Although the majority of the hike follows the Ben Johnson and Bootjack Trails, it begins on the Staplevelt Trail, situated back at the entrance to the parking lot, just off the Panoramic Highway. (Note: You can also see the entrance to the Alpine Trail, which will be your return route.) Follow the Staplevelt Trail as it climbs into the woods and mounts a stony hillside, cutting directly through the Pantoll Campground.


Staplevelt Trail on a foggy day in December

After 125 yards, the single-track begins a steady descent, leaving the campers behind. Wiry oaks and bay trees abound as the path gradually sheds elevation. Winding southward, the Staplevelt Trail traverses a couple of side ravines, then drops into a stream valley where hikers encounter the first trail fork: stay right on the Staplevelt Trail, then, steps later, bear left, as the path intersects the TCC Trail. From here the valley begins to take fuller form, fed by a tributary of Redwood Creek.


Cascades from a side tributary along the Staplevelt Trail

After an initial set of long switchbacks, the trail drops in earnest through a series of wiggles, as smaller, second-growth redwoods begin to dot the hillside. The first set of large redwood trees is reached at around 6/10 mile. Traverse three subsequent bridges, taking in the fine landscape, made even more attractive when rain-fed tributaries flow in from the sides of the gully. The Staplevelt Trail comes to an end at around the one-mile mark, but continues, past a trail junction (stay straight), as the Ben Johnson Trail. By now you have entered Muir Woods National Monument.


Ben Johnson Trail in Muir Woods National Monument

The scenery along the Ben Johnson Trail gets better and better as it gradually descends, rounding a corner into the main Redwood Canyon. The path keeps its distance from the valley floor, however, instead offering views looking down at the increasingly thick old-growth redwoods. At 1.75 miles, the trail rounds a fern-studded ravine and then traverses a bridge clearly built out of a carved-out redwood trunk. At two miles, the Ben Johnson Trail descends a staircase through a particularly scenic section, complete with more towering giants and another redwood bridge.

Finally, at about 2.1 miles, hikers reach another trail junction, now deep in the heart of Muir Woods National Monument. And here come the crowds: you are now close to the central thoroughfare in the park. Bear right at the junction, following the Hillside Trail as it climbs a set of stairs and then rounds a long bend to clear a brush ravine. The Hillside Trail stays well above the valley floor, although part way down the route, the base—Redwood Creek—becomes visible. The path traces around side ravines with redwoods towering above, then descends, at 2.75 miles, to a heavily-trafficked junction.


Hillside Trail


Hillside Trail in Muir Woods National Monument

Bear right on the neatly paved Bohemian Grove Trail, which features intermittent interpretive signs about the beautiful grove in your midst. The wide path weaves through old-growth trees, enriched by the moistness of nearby Redwood Creek. The stream is visible on your left, and the trail enters a thicket of bay and willow trees at around 2.9 miles. From here it is steps to a wooden bridge over the creek (Bridge #1), bringing hikers to the main Redwood Creek Trail. The park café and store are straight ahead, while the Visitor Center and Muir Woods parking area is situated off to the right.


Founder’s Grove

From here, bear left on the wooden boardwalk, the main thoroughfare in the park. Stay straight as you pass the turnoff to the restrooms on the right and visit the cross-section of a fallen redwood. From here, enter Founder’s Grove, a small stand with a few hefty redwoods, including the Pinchot Tree, named for Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the U.S. Forest Service and the key player in establishing Muir Woods National Monument. Ironically, Pinchot was a lifelong rival of John Muir, for whom the park is named; while Muir advocated conservation of wild places to preserve them as they were, Pinchot was more willing to accommodate use of public lands for resource use, such as logging. Today, park rangers lead regular “Tree Talks” at Founder’s Grove, telling the story of Pinchot, Muir, and beyond.

From Founder’s Grove, continue straight, with the wood surface giving way to asphalt. The Redwood Creek Trail follows its namesake stream on the left and reaches a junction with the Canopy View Trail at 3.2 miles. Stay straight again, then pass a fork leading to Bridge #2 on the left. All the while, towering redwoods fill the sky above, while ferns and other greenery create a verdant understory.


Cathedral Grove along the Redwood Creek Trail

After passing Bridge #3 on the left, continue into Cathedral Grove, the most impressive batch of redwoods in the park. The trees in this grove have withstood the test of time, some for more than a thousand years.

