Saturday, October 31, 2015

On the Old Volcano's' Shoulders: The Pinnacles Eastern Slope

December 2014

Dates: December 25, 2014 and April 14, 2015
Place: Pinnacles National Park, Paicines, California
Coordinates: 36.494948, -121.172994
Length: about 4.5 miles
Level: Moderate

The Pinnacles High Peaks hike I posted about recently is strenuous and wasn't suitable for my hiking group who are families with children, many of them pretty young. So I settled for taking them up to the mountain's shoulders, from Old Pinnacles half way up the High Peaks Trail and down Condor Gulch Trail.
The first time I hiked this trail was back in December of 2014. I was by myself then, trying out the trails I thought to take my group on. Having only one car at my disposal, I had to hike the entire loop and make it back on foot to Old Pinnacles, where I had started. When I returned with my hiking group we had one car parked by the Bear Gulch Nature Center so we were able to shuttle drivers back to Old Pinnacles to bring up the other vehicles.
The trail between Bear Gulch Nature Center and the Old Pinnacles that I hiked alone in December I wrote about in a separate post. Here I post about the upper, longer segment of that loop trail, and my photos are from both hikes: the one on December 2014 and the one on April, 2015. 

Old Pinnacles to Bear Gulch: The Blue-labeled Trail.
The first part of the trail is a mild walk south along the Chalone Creek. I recently posted about my December hike of this trail segment, but in April it looked very different: it was covered with wildflowers!
Wind Poppy (Papaver heterophyllum), April 2015
Of such a diversity of shapes and colors, it was wonderful to see!
Golden Brodiaea (Triteleia ixioides), April 2015
When I hiked this trail in December I was in a hurry. Last April, with my group, we took our time, walking at and easy pace. I could pay close attention to the flowers and other sights along the trail.
The trail along the Chalone Creek is mild and much of it is shaded by oaks and pines. It is an easy trail to hike, and it is very tempting to simply continue along the creek all the way to the park's visitor center.
Cobwebby Thistle (Cirsium occidentale), April 2015
Looking back, some of the bloom had started already in December. The manzanita shrubs were in bloom then. By April, they were done.
Manzanita (Manzanita sp.), December 2014
After half a mile of easy walking we reached the High Peaks trailhead. Right by a good size patch of the scarlet bugler.
Scarlet Bugler (Penstemon centranthifolius), April 2015
From the first step, the High Peaks Trail proved to be a good workout. In addition, the tree cover disappeared, replaced by chaparral dotted with exposed rocks and scree, and an occasional pine tree.
A Rock Rook, December 2014
The vegetation along the trail was different, but no less beautiful. Early in April, chaparral wildflowers were at peak bloom.
Eastern Mojave Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum), April 2015
But some were already fruiting. In the case of clematis, the fruit is just as beautiful as the flower, if not more.
Chaparral Clematis (Clematis lasiantha), April 2015
We hiked up and up, occasionally stopping for a breather. Each stop I would find something interesting and share it with the group. Like the Pellaea fern, adapted to relative dryness with its thick cuticle, decorated the exposed slope areas.
Coffee Cliffbrake (Pellaea andromedifolia), December 2014
On my December hike I noticed small, red buttresses poking out of the ground underneath the chaparral chamise bushes. I found some close enough to the trail and stooped over for a closer look. They turned out to be budding Indian Warrior plants. By April they were already done with blooming.
Indian Warrior (Pedicularis densiflora), December 2014
he trail switchbacks back and forth along the less exposed north-facing slope. The rock face, wet from preceding rains, was wearing moss and lichen, and sheltering succulent dudleya rosettes.
Lanceleaf (Dudleya lanceolata), December 2014
Many lichen patches were as large as those rosettes.
Lichen, December 2014
The trail slopes for continuous 2 miles. Rock formations that I was looking up to I now was level with.
Rock Rook, December 2014
A grove of oaks shading the trail made me don my sweater in December but provided a welcomed respite from the heat on my April hike with the group.
Oak Passage, December 2014
The trail was leveling off at that point, which was also a welcomed relief for the straining youngsters in our group. I was glad that most weren't too tired to appreciate the colorful display of minerals and lichen on the rocks.
Volcanic Mosaic, December 2014
Up on the mountain's shoulders the trail turns the corner, switching from slope to a gentle meadow. In the most perfect spot in that corner: a single oak and the perfect vista point. It was there that I had my first real break.
