Harris BM P500
Peak 2,540ft P500

Jan 8, 2016

With: Karl Fieberling
Eric Su

Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPXs: 1 2 Profile

Needing to get a break from school, Eric had contacted me with the idea of doing something local on the weekend, suggesting an outing to Launtz Ridge in the Ventana Wilderness. The weather had been unsettled and wet for much of the week and it was difficult to find a dry window. I didn't really want to do what was expected to be a prolonged coastal bushwhack in wet conditions and suggested an outing in Pinnacles NP instead. I had received an email correspondence from someone a few years earlier who had done a hike to Harris BM in the northernmost part of the park. Much of the time was spent off official trails, utilizing old firebreaks, ranch roads and perimeter fences on this all-day adventure. Sadly, During a series of email exchanges with Jerry Kohn, he forwarded me a GPX track from Dr. Jack Glen Denning that's been sitting on my GPSr for more than a year now, waiting for an opportunity. Karl was game to join us as well and since he lived in the Santa Cruz area, Eric and he carpooled together, meeting me at the Starbucks at the SR156/US101 junction. From there we all drove to Pinnacles in my van, arriving not longer after sunrise and the 7:30am opening of the west side gate. Ours was the only vehicle in the lonely lot when arrived there, a few miles downhill from the gate.

Starting off just before 7:45a, we headed north through the picnic area to the start of the North Wilderness Trail. This little-used trail would get us about halfway to our goal. When I first used this trail many years earlier, it was little more than a use trail marked with periodic flagging. It had required some careful attention to route-finding in order to make my way around the 7mi arc that ends at the old east side parking area. The trail at times was just a faint depression in the tall grass and the portions along Chalone Creek were marked by ducks but no tread, per se. Since that time, the trail has been upgraded and is rather easy to follow, a development I was not sorry to see. Having a good trail saved our boots from getting wet early in the day. As the sun rose and started to warm the ground some, mists rose from the wet grass, creating thin layers of fog that hung around for several hours. The ground would be wet for most of the day, but little of it soaked into our boots.

Our route heading north went up and over a divide between two drainages, a climb of about 600ft. Here the trail drops down into the Chalone Creek watershed, losing most of the elevation we'd gained before reaching the creek. We followed a few ducks marking the trail heading east before pausing for the start of the off-trail adventure. It seems the GPX track we had went north up a drainage before climbing out to join a ridgeline, and this may have been the better (less brushy) route. Instead, we started up a promising ridgeline to the right of the track that soon became a bit messy with moderately heavy brush for about 3/4mi. Eric complained occasionaly about the head-level stuff getting tangled in his long hair, but otherwise we managed through with only minor bloodshed. We were happy to spot the old perimeter fence which has been repurposed as a pig fence to keep the feral hogs from the center portions of the park. The fence is well-maintained with a wide clearing on either side, allowing it to be used for easy travel along its length. We followed the fence northwest for less than ten minutes until we reached a junction with a firebreak continuing north towards Harris BM. Now back on the original GPX track, we followed the old firebreak and some old ranch roads higher towards the north perimeter of the park. This was pleasant and easy hiking, gaining about 700ft over the course of several miles. We noted cow pies high on the ridge where the route turns to the east, evidently the Park Service doesn't maintain a similarly strong fence on the expanded park boundary. This may be to keep from upsetting local ranchers who had gotten used to grazing cattle on this ridge before Pinnacles had been upgraded to a National Park. In any event, we were content to run into no herds, no ranchers and no people as we reached the highpoint around 10:20a.

The Harris BM summit is open to sweeping views in all directions. Skies were mostly blue, the hills were a verdant green, and the scenery made us wonder why more people don't hike out this way. Certainly a trail would help - it wouldn't take much effort on the Park Service's part to expand the trail system into this area of the park thanks to the old firebreaks found along many of the ridgelines. We continued east over the summit along more firebreaks, following the old GPS track that makes a large loop of this northern excursion. This descent route, about a mile east of the ascent route, was the better option with much less brush to contend with. We eventually crossed paths with the pig fence again and followed this downhill to the west into a minor drainage. Here we left the fence to follow the drainage south back to the North Wilderness Trail, a distance of about 2/3mi. It was surprisingly easy to make our way down along the creek, crossing from one side to the other several times and taking less than 15min in total. An old campsite with a small pile of rusting tins is found just before reaching Chalone Creek and the trail.

We spent the next 30min hiking back along the trail and up to the saddle between the two major drainages. An unsigned fork here follows another old firebreak uphill to the west towards a bonus peak we were interested in. Peak 2,540ft, with more than 500ft of prominence, lies about a mile outside the western edge of the park. The old firebreak and various branches led nicely over several ups and downs to the park boundary and then to the modest ridge that forms the highpoint. There are really fine views of the High Peaks area in the center of the park along this route, though views from the summit were muted. From the highpoint, one can look west into Gloria Valley (which forms the headwaters of Chalone Creek) where a ranching concern grazes numerous cattle. None of the roads and firebreaks we followed showed any significant travel, but happily the route had only the mildest of brush to deal with.

Back inside the park we made a feeble attempt to reach another bonus summit, Peak 2,208ft only half a mile from the highpoint along the North Wilderness Trail. This was the only remaining peak within Pinnacles that I had yet to visit and may turn out to be the hardest. We made it only a hundred yards or so down an old firebreak before running into thick brush and little will to continue, tired as we were. This would be better with fresh legs and probably some clippers to make a better show of it. It was 3p by the time we returned to the west side picnic area and parking lot, a fairly full day. We'd covered almost 18mi with more than 4,000ft of gain - not a bad day's effort...

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