“Head out of the Old Pinnacles Trailhead via the North Wilderness Trail and Balconies Cave Trail.”
— David Hitchcock
Birding · River/Creek · Views · Wildflowers
This loop trail starts from the Old Pinnacles Trailhead, follows the North Wilderness Trail
, and then returns to the trailhead via the Balconies Cave Trail
. The trail starts in the sandy terrain of the Chalone Creek. The area is well shaded due the trees that are found along the creek. The Wilderness Trail breaks off to the left and follows the North Fork of the Chalone Creek. The trail winds through the old creek bed and trees until you reach about 4.6 miles. Here, the trail breaks away from the creek and climbs steeply up a ravine for about a mile. The trail finally tops out at about 5.6 miles, offering fantastic views of the surrounding countryside, especially the High Peaks
. At this point, the trees have disappeared as the trail has climbed away from the creek. The trail is exposed at this point, so make sure you have sunscreen and a hat to block the sun.
At this point, the trail levels out and follows the ridgeline as it begins to descend to the Chaparral parking area. The trail descends for approximately 2 miles, with the High Peaks
in view for the entire time. Wildflowers can be seen in the winter and early spring as the rain provides nourishment for the varieties that grow here. The trail finally emerges at the Chaparral picnic area, where you can take a break and grab a bite to eat before continuing your journey. While you probably have been by yourself on the trail up to this point, the route from this point on will be busier as the cave is a popular destination and easy to reach from either side of the park. The trail becomes shaded again as you follow the West Fork of the Chalone Creek. The trail offers great views of the volcanic rocks and provides a couple access trails to popular climbing routes. The trail goes through the Balconies Cave, which requires a flashlight and scrambling to get through. Once you emerge from the caves, it's a quick jaunt back to the trailhead. This route offers many of the things that make Pinnacles NP great!
Need to Know
Make sure the you have plenty of water for this trip. Even though it follows creeks at various points, you need to treat any water you get from the creek. Make sure that the water is flowing and not stagnant.
The Balconies Cave requires a flashlight in order to get through, so make sure you have a light to navigate with. There is a lot of scrambling and tight spaces that have to be negotiated.
There is a picnic area 7.5-8.0 miles into the route, which makes for a great place to have lunch or a snack before continuing on your trail.
The Pinnacles can get very warm, especially later in the day. This loop is best done in the morning so that traveling through many of the exposed areas is completed before it gets too warm. The last 3-4 miles of the trail is shaded by the large rocks and trees growing along the creek, so running later in the day is more bearable.
The trail starts at the Old Pinnacles Trail
and follows the Old Pinnacles Trail
for about .7 miles. As it follows the West Fork of the Chalone Creek, the trail is sandy and rather shaded thanks to the water that feeds the trees. When the North Wilderness Trail
breaks off to the left, it follows the creek for the next four miles. The trail crosses the creek numerous times via rock hops as it winds north and west. Downed trees are common through this area as the trail is not maintained by the park service, but these obstacles are easily overcome. The trail is narrow in many sections, and you'll most likely brush up against shrubs growing next to the trail, so pants are recommended. In areas where the trail drops into the old creek bed, cairns mark the way where the trail becomes difficult to follow. In areas of shade, there are small wildflowers growing all along the trail. Cones from the evergreen trees in the area line the trail. Volcanic rocks begin to appear around 4.5 miles, reminders of the volcanic history of the park.
The last creek crossing in this section of the trail is at around mile 4.6 and signals the trail's departure from the creek bed. The trail begins to steeply climb up the ravine as it gains roughly 600 feet of elevation gain in roughly 1 mile. Wildflowers, like shooting stars, line the trail. If running in the morning, your feet will get wet from the dew on the grass, so make sure to wear appropriate footwear.
At roughly 5.5 miles, the trail leaves the trees and turns left to climb to the highest point on the trail. From here, great views of the surrounding hillsides and the High Peaks
stretch before you. The trees have transformed into shrubs as the trail moves away from the creek and ravine where water is more plentiful. Take a chance to have a snack, apply sunscreen, but most importantly, enjoy the view.
From here, the trail begins it descent to the Chaparral picnic area. The high peaks are in full view throughout this portion of the trail, so there are plenty of photo opportunities. Some areas of descent are steeper than others, but it makes for easy traveling, especially if you have poles. Between mile 6.5-7, the trail becomes sandier making footing a little trickier. Either use your poles in this section or slow down to make sure you don't fall. While you have probably been alone for most of this trip, as you approach the picnic area at mile 7, you may encounter more people exploring the trail from the Chaparral parking and picnic area. After heading through the picnic area, the route continues to left as it meets up with the Balconies Cave Trail
The Balconies Cave Trail
is a stark contrast to the narrow, unmaintained, exposed trail that you have been following. The trail is wide, well maintained, and a majority of the creek crossings are done via bridges. A wide variety of people use the trail: day users, cave explorers, birders, and climbers all use this trail. It is relatively flat and well shaded by the trees that grow along the creek and the tower rocks overhead. At 8.3 miles, the Balconies Cliffs Trail breaks off to the left, which you can take if you aren't up for navigating the cave ahead. When you reach the Balconies Cave, make sure you have your flashlight ready and are limber enough to descend through the cave. Pack up your poles if you have them, as the path through the cave can be slippery and may require crawling as you descend to the cave opening on the other side. When you emerge from the cave, follow the creek (the trail isn't well marked here) down to where the trail picks up again and continues to follow the creek.
From here, it's roughly 2.1 miles back to your car. It's a shaded, pleasant stretch of trail, with a couple of rock hops as the trail crosses the creek a couple of times. You'll pass where the North Wilderness Trail
breaks off to the left and you return to the sandy trail you traveled earlier as you make your way to the parking lot.
Flora & Fauna
Western Fence Lizards can be seen and heard scurrying all along the trail. Deer, turkeys, turkey vultures, praise hawks, and California Condors can be viewed at various parts of this trail, especially in the morning before it gets too warm.
There is a variety of wildflowers found along the trail. The following page is a great reference for the varieties found in the park.