360° view from Mount Defiance, Pinnacles National Park
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Finding Mount Defiance
Pinnacles Off-trail Hiking Route
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= "Rocky Ridge" = "Brushy Gully"

TL;DR:  Final route up Mt. Defiance highlighed in yellow on map, download links for route map & GPX data at bottom of pageRoundTrip: 3.6 mi. & 2700 ft.gain

     What does Pinnacles National Park look like from Mount Defiance, its fourth highest peak ?  It faces both the "Little Pinnacles", not visible from elsewhere, and the High Peaks - so back in 2009 (when a National Monument) I started wondering.  Also intrigued by its name, I decided to find out.  Esperanza Hernandez, who worked at the park, had heard of some who had climbed it but their routes were unknown. 

Hike #1  (April 11, 2009)
Studying Google Earth, I saw some open routes at upper elevations but all lower sections up from the South Wilderness Trail looked brushy.  So on April 11 went out to see for myself.  Initially ascending in a narrow gully, getting around/through its brush was difficult and after two hours I'd only gotten 3/4 mile (0.4 mph!).  And it wasn't very enjoyable.  Somewhere my binoculars went missing, torn off by brush.  So was thinking about aborting but first wanted to check out the ridge above, where Google Earth showed less brush.  That ten minute climb made all the difference.  Now on a "Rocky Ridge" with sparser brush, my speed doubled and an hour later I was on top enjoying the view.  For the return, instead of my ascent gully I continued down along a ridge - though less brushy than the ascent, there was enough brush to make it not very enjoyable. 

Hike #2  (April 14, 2009)
Esperanza was interested in Mount Defiance, so I invited her along for my next exploration.  Hoping for a better ascent, we ascended a different gully to "Rocky Ridge" and descended via a different ridgeline.  But both were too brushy to be enjoyable, I'd hoped for something better.  Still, we did have a success at "Brushy Gully" as after breaking branches between clear sections that segment was passable.  So another piece of the puzzle was in place. 

Hike #3  (April 17, 2009)
To experience Mount Defiance from a different aspect, my third trip was a loop hike - approaching Mount Defiance from its steep western side, then descending via the now partially-known route.  But this time after "Brushy Gully" I headed north and was gratified to find easy going beneath oak trees to Frog Creek, just off the South Wilderness Trail.  So putting together best parts of the previous hikes, an enjoyable route had been found. smile

Hiking the final route  
I led Sierra Club hikes up Mount Defiance in 2010 and 2011, and a Monterey Bay Area Hiking Group hike in 2011.  Since then I've just gone solo or with a few friends.  I try to get there twice a year, and as of December 2018 have been there 18 times.  It's my favorite place in the Pinnacles, giving a grand view of the "High Peaks", the seldom-seen "Little Pinnacles", North and South Chalone Peaks, Frog Creek, a glimpse of Junipero Serra (highest in Monterey County) between the Chalone peaks, and a grand view over the surrounding hills, valleys, and plains. 

Later variation  
My route start/end requires a short deviation from South Wilderness Trail into Frog Creek, where the entrance point is marked by a stone cairn at creek edge. Getting to Frog Creek can require a push through some brush, so some prefer a more direct route from South Wilderness Trail.  The variation marked on the map has a starting point easier to locate, being near a metal pig trap visible from the trail, but its initial climb is much steeper than my traditional route, and to me less enjoyable. 

If you want to go ...  
In my opinion, the view from Mt Defiance is one of the best in Pinnacles National Park.  Enough hikers have been using this route to keep it relatively brush-free and mostly apparent.  Some cairns help mark the route where tread disappears, e.g. when traversing some rocky sections (there is no unnatural flagging).  But the path can be faint in places or crossed by deer trails, so route-finding experience is needed - and a GPS with the route loaded definitely helps!  Note that up to 1100 ft elevation deer trails abound so there are multiple possible routes - above that, you should find a heavily trafficked deer trail and the route becomes more apparent.  Round trip is 3.6 miles with 2700 ft. total elevation gain. 

Veteran's tip wink  
Instead of eating lunch on the large flat summit, find a place slightly downslope on the not-very-flat side looking west, with its into-the-park views of the High Peaks and Little Pinnacles.  You've already seen the eastward views on your way up and will again on your way down, but the western views can only be seen while at the top.  You've climbed all this way up - so savor the unique view you deserve. 


Printable PDF Map Download:  "Final Route" (plus variation)

GPX Data Download:  "Final Route" (plus variation)

Jack Glendening (credit:p.danielson) Jack Glendening
March 2017  (updated December 2023)
Bona fides

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