TL;DR: Final route up Mt. Defiance highlighed in yellow on map, download links for route map & GPX data at bottom of page. RoundTrip: 3.6 mi. & 2700 ft.gain
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!)
it wasn't very enjoyable. Somewhere my
binoculars went missing, torn off by brush.
So was thinking about abandonment but decided to first 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,
route had been found.
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.
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.
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)