Located a couple of hours’ drive from the east entrance, the west side of Pinnacles National Park feels a bit more rugged, not least because fewer people visit this part. Yet it offers access to some of the park’s premier trails and sites, including Juniper Canyon and Balconies Cave.
From the trailhead at the Chaparral Picnic Area, go right and get onto Juniper Canyon Trail to start a scenic and sometimes strenuous 4.3-mile lollipop loop. Meander through the shady canyon filled with chaparral, manzanita bushes, and several species of trees before the trail begins to climb rigorously in a series of switchbacks … for 1,215 feet of elevation gain.
You’ll top out on a ridge near Scout Peak—a favorite condor hangout. Panoramic views of the west side of the park and beyond award your efforts before it’s time to tackle the next part of the loop: the adventurous High Peaks Trail. This is the most exciting part of the hike as you scale the multi-colored rock formations using metal rails, bridges, and steps carved into the stone.
Wonder why the rocks are so many different colors? It’s from the diversity of lichen in the park, with about 300 species growing here.
After exiting the rocky pinnacles and spires, take the turnoff for the Tunnel Trail, and more switchbacks. This section isn’t as steep, and the trail’s namesake tunnel makes a great place to cool off on hot days.
Eventually the trail joins back up with the Juniper Canyon Trail, and from there it’s all downhill back to the parking lot.
BONUS CAVE: Go check out Balconies Cave, one of the talus caves in Pinnacles National Park! The entrance to the cave is just 0.6 mile from the parking lot and is an easy, mostly flat trek along a California buckwheat–lined trail. The journey through the cave is 0.4 mile of climbing and scrambling through dark, narrow cave passages. You’ll need your hands free to climb, so bring a headlamp for this one!
After exiting the cave, either go back the way you came (through the cave, for a 2-mile round-trip journey) or continue onto the Balconies Cliffs trail to make it into a 2.4-mile loop. This less-traveled trail has amazing views of towering Machete Ridge.
Important: The west entrance is approximately a two-hour drive from the east entrance of Pinnacles National Park. The West Visitor Contact Station is the visitor center on this side of the park, but it is closed mid-week (Wednesdays and Thursdays). Pay entrance fee at one of the self-serve machines in the visitor center parking lot before continuing down the road to the Chaparral Picnic Area. The parking lot is small; get there early.