High Peaks of Pinnacles National Park

Hey you! Do you get your senses tingled by complimentary goody?
I raise my arms high for Free National Parks Day!
Every once in a while National Park Services runs free entrance day to blue planet (aka Earth’s) heavenly gardens. Check this link for full list of Free Entrance Days in the National Parks!

Pinnacles National Park in Northern California participates on Free Entrance Days every year.

Most recent free entrance day was on Veteran’s Day weekend.
I drove out to Santa Cruz and Monterey with my lovely friend, Rebecca, on Saturday and spent the evening in Salinas before cruising our way to Pinnacles National Park on golden Sunday afternoon.

Pinnacles preserves aspiring rocks and dynamic geological formation deriving from ancient volcanic eruption. The park embodies many unique features of California.

Pinnacles National Park is one of the newest members of National Park System and it was officially welcomed to the National Park family in 2013.

Last time I visited the park was in late 2014 and entered the park from its East Entrance and trekked from Bear Gulch up to High Peaks. This time around Google Maps navigation took us to West Entrance which is considerably smaller and quieter compared to much popular east side of the park. Chaparral Trailhead is the sole destination for picnic and hiking on the west side of Pinnacles and this was the best option given to us since we wanted less crowded and relaxed afternoon hike.

We started the hike from Chaparral Trailhead on High Peaks Trail to Hawkins Peak (apprx. 2mi).

Chaparral Trailhead Parking was full but there was plenty of parking spaces in overflow parking located about half mile from the trailhead. Sunday and Free National Park Day was guaranteed combination of chaos no matter where we’d go, but western side of Pinnacles was quite calm with little to no foot traffic even on the most popular hiking destination in this park: High Peaks.

Along the ascension to High Peaks we saw many interesting rock formation that can easily be named and personified.

Chaparral Trailhead to High Peaks viewpoint was about 2 miles moderate hike. It was such a beautiful Sunday in the park with temperature comfortable around mid-seventies. Earlier part of the trail was mostly shaded and dynamic view quickly opened up beneath us as we carved our ways through smooth canyon on switchbacks. We saw flock of condors soaring in the sky too.

At the end of High Peaks Trail we found viewpoint to sit down and eat lunch. People and scenery were so small under our feet.

Pinnacles National Park can be enjoyed whether just for a day or overnight. Any activity here is golden if you have the right company to explore with. If you are traveling from San Francisco/ Bay Area I would highly recommend spending the night in nearby town such as Monterey or Salinas to shorten the drive distance to get to the park early on the day.

Dinosaur’s backbone? View from High Peaks.

Free National Parks Day is gift that keeps on giving until the well dries up. We can do our part to help preserve these beautiful parks and allow other people to experience them too. Here’s National Park Foundation’s website that provides pretty thorough information on how to get involved with parks preservation act. Not to be preachy about it, but just thought to spread the words as I am huge fan of these amazing places that make USA truly beautiful.

Happy trails!


…but remember to stay on the trail 🙂


Useful Links:

Hiking Options in Pinnacles National Parks

Lassen Volcanic National Park (Pssst… check out this another gem in Northern California!)

Day to Night: Joshua Tree National Park

When the sun goes down in the desert, a sprawling blanket of stars and moon illuminate the subtle outline of nature’s contour. Welcome to Joshua Tree National Park. This is nature’s amphitheater that showcases kaleidoscopic view of ancient light projected on dark night skies.

Joshua Tree National Park is merely 3 hours drive east of Los Angeles and it is one of the closest national parks to visit from the city (with Sequoia/Kings Canyon NP roughly 3 1/2 hours). The park is located where Sonoran and Mojave Deserts meet, and it is expansive home for worldly known Joshua Trees. If complete sense of isolation and lazy galaxy gaze is your jam, this is the place to go. My plan was to visit the park before sundown and document the day (and night) in the life of this grandiose place. My friend Warren has offered help to make this spontaneous trip happen and we drove out LA in the early afternoon to reach Joshua Tree National Park by evening around 6pm. Arrival timing was perfect to catch the glimpse of Joshua Tree in broad daylight just before descending sun doused the entire sight into tangerine orange daylight.

Warren staring off distance on top of rocks near Ryan Campground

Once the sun disappeared beyond mountains, the early evening gradient started to paint the landscape with layer of royal blue. It was getting closer to optimal night photography time. We drove east to White Tank Campground to stand by for star gazing at Arch Rock.

