Etymology Story

With the kids still away at science camp and Mom working most of the day, I had another day to spend in the hills. The rain from the previous day had given way to drier conditions, but it was still partially foggy and overcast as I drove south on US101 and SR25 to Pinnacles NM. I didn't leave early expressly to allow the brush to have time to dry in the morning sun. My boots would still get wet some during the day, but at least they didn't soak through.

I was primarily interested in the two CC-listed summits of Scout Peak and Mt. Defiance, but there were a handful of other named summits in the area that I would look to tag as well. I've always enjoyed my rambling visits to Pinnacles, with plenty of interesting rock scrambling and cross-country travel that is not as difficult as one might expect from the coast ranges. Because Mt. Defiance is a significant cross-country affair, it seemed prudent to leave that one for later in the day, giving the brush more chance to dry.

Arriving at the east entrance, I zipped past the campground and Visitor Center on my way to the end of the road at Bear Gulch. There was only one other car at the lot when I arrived, and after changing clothes from a set I had packed in the trunk, I was off shortly before 8:30a. I heard voices and spotted a rock climber only a few minutes after starting up, evidently the owners of the other car I had seen. He was the only one I would see for most of the morning. It was overcast and partly foggy in Bear Gulch, bright green moss covering some of the rocks in the lower portion of the cave area. The rain the previous days had brought all the lichen and moss to life, making it a sometimes tricky affair to scramble over them, as I would find later in the day.

As I turned onto the High Peaks Trail, The fog and mist was clinging to parts of Scout Peak, but the peak was still partially visible. I reached the top of the trail at a saddle SW of High Peaks just after 9a. Scout Peak lay to left of the saddle at the end of an obvious use trail (several actually) that headed off in that direction. The easiest was the one going around by the restroom located nearby. The lower part has a short class 3 slab traverse, but the rest is class 2 until one reaches the summit block, about five minutes from the saddle. This caught me somewhat unexpectedly as I had not thought it might be a class 5 affair. I went around to the south and southwest sides of the 40-foot block to ascertain there wasn't an easier way up. The south side seemed the easiest, but at something like 5.6, I wasn't prepared to try it solo and in my boots. There seems to be nice hand and foot holds, but the exposed nature of it had me giving up without even trying. the east side looks somewhat harder, perhaps class 5.8, up a steep, lichen-covered chute. I spotted a bolt high on the rock overhead, evidence that the thing has not only been climbed, but sport climbed as well. I decided the summit block would have to wait for another time when I might come back with more gear and someone more capable.

I retraced my route to the saddle, then started up the High Peaks Trail looking for the highpoint of High Peaks. The point closest to the trail is class 3 and fairly easy, but not the highest point. That is located to the northeast, past some guardrailed portions of trail, atop a massive block of volcanic rock that also appears to have no easy way up. Two peaks and two fails, all within about half an hour - my batting average was starting off rather low. At least the High Peaks Trail is pretty cool, with some narrow sections blasted into cliffs, railings installed to mitigate the exposure. I followed this to a junction with the Tunnel Trail, then a bit further northeast towards Hawkins Peak.

Finally, a peak I could reach. Hawkins has several summit blocks vying for the highpoint. The easternmost one is stiff class 5, the only route obvious was a bolted one going up a vertical face on the northwest corner of it. I followed a use trail past this block to the western one that also appears class 5, but upon closer inspection there is an easy class 3 route up through a break on the east side of it. From the top of the western block, it appears the east block is slightly lower, as is a nearer, adjacent block that is also a class 5 gymanstics endeavor. So I put my batting average as 1 for 3 after Hawkins.

I went back to the junction with the Tunnel Trail and followed that down through the tunnel that gives it its name, a cool bit of engineering, but leaves one asking, "Why?" since it is one of two trail going from A to B and seemingly quite unnecessary. The trail winds through an area called Pinnacle Rocks, and judging by the number of hangers I spotted bolted to the rocks, a popular area for enthusiasts.

My next stop was a feature called The Fingers, located half a mile northwest of Scout Peak. I followed the Tunnel Trail down to a junction, then started down the trail leading to the west entrance. At the base of the Fingers I left the canyon and the trail, starting up steep slopes towards the north side of The Fingers. I found no use trail at first, having chosen a poor starting point, resulting in some unnecessary bushwhacking to fight my way uphill. I came across a dry, shallow creekbed northeast of the feature, with a partial use trail making its way to a shoulder high above, and around to the north side of The Fingers. Somewhere in this nuttiness of cross-country travel I stumbled upon a wildlife camera installed to take pictures of critters that pass by, probably triggered by a motion sensor. I stared into the thing, wondering if it was taking my picture as well, laughing at the though of the ranger that would find it sometime on their next round.

