Northern Wilderness Trail Loop

Northern Wilderness Trail Loop

Page Type Page Type: Route
Additional Information Route Type: Hiking
Seasons Season: Spring
Sign the Climber's Log


When I mentioned to a friend that I had hiked every trail at the Pinnacles National Park, they asked me what trail I liked the most.  After some consideration, I realized my favorite hike is the Northern Wilderness Trail Loop, consisting of the Northern Wilderness Trail,  the Old Pinnacles Trail and the Balconies Trail .  This Northern Wilderness Trail is unmaintained and climbs ridge tops before descending into the North Fork of Chalone Creek Drainage.    Along the way there are great views of the High Peaks, and in season lots of wildflowers.   When the creek flows into the West Fork of the Chalone Creek, you hike back to the parking lot along the Old Pinnacles Trail.  You have your choice of scrambling through the Balconies Caves or taking the bypass trail.  

The loop is 9.9 miles and the total elevation gain is slightly over 1,000 feet.

Getting There

The trail head for the Northern Wilderness Trail is on the west side of the Pinnacles National Park.   To get to the west side of the Park take Highway 101 to Soledad, then follow Highway 146 east for miles.  Highway 146 is winding and narrow.  In places, it is only one lane wide and is not recommended for RV's or trailers.


After parking in the Chaparral Trailhead Parking area, walk nowrthwest past the picnic tables to the trail head.   The trail parallels a creek before beginning to climb a ridge.  When you reach the top of the ridge after 4 miles or so, you will notice a sign directing you to the North Fork Chalone Creek Drainage.  

Northern Wilderness Trail
Geoff near the start of the North Wilderness trail. Photo taken 3/13/11.

Northern Wilderness Trail
Geoff hiking up the trail, with a distant view of the High Peaks in the background.

Northern Wilderness Trail
The top of the ridge, just before turning to follow the Chalone Creek. Photo taken 3/13/1

The trail through the drainage heads east, before turing southward.   The trail is marked with cairns. There are many creek crossings, downed trees to scramble over. Thrashing around and some back tracking to find the trail will probably be required.  

Northern Wilderness Trail
When the trail descends into the creek drainage it is narrow and hard to follow at times. Photo taken 3/13/11.

Cairn marking the trail on the Northern Wilderness trail. Normally, I don't like cairns but I was happy to see them on this unmaintained trail. It is can be hard to figure out the path of least resistence. The cairns helped.

Northern Wilderness Trail
One of the many creek crossings. Photo taken on 3/13/11.

The trail intersects with the Old Pinnacles Trail where the North Fork of the Chalone Creek empties into the West Fork of the Chalone Creek.   Turn west (left) on this trail, heading towards the Balconies Caves.  A note of caution,   if it has been raining, you may want to skip going through the caves which can be slippery when wet.  You can take the bypass trail as an alternative.  If you go through the caves, you will need a flashlight.  Once you are in the caves follow the white arrows.

Entrance to the Balconies Caves
Nearing the entrance to the Balaconies Caves. Flash lights are needed when you go through this talus cave. Photo taken 3/13/11.

Balconies Cave
Geoff trying to figure out where the entrance to the caves is. Photo taken on 3/13/11.

Balconies Cave
There are a few tight squeezes in the Balconies Cave. Photo taken 3/13/11.

When to Hike - Wildflowers 

I think the spring is the best time of year to visit the Pinnacles.  The temperatures are moderate and the wildflowers are blooming.  It can be quite hot in the summer - I avoid the place then.

Shooting Stars
Photo taken while hiking the Northern Wilderness Trail on 3/13/11. There were a lot of shooting starts blooming at the time.

Taken on the Northern Wilderness Trail, 3/13/11.

California Buttercup
Seen while hiking the Northern Wilderness Trail. 3/13/11.


There is a camp ground on the east side of the Pinnacles:

Red Tape and Park Link

Entrance fees to the park are $5.00 per vehicle.  You can get an annual pass for $15.00. The Park Home Page is located at: