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26. High Peaks Trail (02/22/97)

Hikers (4): Mary, Peter, Russ, Taylor
Distance: 10 miles
Rating: 4 difficulty, 10 beauty
Park info: Pinnacles National Monument south of Hollister

Write-up by Peter

Rusty's write-up of INCH's last visit to Pinnacles (see Hike #6) did not do it justice. It was great -- a giant playground, with all sorts of interesting nooks and crannies to explore.

Mary joined the three usual suspects, and we hit the road at 9 o'clock. After a quick stop at the K&S Market in Hollister (cheap sandwiches!), we arrived at Pinnacles National Monument around 10:30. The hills leading up to the Pinnacles were bright green -- a sharp contrast to the rocky facade that towered over the parking lot.

1, 2, 3, ... HIKE!

We walked along the creek at the bottom of Bear Gulch Trail for about a mile and a half, then began the climb up to the High Peaks. After passing through two miles of switchbacks, we arrived at the intersection of the Condor Gulch Trail, about half a mile away from the High Peaks.

Russ had been telling me horror stories about the High Peaks all week -- the steep drop, the handrail -- just to make the heights even more scary. Fearing that Rusty was going to take advantage of my moment of weakness and grab my lunch like he did at Yosemite (see Hike #10) I persuaded the group to sit down and eat before attempting the High Peaks.

The ascent to High Peaks was not without trepidation. I had asked the others to leave me alone, so Rusty had gone up ahead and Taylor and Mary hung back (Mary was also not too fond of heights). The giant boulders lining the trail made it feel like we were walking between the teeth of some giant prehistoric beast.

Around a curve, up some steps and there it was -- the legendary handrail. My heart was beating like a little bunny! As I looked up and saw those steps cut into the stone leading up to the sky, the temptation to turn back was almost overwhelming. But then a voice from above the clouds appeared: Use the Force, Luke! . There it was -- time for a deep breath and then the old INCH try!

Once started, there was no turning back. Thank God the handrail was as sturdy as a rock. Grabbing onto the handrail for dear life, I pulled myself up the first batch of steps, then onto the second handrail and over the first rock back onto flat trail. Whew! That was not so bad. The next stretch was actually more difficult -- part of the trail went under some overhanging rocks, so it was necessary to crouch down and shuffle along while holding onto the handrail (including crossing a wooden bridge), but the fear barrier had been overcome, so it was actually fun! After this, the rest of the trail was a piece of cake.

After overcoming the challenge, we all decided to go back via the Tunnel Trail and loop back and do it again. We scampered down to the tunnel, then back up the switchbacks and to the start of the handrail trail again. The second time around, there was no problem. We all stuck together as a group and laughed and joked as we went through. Bring on Half Dome!

From the High Peaks, we took the Bear Gulch trail back down towards the parking lot. Near the bottom, we decided to take a one-mile side trip to the Reservoir and the Bear Gulch Caves. It was beautiful! The Reservoir was sparkling in the late afternoon sun, and people were relaxing and enjoying a rest after a good hike. This is also the starting point for the trail to Chalone Peak (the highest point in the park) -- a separate hike in itself, and one that we promised to come back to.

After a little break, we headed down into the caves. The purists among us will argue that they are not really caves, but rather a path under some giant boulders that have fallen into the valley millions of years ago. Nevertheless, it is pitch black in there. The kids who had come with their parents were really enjoying it. Since we only had one flashlight between the four of us and we would have to walk about half a mile ankle-deep in water to make it out the other side, we decided to turn back and save it for another day.

On the way back, we found a nice rock-climbing area. Those people looked like they were having a lot of fun. Maybe we will try that one of these days when we're feeling brave.

Excellent day, beautiful hike! It will certainly go down as one of our all-time favorites. We celebrated on the way home by stopping off at In 'N' Out, where Russ and I each had a Quadruple (a Level 4 burger for a Level 4 hike)!

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