The redwoods continue as the wide path passes a junction with the Fern Creek Trail at 3.75 miles, then a junction with the Camp Eastwood Trail a minute later. By now, farther from the main Muir Woods parking area, the crowds thin and hikers can enjoy the quiet natural beauty of an otherwise busy group of redwoods. Interlaced among the redwoods, moss-laden bay trees stretch in wild directions, some extending over Redwood Creek.


Redwood Creek Trail

Finally, at about the 4-mile mark, bear right on the Bootjack Trail, leaving the pavement behind. The opening stretch of this beautiful trail leaves Muir Woods National Monument, reentering Mount Tamalpais State Park, but the redwoods continue to cluster around the stream. As hikers pass a junction at 4.1 miles, Redwood Creek begins to pick up its pace, dropping down a set of minor cascades.


Start of the Bootjack Trail

As the canyon narrows, the trail rises higher and higher above the streambed, and moss-laden rock outcrops becomes more ubiquitous. The subsequent section is one of the most stunning in the park, but only when the creek has relatively high volume (e.g., December-March or after recent rains). Before you know it, the trail is more than 50 feet above the stream, and Redwood Creek is tumbling over a series of rather significant cascades. At 4.5 miles, the stream splits into two forks, and the trail follows the right one, up into an intimate ravine. By now the trail has become a steep slog, made worth it by the picturesque setting.


Bootjack Trail and Redwood Creek

At about 4.7 miles, there is a small but accessible waterfall on the left, a nice place to stop for a snack. The path from here continues to climb up to a lovely wooden bridge, which crosses over a set of cascades. Just beyond, at a left-hand bend and base of a staircase, it’s worth veering off on the social trail to the right to view a set of streams, each of which tumbles over a 6- to 8-foot plunge.


Waterfall along Redwood Creek


Two streams merge into one

From here, the trail climbs a steep staircase, then veers away from Redwood Creek for a moment, putting the view of tumbling waters in the rear-view mirror. But after rounding a right-hand bend to mount a ridgeline, the trail is back creek side at about the 5-mile mark. Continue up another set of wood/stone stairs, then across a bridge over Redwood Creek. At 5.2 miles, the creek splits again, losing much of its juice, though the now-minor cascades are easily accessible on the left.


Redwood Creek along the Bootjack Trail


Cascades along Redwood Creek

Finally, at 5.3 miles, the trail turns away from the creek and climbs a staircase to Van Wyck Meadow, a small clearing that used to have a population of three. Continue left at the first junction, then, at the end of the meadow, stay right at the second fork, continuing on the Bootjack Trail. Stay straight at a third junction at 5.45 miles, then traverse a bridge over Redwood Creek for the final time.


Van Wyck Meadow

From here the Bootjack Trail climbs steeply up and around a right-hand bend and reaches a fork with the Alpine Trail at 5.7 miles. Bear left on Alpine, following it as it climbs up a minor ravine to the edge of Panoramic Highway, visible on the right. After a short downhill, the trail ends back at the Pantoll Ranger Station, completing the 1,300-foot ascent back from Muir Woods to the initial trailhead.

The entire circuit clocks in at around six miles. With the excellent scenery and steady uphill, however, allot more than the usual two miles per hour. Four to six hours should do the trick, making this a half- to full-day hike.

Posted in California, Marin, Moderate Hikes, Mount Tamalpais State Park | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Coastal Trail to Tennessee Point (Golden Gate National Recreation Area, CA)


Tennessee Point, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, October 2019

Named for the SS Tennessee, a commercial steamer that wrecked nearby in 1853, Tennessee Point is one of the best vantage points overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s Marin Headlands area. A relatively easy hike leads to the popular vista, following a section of the California Coastal Trail before branching off in the shadow of Battery Townsley, a WWII-era coastal fortification. The views to the north from Tennessee Point are particularly spectacular, with sheer cliffs, hundreds of feet high, giving way to the crashing waves of the Pacific. (Note: This hike is also known as the Tennessee Point Trail.)

Coastal Trail to Tennessee Point hike information Marin Headlands

Coastal Trail to Tennessee Point map Marin Headlands

Map of Coastal Trail to Tennessee Point, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area; created using AllTrails (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

Start this out-and-back hike from the Rodeo Beach parking area in the Marin Headlands section of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. To the east are the remnants of Fort Cronkhite, a former military site that now serves as a housing and administration area for various park services in the area. With Rodeo Beach on your left, follow Mitchell Road to its end, then walk past the gate leading westward; this is a section of the Coastal Trail, a network of paths that exists in fits and starts up and down the California coastline.