The use trail led nicely to the north side of The Fingers, nearly to the rocky base of a composite rock wall that makes up the last 100ft to the summit. The trail led around towards the west side of the feature, but I decided I should be able to climb the north side which I judged to be class 3 or so. It was a sprightly bit of face climbing, made harder by the lichen that had sprung to life with the recent moisture. Luckily the holds were large and well-positioned just where the face grew steepest and they were the most needed.

It was 11:20a when I hauled up on the top of the north summit. It appeared to be the highest point of the formation, but I paid a visit to the south summit about five minutes away, just to be sure. I found no way off the south side, but by returning most of the way to the north summit I discovered the easier class 2 route up the west slope - so this is where that use trail was leading! Descending this, I used a combination of use trail and cross-country to make my way south around the west side of The Fingers and then up higher back towards Scout Peak. Luckily, very little bushwhacking on this half mile effort.

Once back at the High Peaks saddle I took the trail back down towards Bear Gulch and up to Bear Gulch Reservoir. There were three groups of school kids being led by young adult instructors, all having lunch at various places around the lake. They were a friendly lot and were not shy about saying "Hi" in return as I passed by them. I followed the Chalone Peak Trail about half a mile south to where it tops out at a saddle before turning west towards North Chalone Peak. A use trail forks off from this point so I followed it into the brush. I think the trail may go to rock climbing areas around the west summit of Little Pinnacles, but in any event it did not seem to lead to Mt. Defiance as I had hoped. I dropped down a drainage leading to a canyon on the north side of Mt. Defiance, mostly easy grass slopes but some brushy parts as well. I dropped down a rocky drainage half way down with a set of stagnant pools in what is probably a delightful series of cascades in the wetter season. The only snake I saw all day was a small racer that had fallen into one of the pools and died.

The lowest part of the canyon was choked with brush and I was unable to make it down to the main drainage without a more serious bushwhacking affair. Instead I climbed the more open slope on the side of Pt. 2,388ft west of Mt. Defiance and worked my way east to the dry creekbed that is Frog Canyon. From there it was a steep but not-so-brushy climb up the northwest side of Mt. Defiance, about an hour's effort since leaving the trail.

The Mt. Defiance summit had a small cairn and not much else. There are expansive views looking east and south across the Gabilan Range and to the west rise the much higher North and South Chalone peaks. To the north were High Peaks and most of Pinnacles NM, the Little Pinnacles ridge in the foreground. The latter was to be my last stop. There were two summits, east and west on Little Pinnacles. From the map it appears the east summit is highest, though the feature was undoubtedly named for the rockier outcropping that is the west summit. It too would be a cross-country affair. From the summit of Defiance I was able to make out a reasonable route up Little Pinnacles on the south side and had only to work out a way down the north side of Mt. Defiance. Much of this was on faith since I couldn't see most of what lay ahead in that direction as the slope rolled off and kept the lower parts out of view.

It was not as hard to get down Mt. Defiance as I had imagined. I started straight down the north side, but moved left onto the northwest ridgeline when blocked by brush. In the lower reaches I found steep gravel slopes in places that made for some surprisingly good boot skiing and a very quick descent. It took less than twenty minutes to get down to the dry creekbed in Frog Canyon. From there I followed the ascent route I had picked out up to the ridgeline of Little Pinnacles, then traversed east to the grass and tree-covered summit marked Pt. 2,330ft on the map. I found some large clumps of poison oak on the ascent of Little Pinnacles, but there had been very little of the stuff that I had seen through the day, certainly a lot less than I had run into on the Big Sur coast a few days earlier.

Little Pinnacles had the nice feature of being just above and south of the parking area in Bear Gulch. I had already spotted grassy descent slopes off the north side of Little Pinnacles earlier in the day and in this I was not disappointed. Much of it was open grass hillsides dotted with scraggly oaks, brushier lower down, but nothing very trying or difficult. I emerged from the hillsides at the water tank used to supply the buildings and restrooms in Bear Gulch, from which it was a three minute walk back to the parking lot. I was finished by 3p, about an hour earlier than I had expected only a short time earlier while I was on Mt. Defiance - the cross-country up and over Little Pinnacles had gone remarkably smoothly. It was a very enjoyable day on a quite, cool and overcast visit to the Pinnacles. Hopefully I won't find I have more poison oak itching to contend with as the week progresses...

It was pointed out to me in the summer of 2018 by Mason that I had not actually climbed three of these peaks - Scout, High Peaks, and even Hawkins which I had sort of fudged on. The highpoint is not the point I climbed, but another feature to the east called Tuff Dome. I managed to do Scout Peak a few years later with Adam, but sort of ignored the unfinished business on the other two. A month after I was rightly admonished I went back with rock climbing gear to do these more properly. I succeeded on Hawkins but not so on High Peaks. We climbed South Finger, but it isn't the highest point among High Peaks - that honor goes to Condor Crags which we'll try to get next time.

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