Landmark oak, December 2014
To rest, to eat, to breath in the air and to imbibe the wonderful scenery.
View east, December 2014
It was in that spot that we had our group rest stop as well. What followed might have been the same in topography, but very different in appearance.
Upper Meadow, December 2014
And of course it would be. In the end of December, the entire upper meadow was bright green. So green, it made me want to run all over it, performing cartwheels and somersaults. I didn't, of course. And not just because I feared I won't be able to get back on my feet after the first attempt. Getting off the trail is forbidden for a very good reason: it is very damaging to the vegetation and the animals who depend on the health of these plants.
So I only somersaulted mentally :-)
So Green! December 2014
4 months later, on my April hike, the grass was turning yellow and the meadow was dotted with wildflowers. It was also sweltering hot and I felt more like taking a nap rather than performing bad gymnastics.
Mountain Clarkia (Clarkia unguiculata), April 2015
A little further up the trail I back in the Chaparral, and the air filled with the aroma of sage.
High Chaparral, December 2014
We stopped our ascend at the point where the High Peaks Trail meets Condor Gulch Trail. On my solo High Peaks hike I had climbed on the Condor Gulch Trail, but on my December solo hike, as well as on my April group hike, climbing was over. We took the time to rest and to appreciate the field of rock pillars, but then it was time to go down Condor Gulch.
Sitting on a Giant's Shoulders, April 2015
Being an old volcano that had multiple eruptions, the Pinnacles rocks are diverse in their mineral composition, grain size and solidity. As a result, they are also diverse in the rate of their erosion. The rock formations, therefore, are amazingly variable and immensely fascinating and tantalizing to the imagination.
December 2014
 A bit below the trail intersection there is a railed area, perfect for photographing the Pinnacles High Peaks from the eastern side. While group members were busy documenting the rocks with and without themselves in the frame, I was busy trying to get a busy butterfly on camera. 
Painted Lady, April 2015
Going down the Condor Gulch Trail comes as a big relief on the April hike. It was a hot day and the air shimmered in the heat. We were all ready to relax at the campsite or by the campground's swimming pool. 
On a cooler day: male gnats mating dance, December 2014
We didn't get very far before we arrived at a nice cluster of rocks that looked very inviting. Within seconds all the youths in the group were by the rocks, trying to climb them as high as they could to the cheering or frighted calls of their parents.
December 2014
It was only the promise of some pool time that peeled the youngsters off the rocks.
We continued down the trail, and I continued looking for more flowers.
Coyote Mint (Monardella villosa), April 2015
Down and down we hiked. In December I was racing against the sunset. In April we were trying to get in time to the swimming pool. Either way, gravity was on our side.
Pinnacle, December 2014
Condor Gulch Trail switchbacks down a south-facing slope. That means more direct sunlight, which in water-limited areas means less vegetation cover. Other than the occasional pine it was all chaparral. The biggest plant around were the manzanita bushes.
Manzanita Sky, April 2015
They are very, very beautiful, but not much for shade.
Manzanita Trail, April 2015
A large rock pillar by the trail marks the nearing Bear Gulch trailhead, where we were heading. The group passed it without a second glance. I, on the other hand, stood by it for a few long moments. It would be my last time on this trail for a long while.
Trailgate, December 2014
At the Bear Gulch parking lot all of the drivers squeezed inside the car that we had left there, and we drove off to Old Pinnacles to get the rest of the vehicles over. Then I sent everyone off to the campground, to have their longed for swim.
I remained a few moments more behind, looking at the family of acorn woodpeckers I had missed in December. They were very active and vocal. They have an excellent home in the Pinnacles, and I hope to see them again and again in the future.
Acorn Woodpeckers, April 2015
Back in December I had to continue hiking down Bear Gulch Trail to complete my loop. In April, my hike was concluded and I drove to the campground store, got myself a beer and went back to the campsite, where I laid back on a bench and relaxed while the rest enjoyed the pool.
The following day would be the last day of the group's camping trip, and we were to hike along the Chalone Creek, all the way to the Balconies.


  1. Nice trail - and the comarision between Decembr and April is very interesting