From the Chaparral Trailhead, take the North Wilderness Trail on a 9-mile loop through rocky chaparral with clusters of Johnny-jump-ups and purple bush lupine. Follow rock cairns to stay on this unmaintained trail, and look out for Gilbert’s skinks and alligator lizards lounging on the exposed rocks. The trail gets its 1,020-foot elevation from the exposed ridgeline it climbs, where California condors and golden eagles seek out afternoon snacks, before descending to the Chalone Creek. Take a sharp right to follow the Old Pinnacles and Balconies Trails 2.3 miles back to the trailhead. Rocky cliffs dotted with gray pines rise over either side of the valley, and twisted coast live oaks provide shade below -- a cooling relief after 7 miles of sunny, open trail.
Visitors in 2017: 233,334
How much you’ll save: $25 per vehicle
Mileage: 9.3 (loop)
Get there: From the Bay Area, take Highway 101 South to Soledad. Turn left at 146 East and follow it 14 miles.