The Balconies and High Peaks
Loop combines a series of trails out of the Old Pinnacles area that offers you the ability to explore the Balconies Cave, climb to the High Peaks
area through Juniper Canyon, and the chance to see California Condors as they soar above the High Peaks
The trail begins in the Old Pinnacles area of the park and follows the Old Pinnacles Trail
as it meanders through a sandy area before entering a wooded area that provides shade as you make your way deeper into the park. If it has been raining lately, you may have a couple of creek crossings that you need to rock hop, but the majority of the year the streams are dry. You may encounter deer or turkeys in this area as you make your way toward the Balconies Cave.
Roughly 2 miles in, you have a choice to go through the Balconies Cave if it is open, or to take the Balconies Cliffs Trail that climbs up the hillside and puts you directly below the Balconies, where you may see falcons and other birds of prey. After emerging on the other side of the cave, the trail is flat as it approaches the Chaparral Trailhead Parking area, where a restroom and picnic area await you. After taking a break, the trail begins to climb up Juniper Canyon. While it is shaded in the lower levels of the trail, the trees give way to low shrubs and the trail is exposed.
At the top of Juniper Canyon, there is another rest area, and you can take the High Peaks Trail
to the High Peaks
. Be on the lookout for California Condors, who frequent the High Peaks
area. The trail winds its way to the High Peaks
, where, at points, the trail is cut into the rock face and require climbing up steep rocks. After enjoying the view from the High Peaks
, the trail descends 2 steep sets of stairs before climbing past the Tunnel Trail
. Stay on the High Peaks Trail
and descend the 2.5 miles to the Bench Trail
. Take a left on the Bench Trail
and go a mile back to the Old Pinnacles Trail
, take a right, and make your way back to the car.
This loop is a wonderful way to see the various environments that can be found in Pinnacles National Park. The trail leaves the Old Pinnacle Trailhead Parking area and follows the Old Pinnacles Trail
through a sandy area before breaking off to the right. The trail crosses a bridge and enters a wooded area that is more damp than the rest of the park. Mosses and ferns can be seen in this area, and turkeys and deer can be seen late in the day in this area. The trail passes the 7 mile North Wilderness Trail
, that breaks off to the right. The trail follows the West Fork of Chalone Creek, and there are a couple of places in this area where you may have to do a rock hop if there has been a lot of rain lately. However, most of the year, the creeks are dry and pose no issues.
At roughly 2 miles, you have a choice to go through the Balconies Cave if it is open (roughly 0.4 miles) or take a right and climb the Balconies Cliff Trail (0.8 miles). If the cave is open and you have a flashlight, you can work your way through the cave and emerge on the other side. The trail winds its way through the rocks that have fallen from the cliffs above and emerges at the Chaparral Trailhead Parking Area. There is a restroom here and picnic area, so refresh and catch a bite to eat before starting your climb up Juniper Canyon Trail
to the High Peaks
The Juniper Canyon Trail
works its way through a shaded canyon before emerging on a set of switchbacks that are more exposed and representative of the chaparral environment that is common in the area. After climbing a set of switchbacks, passing the Tunnel Trail
at roughly 1.2 miles, and finishing up another set of switchbacks, you emerge at the High Peaks
/Juniper Canyon junction. Here, there is a bench where you can sit and get a snack, as well as a pit toilet if you need it. Be on the look for California Condors, as well as turkey vultures, swifts, and crows, that frequent the High Peaks
After taking a break, the High Peaks Trail
climbs uphill to the left before leveling out and the High Peaks
come into view. After enjoying the view, the trail descends for a short distance until it narrows and climbs around a rock face, with a metal rail helps keep you on the trail. The trail climbs up a set of stairs that are cut into the rock before cutting to the right, and climbing steeply up a set of steps with a rail that is cut into the rock face that climbs to the High Peaks
. At the High Peaks
, take in the view of the surrounding countryside, where you can see the Condor Gulch Trail
below you and the San Andreas Fault off in the distance. Be on the look for California Condors, especially in the afternoon when there are thermals that they can soar on. They often soar above and below you, as well as perching on the rocks above you. It's amazing to see this endangered animal soaring around you and interacting with each other for all to see.
After enjoying the view and hopefully watching the condors, continue ahead and hike across a wood bridge where a rock face is a few feet above you. If you are tall, you'll need to duck through this area. Descend two sets of stairs that are cut into the rock face, using the rail to help you. The trail climbs up the backside of the High Peaks
, passes the Tunnel Trail
junction before starting to descend toward the Bench Trail
. The trail passes the Condor Gulch Trail
0.6 miles past the Tunnel Trail
junction, and continues to descend, more steeply now.
The trail works its way through an area of trees and meadows before rounding a corner and dropping into a canyon that descends steeply to the Bench Trail
. Take a left and follow the narrow, flat, dirt trail above the Chalone Creek for roughly 1 mile before crossing a bridge and following the Old Pinnacles Trail
straight ahead back to the parking area. After roughly 9 miles, you arrive back at your car having experienced a great deal of what Pinnacle NP has to offer in terms of flora, fauna, and landscapes.
There is a wide variety of animals that call the park home. In terms of birds, you may catch a glimpse of California Condors riding on the thermals above you, especially in the high peaks area. Other raptors can be seen, especially in the Balconies area. Wild turkeys, ravens, a host of other birds can be seen as you hike along the Old Pinnacles Trail
. Snakes and lizards can be seen on the trail, especially in the upper reaches of the Juniper Canyon Trail
. Deer and bobcat have been seen along the Old Pinnacles Trail
The Old Pinnacles Trail
and Juniper Canyon are wooded in areas, while the High Peaks
area is more representative of the chaparral environment that makes up most of Pinnacles. A wide variety of mosses and lichen can be seen throughout the trail. In the late winter and early spring, wildflowers, like Milk Maidens, Indian paintbrush, poppies, and other flowers can be seen throughout the hike.