En route from Ryan Campground to White Tank, we’ve stopped at Hall of Horrors solely appealed by its name. This was not a mistake. The place holds great quality for rock climbing and exploration to the open desert. Nice quick stopover to snap the ghostly appearance of Joshua Trees in dimming daylight.

Arch Rock Trail is easy 0.3mile stroll from White Tank Campground that leads to quite impressive view of arch rock formation similarly to what you can see in the great national parks in Utah like Arches National Park and Capitol Reef National Park.

I was determined to photograph the tapestry of stars over the arch. We’ve reached the facade of arch rock using the beam of torch light as the only guidance to scramble up the rocks. On top of rather slick rock surface we set up tripod mounted with Sony A7S2 (aka the beast) and calibrated the shutter speed and focus to get the pictures right. First several attempts were total act of blindness and focus was awfully off, but I have figured out a trick to flicker my torch light to shine the arch while I focus my lens (aggravating the other photographers in the process). Proceeding shots came out quite nice and I started to feel comfortable with shutter speed and illumination combination to get the desirable glow on the arch foreground.

My best shot of the night at the arch. f1.4/T30 seconds. Torch light was aimed to the ground underneath the arch and illuminated for about 6 seconds. The result produced soft bounce light to reveal the bottom part of the arch.

After spending about 2 hours at the arch, we went back to White Tank Campground to the car. On the way back to the parking lot I was stopped constantly by fascinating night views. Once again, Sony A7S2 has proven the power of ultra-sensitive sensor to capture some of the best night photography I’ve ever taken with literally just a torch light.

Here’s tips for your night photography needs:

  • Equip the camera with fastest lens you own. f1.4 or faster is must.
  • Bring tripod that does its job right. No wobbly tripod!
  • Set the shutter speed to 30 seconds, use remote or self-timer to release the shutter.
  • Focus the subject by shining a light to the subject before disengaging the shutter.
  • Use flashlight to illuminate the foreground subject for about 5-6 seconds. Make sure to aim the light away from the subject; use the ground or pale rock to bounce the light off to the main subject this will create nice contrast between light and shadow areas.


Joshua Tree National Park visitors information can be found on NPS website.

Dayhiker’s Guide to: Upper Yosemite Fall

Iconic Yosemite Tunnel View en route to Glacier Point.

Everyone says Yosemite National Park is special place. If you were lucky enough to spend childhood in vicinity to nature then you can easily find connection and appreciation for this amazing wilderness. My favorite activity living in Bay Area is to take my friends–both old and new–to this great wilderness for their long overdue visit.

Alex, my long time college friend, took whimsical trip from NYC to San Francisco one sunny weekend in August. Naturally, I went on Recreation.gov to look for last minute campsite in Yosemite. Despite the high season ahead of Labor Day weekend one spot in Hogdon Meadow magically opened up.

If you never have done weekend trip to Yosemite from Bay Area it may be difficult to figure out the travel logistics. Easy rule of thumb is: Leave San Francisco early Saturday (by noon at latest) pick one hike to do for Sunday in the morning and leave the park by 5pm. This will give you enough time to wander and experience Yosemite on a single weekend.

Booking campsite in advance is always recommended. However, I have also stayed in the lodge outside of the park in the past (normally in Groveland) and it worked out fine as well. Walk-in campsites are available throughout the season if you want to try your luck. Yosemite is ready. Are you?

View of Half Dome (high peak on the right) and North Dome (left) from Glacier Point during twilight hour.

While I put together most of essential sites here in the past, I cannot never recommend Glacier Point for the first stopover activity in Yosemite. This is easy drive by spot that basically give you whole perspective of everything amazing about Yosemite. You can spend decent hour or so here to take pictures and learn about rocks and hiking trails that spread across impressive Yosemite Valley.

Yosemite Falls from Glacier Point: Upper Yosemite Fall is iconic waterfall that embodies the beauty of Yosemite National Park while gentle Lower Yosemite Fall cascades down to painting like green valley.

Sunset and sunrise are popular time of day to visit Glacier Point, and it is usually crowded with tourists. When you are up here make sure to go around the entire viewpoint and take postcard ready snaps of Yosemite Falls. It’s great place to take a glimpse at your next day’s hiking destination.

North Dome from Glacier Point

Another great stopover point is Sentinel Bridge in Yosemite Valley. Sentinel Bridge crosses over Merced River and gives perfect view of Half Dome and its reflection on the water.

