Although Monterey hiking can be hilly, Pinyon Peak is a real doozy. Towering at a mere 5,264 feet, it is actually the second tallest peak in the Santa Lucia Range, just behind Junipero Serra Peak which stands at 5,862 feet tall. I guess whenever you are hiking to a fire tower you can expect it to be pretty high though. But don't let the elevation gain scare you, this hike is a true gem in Monterey County, it's easily accessible from Garland Ranch Regional Park, has pretty good shade coverage, and amazing views of the Carmel Valley, the interior Santa Lucia Mountains and even the Monterey coastline on a clear day. Throw in the the lollipop loop route configuration and your looking at a pretty darn good day. Come to think about it, this is quickly becoming one of my favorite hikes in the County.
In this post I am going to outline my preferred route to Pinyon Peak, but at the end I will also include some side access points that can shorten the hike. Also, I am going to outline two hiking options, one hard - Snively's Ridge lookout - and one advanced - continuing to Pinyon Peak. I would only recommend continuing on to Pinyon Peak and the fire tower if you are in pretty good hiking shape because it includes a few more pretty substantial inclines that are not shaded, so it can get pretty intense, fast.
Snively's Ridge - 6 miles
Pinyon Peak - 8.25 miles
Snively's Ridge - 3 hours
Pinyon Peak - 4 hours
Snively's Ridge - 1,600 feet
Pinyon Peak - 2,410 feet
Quick Glance Route:
Snively's Ridge - Take Lupine Loop to Sky Trail (there are multiple small trails between Lupine Loop and Sky Trail that will get you there) ending at Snively's Ridge and enjoy the view on the Ridge, complete the loop by going back down via Garzas Canyon trail which eventually meets back up with Lupine Loop via Mesa Trail
Pinyon Peak - At Sky Trail continue west along Snively's Ridge to the fire tower, go out and back to Snively's Ridge lookout and continue down via Garzas Canyon trail to Mesa Trail and Lupine Loop
When to go:
You can hike Pinyon Peak year-round but I prefer to go during the early spring, while the wildflowers are blooming and the butterflies swarming, also, it is not too hot out yet
Honestly all the hiking at Garland Ranch is beautiful and the moment you step out of your car you will be impressed. To access the Visitors Center first cross the Carmel River, an iconic and much loved river in Monterey County. Take a look into the river and you may be lucky enough to spot some small salmon fry, little baby steelhead which will eventually make their way to the ocean. Or you may even be so lucky to find an adult migrating up stream, these salmon are considered threatened on the Endangered Species List tons is being done locally to save these species. Recently (2015) a huge conservation effort was undertaken to remove the San Clemente Dam, a few miles up from Garland Ranch, so these little guys could continue up the river where they will eventually spawn out and die.
But plan another day in the back of your mind to spend on the river because you have a mission today. Take a bathroom break or pick up a map at the Visitor Center and start along Lupine Loop. The trail starts in a wide-open meadow, you are now at the foot of the Santa Lucia's which tower in front of you. Look up and at the very top, and you will see your destination, Snively's Ridge. As you make your way through the meadow on Lupine Loop enjoy the flat land, you won't experience much more of this along your journey.
Right at the oak forest tree line you will hit your first junction, I took Maple Canyon Trail to Sage Trail to Sky Loop, but really you can take any combination of trails at this point in the hike; just make sure you are heading up and you will be alright. Maple Canyon follows a small drainage and is a moderate incline which is pretty much totally shaded. If you take this route you will also go by the old homestead site, which is nothing more now than a bench in a Eucalyptus grove.
Just past the homestead site, is the junction for Sage Trail. Along this portion of the trail the views really start to open up and on a clear day you can see all the way to the coast. This is also the where the girls are separated from the women, and where the steep incline starts with multiple large meandering switchbacks along the trail. Soon the trail dead-ends onto Sky Trail, where the climb continues. Make sure you take plenty of breaks under the many shaded oak forest portions when you can. The trail has now switched from a west facing to an east facing slope completely changing the views. Mesa Pond sits below the trail, this is where you will be walking on the way back. There is one final steep push at the top to get to Snively's Ridge were there is a nice bench to take a lunch break and look yet again through another viewpoint, this time towards the west, into the heart of the Los Padres Forest. It's pretty awesome to sit here and think how the mountain below you is still actually growing under your feet. The Santa Lucia Mountain range is actually a fairly young range, only about 5 million years old, and there is still documented uplift as the Pacific and North American plates grind together along the treacherous San Andres Fault.
For many this lookout at Snively's Ridge will be far enough. If so skip this paragraph which outlines the rest of the hike up to Pinyon Peak, and proceed down via the route outlined in the following paragraph. If you fee like you still have enough gas in the tank to make it to Pinyon Peak, walk east along Snively's Ridge, you will be able to tell you are heading in the right direction because you will immediately be met by a steep exposed incline. Its not that long of an incline though and the trail will eventually flatten out and continue along the ridge. Up here the trails get a little messy, as they are not as trafficked and are not as well marked. Once at the top of the first incline, there will be a junction, it does not really matter which way you go here as they both go to the same place, to make it easy though I recommend staying to the right (the east or inland side) since at the next junction it is pretty important to stay to the right. The second junction will come shortly after but this time will be under a small oak grove. Its a bit counter-intuitive but stay to the right here, if you go left at this second junction, you will still get to your destination, it is just a kind of a dicey and steep rock scramble, not ideal. Either way, the trail will start to descend here, which kind of sucks because you will immediately start to have to go back up again, but this is your last incline, I promise. Make the final push to the fire tower and experience awesome 360 views of the interior Los Padres, Monterey coastline, and Carmel Valley. It is truly breathtaking up here.
Whichever your summit point, to make your way back down, find the old Snively's Corral which is just west of the bench and lookout point at Snively's Ridge. Keep walking east along Snively's Ridge past the corral, there will be a very steep decline, you will either be happy you did not have to walk up this or bummed you are walking down it. Veer right onto Garzas Canyon Trail and eventually pass Mesa Pond and then come to a junction for either the Mesa Trail or Waterfall Trail. The Waterfall trail is pretty steep and often the waterfall is not running, but it is really not much of a detour if you feel like you knees can take it. Either way, Mesa Trail or Waterfall Trail, just make your way down similar to how you made your way up and all trails will end up at the wide open meadow and Lupine Loop. Trace your steps back to the car and pat your self on the back for epic journey.
So if you don't want to endure all that elevation gain there are two side entrances to this hike that save you a little of a climb, although the trails are less maintained and I don't think quite as nice.
Hoit Road Entrance
The first entrance is to the west off of Hoit Road. This is still a fairly long hike but will save you quite a few feet in elevation gain as you essentially just drive up to Snively's Ridge. At this entrance you simply take the Snively's Ridge trail all the way to the Snively's ridge and lookout as I described above. Don't get me wrong there are still have some moderate climbs on this trail because you start at a low point on the Ridge but it is much more gradual. This entrance is little known and little used, with not much parking as you are essentially in a neighborhood and the trail head is not very clearly marked so you will have to look around a little. I don't love this entrance and wouldn't really recommend it, the trail is not as nice but the views are still pretty good.
Via Las Encinas Entrance
There is also another side entrance to the east off of Via Las Encinas Road, this entrance is more widely used and there is more of a trailhead marker and small parking area here. This trail starts nearby Mesa trail which would is the backend of the loop I describe above. The trails are pretty well marked here so you should be able to make your way up to Snively's Ridge and the Corral fairly easily, but essentially just keep heading up and you will get there eventually.