Follow the asphalt road as it bends right, then take a left on the single-track path at 1/10 mile. From here, the trail climbs steadily along a cliffside with commanding views of Rodeo Beach, Rodeo Lagoon, the Point Bonita Peninsula, Bird Island, and beyond. After rounding a sharp right-hand bend, the southward views temporarily fade, but the path passes an appealing yet inaccessible cove—Hawk Tail Beach—on the left. Westward, it is nothing but the blue Pacific Ocean, for as far as the eye can see.


Rodeo Beach from the Coastal Trail

With little tree cover to speak of, the trail continues onward and splits in multiple directions. The paved track to the right is the Coastal Trail continuation, leading uphill to Battery Townsley. Instead, stay left on the smaller but still wide path that continues to follow the cliffs to the northwest. (Note: Ignore the various social trails heading off in other directions.)

The ensuing section involves a mild climb up to the edge of the bluffs, then a relatively flat section that passes under the purview of Battery Townsley, the lemon-colored installation visible high above. Clear a bushy ravine, then continue along the final stretch as the trail gradually bends northward and passes under an array of cypress trees.


Looking north toward Tennessee Valley

Just beyond, hikers are rewarded with jaw-dropping views north along the coastal cliffs toward Tennessee Valley, Muir Beach, and beyond. Tennessee Point is reached by veering off to the left to the trail’s end. From here one can enjoy both northward and southward views—weather permitting, of course, as this area can also be socked in with afternoon fog. On a clear day, hikers can see as far north as Point Reyes and as far south as Pacifica and the Santa Cruz Mountains. A man-made, stone spiral maze—a California classic—marks the spot.


Spiral maze and southward views

Once you’re ready, head back the way you came, or meander up the hill to Battery Townsley, Wolf Ridge, and beyond. The round trip to and from Tennessee Point clocks in at about 1.6 miles, about an hour’s journey.


View south toward Rodeo Beach, from Tennessee Point

Posted in California, Easy Hikes, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Marin, North Bay | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Point Bonita Lighthouse Trail (Golden Gate National Recreation Area, CA)


Point Bonita Lighthouse Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, October 2019

Throughout much of San Francisco’s history, ships seeking to enter the Bay Area flirted with disaster: jagged rocks, shallow beds, dense fog, and nasty waves left hundreds of vessels in the 19th and 20th centuries capsized, torn apart, and buried at the ocean floor. As thousands of gold prospectors—from all over the world—flocked to San Francisco after 1848, the tumultuous sea passage was unsustainable: something had to be done. As a partial fix, the city built a series of lighthouses, including a prominent guiding light at Point Bonita, situated at the entryway to the Golden Gate from the vast Pacific Ocean. The lighthouse was rebuilt and improved several times in the decades that followed—and yet still failed to prevent many fatal maritime disasters. Only with the invention of modern technology and an advanced traffic monitoring system has the risk to ships significantly declined, yet reminders of yesteryear remain at places like Point Bonita Lighthouse, which remains standing today.

The lighthouse is now administered as part of the Marin Headlands unit in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the most visited National Park Service site in the country in 2018. A mostly paved/well-graveled trail offers access to the lighthouse, which is open three days a week (Saturday, Sunday, and Monday) from 12:30-3:30pm.

Point Bonita Lighthouse Trail hike information Marin Headlands GGNRA

Point Bonita Lighthouse Trail map PDF

Map of Point Bonita Lighthouse Trail, Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area; created using AllTrails, (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The Point Bonita Trail begins at the Bonita Lighthouse Parking Area, situated roughly four miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge in Golden Gate National Recreation Area. (Note: Along the way, stop by the Marin Headlands Visitor Center for information.) There is, however, very limited parking at Bonita Lighthouse. Expect to have to find a spot instead, back up Field Road about 3/10 mile, at Battery Alexander Parking Area, which is considerably more spacious. (Note: From here there is a 3/10-mile connector trail that follows the road down to the Bonita parking area.) This area was previously part of Fort Barry, a former Army base active during the first half of the 20th century. The army’s primary purpose here was coastal defense, lining the cliffs of the Marin Headlands with artillery batteries that, fortunately, never saw action during World War I or II.

