Finding Mount Defiance Pinnacles Off-trail Hiking Route
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= Rocky Ridge= Brushy Gully
TL;DR: final route up Mt. Defiance shown in magenta on map, route GPX download link at bottom of page
In 2009 I started wondering about the view from Mount Defiance, the fourth
highest peak in Pinnacles National Monument (now a National Park), since it faced both the High Peaks and the "Little Pinnacles". Perhaps
allured by its intimidating name, I finally decided to see for
myself. Esperanza Hernandez, who worked at the
park and talked to people there, had heard of a few who had
climbed it - but their routes were unknown.
Hike #1 (April 11, 2009)
Studying Google Earth images, I located some less brushy
routes, particularly at
upper elevations, heading west from the South Wilderness Trail. My first attempt was April 11, ascending
in a gully. But the gully was narrow, making getting around/through
its brush difficult. After
two hours I'd only gotten 3/4 mile (less than 0.4 mph!). And
it wasn't very enjoyable. Somewhere my
(cheap) binoculars went missing, torn off by brush, but I didn't have the time and energy
to go back looking for them.
I was considering abandoning the
attempt, but decided first to check out the
ridge above, where Google Earth had showed less brush. That ten
minute climb made all the difference. I was now on a "Rocky
Ridge" with sparser brush, much easier to push through. My travel speed
doubled and an hour later I was on top, enjoying the view.
Returning I continued down a ridge instead of taking my ascent
gully - while less brushy than the gully, it was not very
Hike #2 (April 14, 2009)
Esperanza was also interested in Mount Defiance, so having
had success I invited her along for my next exploration.
Hoping to find a better lower route, we went up a
different gully to "Rocky Ridge" and descended via a different
ridgeline. But both were still too brushy to be enjoyable - I'd hoped to
find something better. Still, a success
came in "Brushy Gully", the thickest brush section of the route,
since one of the routes
we explored there was workable (after breaking through some branches) - 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 - taking a longer approach to ascend Mount Defiance's steep side and descending
via the now partially-known route. But after "Brushy Gully" this time I
headed north and thereafter found easy going beneath oak trees
to Frog Creek, just off the South Wilderness Trail.
Eliminating failed searches and dead ends from the previous hikes,
an enjoyable 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 up solo or with a few friends. I do try to get there twice
a year, so as of this writing (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 (aka Santa Lucia Peak, the highest
in Monterey County) between the Chalone peaks, and a grand view over the surrounding hills, valleys, and plains.
Note: the 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.
Some prefer a more direct route from South Wilderness Trail, avoiding Frog Creek via a steeper route. This starting point is also easier
to locate, being behind a metal pig trap.
If you want to go ...
In my opinion, the view from Mt Defiance is one of the best in Pinnacles National Park.
Enough hikers continue follow this route that it remains 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 the start is not marked and below 1100 ft elevation deer trails abound so there are multiple possible routes - above that,
you find a heavily trafficked deer trail and the route becomes more apparent.
Instead of eating lunch at the large flat summit, find a place slightly downslope on the not-so-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've earned.