Blushing Half Dome beyond the valley seen from Sentinel Bridge at twilight

While you are visiting Sentinel Bridge, you can also capture the perfect view of Yosemite Falls from the parking lot nearby.

Yosemite Falls seen from parking lot near Sentinel Bridge

Camping in Hogdon Meadow

Hogdon Meadow is the very first campsite that you will come across after entering the park from the west entrance. Campsite is sizeable for group up to 6 people and equipped with fire ring ready for fireside stories. Campsite is approximately 45 min drive away from the central Yosemite Valley. We set our tents and enjoyed the whiskey and talk by fire. Next day we rise early and drive to Camp 4 for day hike to Upper Yosemite Fall.

Upper Yosemite Falls Trail

  • Hiking: 3.5 mile one way from trailhead to the top of Upper Yosemite Fall (7 miles out and back). Additional 2 miles to visit Yosemite Point (makes the total hike to 9 miles). Distance may vary depending on where you decide to park the car and enter the trail. This guide is based on the scenario starting from Yosemite Lodge parking area across the street from Camp 4.
  • Estimated Hiking Time: 7-8 hours. We left the trailhead around 9am and returned to parking lot around 4:30pm.
  • Difficulty: Strenuous with approximately 2,500ft to 3,000ft elevation gain from trailhead to the summit. GET READY FOR EXTREME LEG EXERCISE.
  • Trail Condition: Majority of trail up to Upper Yosemite Fall is well maintained with established trail. Trail from Upper Yosemite Fall to Yosemite Point is somewhat unclear and mostly dependent on stone markers and your sense of direction.
  • Weather: Hike was done in late August under the sunshine and light haze of smoke from natural fire. Temperature shifted from low 70F in the morning up to around 85F in the afternoon. Wear thick layer of sunscreen and carry at least 2.5L of water!
  • Water: You can fill up your reservoir from portable water station in Camp 4. There is very limited source of water until reaching Upper Yosemite Fall, so do not wait until it is too late to fill the water. Carrying light-weight filtration system is recommended for in case. Smart water bottle like this one can really help.

As many hikers before me said it, Upper Yosemite Falls Trail was definitely one of the most scenic trails in Yosemite Valley. Trail was moderately crowded with hikers from young to old ages, and steep ascension throughout the hike made this course rather challenging for less experienced hikers. I will not recommend hiking this trail on a whim, but it is definitely do-able if you are fit enough. Get ready for crying calves several days after the completion!

Vertical ascension to the top of Yosemite Falls offers some of the best views of Yosemite Valley that gradually shrinks down in size at your footsteps below. Watch the waterfall from the midpoint on this hiking trail and take in amazing view. Once you’ve reached this point of trail you are only about one hour away from the top of Upper Yosemite Fall.

…and finally you’ve made it! Here’s the rewarding views of Yosemite Valley and Upper Yosemite Fall from Yosemite Falls Viewpoint:

If you are up for it, there is another viewpoint further upward from Yosemite Falls Viewpoint that is marked as Yosemite Point on the trail guide. Yosemite Point is about a mile away from the stream of Upper Yosemite Fall and situated atop of granite rocks that gives unhindered view of North Dome and Half Dome reigning over Yosemite Valley. Here’s the view from Yosemite Point:

Half Dome was barely visible beyond the haze of smoke.

The air was somewhat hazy from the smoke, but the sight of Half Dome was quite impressive still. If you ever get the urge to climb to the top of Half Dome you may check this other post for trail review 🙂

After spending good few hours at the top of Yosemite Point we descent back to the parking lot.

Model near Lower Yosemite Fall that shows topography and overall Yosemite Falls Trail.

Lower Yosemite Fall is also accessible from Upper Yosemite Falls Trailhead if you wish to include this beautiful cousin to the photo gallery. Lower Yosemite Fall is considerably easy to get to and in fact you barely have to “hike” to reach the viewpoint. It was a perfect short stroll to cool down my overheating body after extreme Upper Yosemite Fall hike to witness this delicate cascade.

Lower Yosemite Fall

Yosemite National Park offers so many great day hike options as well as overnight backpacking hikes. I would urge you to check out this post from the past to build the foundation of your itinerary for the next Yosemite trip!

Whatever the reason takes you to Yosemite, Yosemite will take you somewhere further than your expectation. Enjoy your time and let the inspiration lead the journey! And remember to share your love to NPCA so the folks after us can also enjoy this beautiful place 🙂

Dayhiking: Upper Yosemite Fall from Kosuke Haga on Vimeo.

a blog that never stops exploring

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