Starting at the information sign for the Point Bonita Trail, hikers are immediately greeted with stunning views (on a clear day, of course) of San Francisco, Hawk Hill (905’), and the Golden Gate Bridge, the iconic structure connecting the city to the Marin Peninsula. The path begins as a wide, fully-paved path that is wheelchair-accessible. Sporadic benches provide a chance to sit down to take in the eastward vistas.


View of Hawk Hill, Bonita Cove, and Golden Gate Bridge, with San Francisco beyond

As the route bends westward at 1/10 mile, the rest of the Point Bonita Peninsula comes into view: a series of jagged rocks with near-vertical cliff faces. The continuing path is visible down below as it enters a man-made tunnel in the rock: this is your route to the lighthouse. As the trail descends, it curves around Point Bonita Cove, an excellent place to spot the Bay Area’s famed harbor seals and California sea lions, who gather here in bunches at certain times of year. To the west (the opposite direction), the vast Pacific Ocean is visible in all its splendor.


Heading down the Point Bonita Lighthouse Trail

After the relatively steep descent, the trail crosses a bridge and enters a short but dark tunnel, after which the pavement ends, replaced by crushed gravel. Upon passing under a set of power lines, hikers will get their first views of the Point Bonita Lighthouse on the right. First constructed in 1855, the lighthouse was moved to its current location in 1877.

It’s a short walk from here to the suspension bridge that provides passage over choppy waters to the lighthouse. (Note: This area is only open Saturday-Monday from 12:30-3:30pm.) At this beacon on the sea, the end of the half-mile trail, visitors can peer into the Fresnel lens and read about the history of the lighthouse and sea navigation in the Bay Area. And vistas, of course, are sublime, especially as the sun begins to set over the Pacific Ocean and waves crash against the towering cliffs, which stretch off to the horizon to the north. Although it can be crowded, detracting slightly from the scenery, Point Bonita offers one of the best panoramas in the area.


Pacific Ocean views from the Point Bonita Lighthouse

Once you’re ready, head back the way you came, this time climbing uphill to regain the 75 feet in elevation shed on the route to the lighthouse. Expect to spend at least 30 minutes to an hour at this spectacular sight, a terrific blend of natural ruggedness and Bay Area human history.

Posted in California, Easy Hikes, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Marin, North Bay | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Purisima Creek Redwoods Loop (Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve, CA)


Purisima Creek Trail, Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve, August 2019

The San Francisco Bay Area in northern California is a fantastic launching point for redwood hunters, with accessible groves of these mesmerizing trees within an hour and a half both north and south of the Golden Gate. While the largest groves lie further north, the Santa Cruz Mountains between the Bay Area and Santa Cruz offer an ample selection of redwood hikes. Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Reserve, a regional park, is one of the closest places to encounter impressive stands of second-growth redwoods, as well as sweeping views across the chaparral hillsides that descend to the Pacific Ocean. The 10.5-mile, full-day jaunt described below hits the highlights of the park, starting high in the oak/bay forest before dropping down through coastal scrub and returning via the redwood-studded Purisima Creek and Craig Britton Trails.

Purisima Creek Redwoods loop hike information

Purisima Creek Redwoods loop hike map

Map of Purisima Creek Redwoods Loop, Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve; map courtesy of

The hike

The 10.5-mile circuit described here begins and ends at the North Ridge Trailhead along Skyline Boulevard because of its relative proximity to San Francisco and the Silicon Valley suburbs, but it is also possible to start at the Higgins Road Trailhead at the end of Purisima Creek Road, coming in from the coast along Highway 1. Coming from the city or San Mateo, follow Interstate 280 to exit 34, then take Route 35 (Skyline Boulevard) for 7.3 miles to the North Ridge Trailhead at Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Reserve. The parking area is relatively large, and good signage at the trailhead provides a map and information about the park.

North Ridge and Whittemore Gulch (3.8 miles)

Heading off down the initial fire road, past the bathrooms on the right, hikers are immediately confronted with a choice: stay straight on the steep but straight road—open to hikers, bikers, and horseback riders—or bear right on the narrower, hikers-only track. Hikers craving speed can continue straight, but those up for a more natural feel should stay right on the single-track path.

The winding hikers-only trail weaves gradually down a woody hillside, studded with moss-laden oaks and bay trees that tower above. At 2/10 mile, hikers will get their first views of the hike: a look north, across Arroyo Leon, to Cypress Ridge, which is located outside the park on private property. From here, the single-track snakes back to within view of the fire road before cutting away again, descending a set of mild switchbacks.


View north to Cypress Ridge from the side trail on North Ridge

At 1/2 mile, this pleasant diversion ends at a four-way route junction. The fire road comes in from the left, while the Harkins Ridge Trail begins a sharp descent straight ahead. (Note: The latter will be your return route later on.) Instead, take a right on the wide North Ridge Trail, which weaves gradually through a conifer woodland during its westward course.

Follow the largely broad, flat, and easy North Ridge Trail for a half-mile, reaching the junction with the narrower Whittemore Gulch Trail. This smaller track will be your guide for the majority of the descent to Purisima Creek; take a left and follow it through the wooden hiker’s gate.

For the first 1/3 mile, the Whittemore Gulch Trail closely follows the trace of the continuing North Ridge Trail, situated slightly downhill on the right. At 1.2 miles, hikers will get their first views toward the distant Pacific Ocean: the ravine ahead of you is the trail’s namesake, bounded to the north by McGovern Ridge. On fogless days (a rarity), it is possible to view the ocean. It’s also possible to spot a section of the Harkins Ridge Trail on the hillside to the south. (Note: You will be on this trail on the return journey.)


View down Whittemore Gulch and North Ridge toward the ocean

After a left-hand switchback, the trail descends a sun-soaked slope through low shrubs to another junction at 1.6 miles. A connector trail heads right from here to the North Ridge Trail again; instead, stay left on the path to Whittemore Gulch. (Note: Follow signs to “Higgins Purisima Parking 2.2 miles.”) After another sunny stretch, the trail drops into the shade, where you will spend the next several miles.

At 1.8 miles, the Whittemore Gulch Trail enters a section best described as a series of “wiggles”: sharp and frequent switchbacks that shed more than 200 feet in elevation in about 1/3 mile. Amid the vegetation, one will begin to notice the first small redwood groves—second-growth trees that are smaller than their old-growth cousins but nonetheless still alluring. (Note: Large stumps can be spotted occasionally, the remnants of old-growth redwoods that used to populate this area.)


Redwoods just after crossing Whittemore Gulch

The wiggles end around 2.2 miles, after which the trail bears west, still well above the stream that carved Whittemore Gulch and gives life to the increasingly prominent redwoods. At 2.7 miles, the trail cuts right abruptly, then descends to cross the trickling creek. The rest of the Whittemore Gulch Trail remains on the south bank.


Descending through Whittemore Gulch

As the hike progresses, hikers encounter increasingly dense patches of towering redwoods, some so high and thin that they sway in the wind. Ferns and other dense greenery form a robust undergrowth, adding to the mystical quality of the valley. The trail descends more than 300 feet in elevation but does so gradually over the course of a mile, allowing hikers to admire the bucolic setting.


Thin redwoods in Whittemore Gulch

By 3.7 miles, the Whittemore Gulch Trail finally descends to streamside, which boasts an impressive stand of redwoods, the largest seen yet. From here it is a short walk, out of the wooden entry gate, to the next junction. Here the Harkins Ridge Trail bears left, while a bridge leads right. Traverse the bridge over Purisima Creek, then stay left at the parking area—this is the Higgins Trailhead area, the lowest point of the hike.


Redwoods near the end of the Whittemore Gulch Trail

Purisima Creek Trail (2.6 miles)

It turns out the redwoods of the Whittemore Gulch Trail were only an appetizer. The towering trees along the Purisima Creek Trail are larger, denser, and more picturesque than anything found in Whittemore Gulch. Almost immediately, hikers are struck by the magnificent beauty: the initial patch—dubbed the Ludemann-Gunther Family Grove—includes trunks so large that it is hard to believe these trees are second-growth, born after an initial period of logging that decimated the area.


Redwoods at the start of the Purisima Creek Trail

After this opening grove, a tributary of Purisima Creek comes in from the right. The next cluster of trees is the Cheney-Hart Grove on the left. Here the ripping creek adds to the charm of the densely-packed redwoods.


Passing the Cheney-Hart Grove along the Purisima Creek Trail

Around a minute further, hikers reach the Nancy C. Menard Memorial Grove, where it is possible to cross the creek to the other side. Each grove appears more alluring than the last, inviting visitors to stop to admire the scenery.


Redwoods in the Michael S. Osborn Memorial Grove

After crossing a second tributary at 4.2 miles, the path follows a fern-laced hillside on the right. Michael S. Osborn Memorial Grove is the next redwood patch of note. The trees here are some of the most impressive in the valley.

At 4.5 miles, a sign marks the Thomas Judson Grove on the right—a reminder that redwoods need not be clustered right along the water. The trees stretch up the hillside as far as the eye can see. Just beyond, a spur leads left to the banks of Purisima Creek, where there is a small cascade. At about the hike’s 5-mile mark, there is another named section on the left: the Harold and Nina Osborne Memorial Grove.


Hiking along the Purisima Creek Trail

Beyond this point, the redwoods get smaller but no less frequent. Stay left at the trail junction at the Osborne Grove, where the Borden Hatch Mill Trail heads up the slope on the right. Stay left again about 250 yards later, where the Grabtown Gulch Trail too veers off to the south. At 5.2 miles, the Purisima Creek Trail crosses a wooden bridge to the north side.

In the subsequent mile, the incline of the ascent increases and the valley gradually narrows. Dense stands of redwoods dot the opposite slope, but they tend to be small and thin. There is a nice grove again at the 6-mile mark, where the trail crosses the creek again to the south bank.


Smaller grove in Purisima Creek Valley

At 6.2 mile, a social trail bears off to the right into another small grove of redwoods, and the main trail crosses Purisima Creek for a final time. (Note: This time the water is routed through an underground pipe.) After several miles of relatively mild incline, the Purisima Creek Trail steepens considerably as it climbs back westward. At 6.5 miles, hikers reach another junction: this time, leave the Purisima Creek track behind, instead bearing left on the Craig Britton Trail.

Craig Britton and Harkins Ridge (5.0 miles)

The Craig Britton Trail, named for a longtime steward of the area’s public lands, continues the hike’s near-constant scenery despite its relative distance from the largest redwoods. Staying well above the creek, the trail traces northward to clear a beautiful side ravine, then continues northwest at a mild incline to emerge out of the forest and back into the brushy chaparral. Along the way, there is no shortage of appealing redwood patches, surprisingly large considering their distance well above the valley floor.


Crossing a stream on the Craig Britton Trail

After clearing a large ravine in Soda Gulch, the trail begins to leave the forest behind at about 8.4 miles. Redwood views are replaced with overlooks across the tree-lined valley to the south. At 8.5 miles, the trail begins a snaking climb through a mix of oak woodlands and brushy coastal scrub. Depending on the season, the baking sun is either welcomed or dreaded. This section can be brutally hot in the summertime, in contrast with the cool valleys.


Craig Britton Trail opens up during the climb up to Harkins Ridge

After climbing about 250 feet in a half-mile, the Craig Britton Trail ends at the junction with the broad Harkins Ridge Trail, which was seen from a distance earlier in the hike. Bear right on this path, which immediately begins the steepest ascent of the entire loop. The next 1/3 mile is brutal, with hikers heartened only by partial shade. At 9.5 miles, stay left at the junction—a private road bears right toward a radio tower.


Terrific views of Whittemore Gulch, North Ridge, and beyond from the Harkins Ridge Trail

From here, the trail actually descends, with intermittent views of Whittemore Gulch and the North Ridge area. The Harkins Ridge Trail loses about 100 feet in elevation before, beginning at 9.8 miles, it makes it up again with another ascent. Rounding the upper fringes of Whittemore Gulch, the trail climbs back to the initial four-way trail junction at 10.1 miles.


Dusky views from the Harkins Ridge Trail

Bear right on the fire road, or continue straight on the initial half-mile winding hikers trail. Both lead back up to the trailhead. The fire road is shorter and thus likely the preferred option, although it comes with a price: a brutally steep climb for about 1/3 mile. Finally, after nearly 10.5 miles of hiking, the circuit ends back at the North Ridge Trailhead.

While most of the lengthy circuit is easy or moderately difficult, the final climb can be strenuous for some. In any case, plan to spend most of the day hiking and to come back with sore feet. But the work is worth it: this diverse walk, just an hour’s drive from the city, is one of the best on the Peninsula.

Posted in California, Moderate Hikes, Santa Cruz Mountains | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment