Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Pinnacles: Day 1, Saturday, February 19, 2011

by Gabe Roberts
Pinnacles National Monument Links
Pinnacles National Park Service Website
Pinnacles National Monument Map - alternative to NPS website map

After a 1.5 hour drive from San Jose via Hwy 101 and Route 25 through Hollister, and a right onto Route 146, we arrived at the Pinnacles Visitor Center adjacent to the Pinnacles Campgrounds where Kirk and I had reservations for non-electric site 29.  On top of the $23/day fee for the site, we paid $5 for our one vehicle.  The Pinnacles Visitor Center has, among other amenities (swimming pool, showers etc.) a store.  The store had basic camping supplies and tourist items including firewood bundles, maps, books, shirts, food, drinks, mini propane tanks and even some rock climbing gear. 

We came in with about three bundles of wood and picked up another on Sunday ($9 for a "50 pound" 40 pound sack.  Given the light but constant rain, and sub-freezing temperature to be expected (and reached), we went through two bundles each night, about 3 hours per fire. 

It was about 12:30 when we reached the park, but due to the weather the park didn't have all that many visitors for being a holiday weekend (President's Day).  We decided that there should be enough time to hike to the Balconies Caves via the 2.3 mile Old Pinnacles Trail from the Old Pinnacles Trailhead area.

Flooded Out Creek Crossing
Due to the heavy rains of the week and day, the trail (which crosses Chalone Creek about 10 times) took a lot longer to travel than expected.  Most of the creek crossings were nothing more than several large stones placed in a row - which work fine for the 98% of the year in which the creek is minimal or non existent.  For us, each time we crosses the creek required hiking up or down the creek through foliage for a bit before hopefully finding a spot to jump across. 

Kirk climbing the log that we used as a bridge.
Once we removed our boots and socks, and waded across.  Another time, Kirk pulled a "Jesus" and tried walking quickly over the water, where luckily his Merril boots kept the water out.  That time I hiked up and slipped down the side of a boulder that hung oddly over the creek.

The hike was well worth it!  The scenery kept improving - with amazing rock formations jutting out along the trail and on the hills and ridges above.  Crossing the rivers was pretty enjoyable.  Surprisingly, a few of the more dedicated type folks were hiking as well, so over the 2 hours or so we passed a few people going the other way.  I suppose in that weather, if you've already made it to Pinnacles, your not going to let a measly creek keep you from a great hike!

Approaching the Balconies Caves via the Old Pinnacles Trail, we were able to see the actual Balconies Cliffs from a good distance off up the valley.  They were a long, consistent gray rock face with a orange gap striping it across - one of the many awesome rock formations in the park left over from it's volcanically active past.  We were aware of the Balconies Cliffs Trail which presumably skirted the cliffs above, but we were dead set on the Balconies Caves.

As we approached the Balconies caves, after the Balconies Cliffs Trail junction, we reached what looked like the entrance to the caves.  Due to the very high water flow, the trail to caves was deeply submerged.  We could tell there was no way in, as the gigantic boulders around us funneled the valley into the caves.  After some frustration, and with our determination, we decided to backtrack, take the Balconies Cliffs Trail up and over, and hopefully at least enter the Balconies Caves from the other end (Balconies Cliffs Trail bypasses the Balconies Caves).

Looking back from the Balconies Clifs
The Balconies Cliffs Trail, 0.8 miles, turned out to be the best part of the hike yet - affording us some awesome views and finally a stretch of trail that didn't require fording the creek again.  We reached the far end of the trail where it reconnected with the Balconies Trail, and turned around.  To make a long story short, the south end of the Balconies Caves was also submerged.  We made it part of the way to the entrance, having fun climbing over some of the boulders, but attempting to go any further would require to much risk and probably soaking. 

Balconies Cliffs above, with the rock I used as a bridge below.
We decided that if we wanted, we could attempt the Balconies Caves again on Monday after the rain had abated for a day or two (we ended up not making it unfortunately).  From here, we continued on our large loop, reaching the West Entrance at the "Chaparral Ranger Station".  All the creek crossings on this side of the caves, of course, had nice bridges.

We passed several small groups of afternoon hikers - mostly wearing jeans and probably hoping to make a quick hike to see the Balconies Caves -hahahah.  We skirted the park entrance and continued on to the Juniper Canyon Trail, which climbed up a valley as it became steeper and steeper.  Earlier along the Juniper Canyon Trail, Kirk remarked that it didn't seem possible that we would be crossing over the large rock formations on the peaks above - the "High Peaks".  This ends up being a climb of approximately 1000 feet, but the end of the trail was only half a mile from the Chaparral Ranger Station - the extensive sets of switchbacks causes the trail to be 1.2 miles.  I would have had the same opinion as Kirk had I not been at Pinnacles two weeks prior to do just that.  Near the end of the Juniper Canyon Trail, we took a left onto the Tunnel Trail.  The Tunnel Trail is named so presumably because of a long tunnel carved through one of the rock formations higher up.  Without the tunnel, the trail would not be able to reach the High Peaks.  Note: No pictures, because the moisture from the rain and humidity caused my camera to flip out, luckily my little Fujifilm Camera (FinePix AX200) dried out overnight and was back in action the next day!

By this point in the day, we were fairly resigned to the fact that we would be reaching camp after dark, which is something we were prepared for.  Considering the time, though, we were unable to take the High Peaks Trail through the peaks, which gives one great views of the park from the tops of the peaks (Hawkins Peak, the highest one of the Pinnacles at 2720ft, though not as high as the far south Chalone Peaks). 

As we traversed the High Peaks via the High Peaks Trail, what was a heavy fog on the West and North sides of the Peaks quickly became an even colder very light snow fall on the East end of the peaks.  We were pretty surprised to see any snow falling during the day!  By this point, we still had plenty of energy, and were comforted by the fact that there were no climbs left - taking the High Peaks Trail the remaining 2 miles down from the junction with Condor Gulch Trail (which goes to Bear Gulch and the middle of the park) to the Old Pinnacles Trail Parking.

All in all, Saturday we hiked 8.1 map miles with additional lengths turning back from the Balconies Caves entrances, and hiking to and from the parking area and additional slack, totaling at approximately 9 miles.  Pretty good for starting in the afternoon during winter hours!

Our camp after drying out - Sunday
We drove back to camp near the park entrance, started up the fire immediately, and got our tents set up as there was still some light left in the sky.  We used the fire to cook Idahoan Mashed Potatoes, Campbell's Beef and Noodle Soup, and some mixed vegetables - a great meal for the end of a cold hiking day.  We dumped two bundles of wood on the fire and crashed out early - about 8 PM (normal bed time if it were backpacking camping hours!).  Temperatures peaked at about 50F during the day, and dropped to about freezing overnight.

Notes: Pinnacles National Monument is definitely at it's best during the winter - proving that in the bay area there are great hiking locations year round in almost any conditions!  While our trip happened to occur during an exceptionally cold and wet (Saturday only) weekend, these aren't typical winter conditions for the park.  There were lots of motor homes visiting the park, and several other camping groups.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Sierra Azul OSP: the Blue Ten

by Gabe

On November 14, 2010, I decided to accomplish a hike that had been looming over me for my entire life - one I call the "Blue Ten" - named after the 10+ miles over the Sierra Azul (Blue Mountains) of Santa Clara County.  The primary trail follows most of the ridge of the Sierra Azul from the junction of Hicks Rd./Umunhum Rd. to Lexington Reservoir at Alma Bridge Rd. 

Sierra Azul OSP PDF map

View of the Sierra Azul from San Jose
As recent as a year ago, an 10 mile hike was out of the question for me from a health aspect (at least I believed), but after two months of weekly hikes of 6+ consecutive miles, I decided one evening that the next day I would hike it.

I decided to start at an East entrance - the Woods Trail entrance at Hicks rd. and Mt. Umunhum Rd.  From here I stayed on Woods trail, passed Barlow Road trail, and climbed to Mt. El Sombroso (2,999 ft.).  At the junction with Kennedy Trail and Limekiln Trail, I opted to take the less traveled but slightly longer Limekiln Trail.  The Limekiln actually has less views of the Santa Clara Valley, but I don't have many opportunities to take it and so it was in order.  Finally, I took the Priest Rock Trail. 

At this time of year - November - you have to get an early start to make sure you can both hike the entire trail and get your ride back to where you park your car before dark (I parked in the gated lot at the Woods Trail entrance).

Mt. Umunhun from Woods trail
Ultimately, the Blue Ten took me from 1,200 ft., to El Sombroso at 2,999 ft.with gradual dibs and rises over the next several miles until a sharp drop along the Priest Rock Trail to Lexington Reservoir at about 600ft.

My favorite things about this hike?  One, of course, is being able to look at the Sierra Azul range and always know that I hiked it (visible anywhere in the Santa Clara Valley, one can see it rise from the Almaden Area, to it's highest peak of Mt. Umunhum where the large concrete structure is on top.  The ridge travels West until it dips down where highway 17 crosses between it and the Santa Cruz Mountains).

Looking north with San Francisco in view
Another great thing about this hike and the Sierra Azul OSP in general are the incredible views of the south bay.  From one point where I had taken a break near the junction of Priest Rock Trail and Limekiln Trail, I was able to see the downtowns of Los Gatos, San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco all at once (weather was great that day).

The final picture was actually an accident. It was taken to show the San Jose International Airport.  Completely by chance, you can see Harwood rd. and Meridian rd., which are lined up directly and pointing North/South at the peak of Mount Diablo - which was purposely done when Mt. Diablo was used as the point to lay out most of Northern California for a grid system to survey with.  The roads point along the right side of the picture from bottom to top, directly at the peak!  The peak is obviously the largest mountain in the background of the picture.  Just follow it down at a slight angle and you will see Meridian and then Harwood.  (Ironically enough, I discovered this picture the same day about two weeks later when I climbed Mt. Diablo, where I had looked south at the Sierra Azul range!

A future Blue Ten hike with accompanying detailed blog will be in the works!  Consider this a general summary.

Notes: If you hike this trail, start early and bring plenty of water.  There are a couple springs that would need to be filtered and are unreliable, so you need to plan enough water for the entire hike!  Also, it can be cold since this is a ridge and wind can kick in even during calm weather.  Save this hike for good weather - that's when you will be able to get the most out of the views!  If you plan on hiking the entire Blue Ten, make sure you know what you are getting into with regards to elevation climbs.  During the warmer months, be prepared for lots of sun!  Most of the trail is uncovered and so it can be difficult during those hot times, and if traveled during the week you may not see any other hikes for several hours at a time. 

Mileage Note: The Blue Eleven hike was actual 10.7 miles according to the Sierra Azul OSP map.  A shorter version is also possible if you park at the driveable end of Mt. Umunhum Rd. and take the Barlow Road trail.  This version would be 9.4 miles, but don't let it trick you!  While it would start at a higher entrance, Barlow Road actually drops over 700 feet before climbing back up to Mt. El Somebroso, making it not much easier than the Woods Trail version in terms of elevation climb.

Sierra Azul OSP PDF map
Sierra Azul OSP website

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Pinnacles: Pre-blog

by Gabe Roberts
Pinnacles National Monument
Pinnacles Map
Pre-blog for this weekend's trip to Pinnacles National Monument. 

I will give an in depth background to Pinnacles National Monument and some general information in the Blog following my upcoming trip there.  Kirk and I reserved a campsite at Pinnacles Campground at the East Entrance of the park. 

Main Goals
We have several general goals.
- Train for this year's Mt. Whitney climb.
- Get in some much needed camping time and backpack camping practice.
- Check out both of the park's caves (Balconies Caves and Bear Gulch Caves).
- Hike to North Chalone Peak (3304 ft., climb from 2300 ft. climb from Pinnacles Campground)
- Hike to the High Peaks including Hawkins Peak (2720 ft.)
Ancillary Goals
Goals to attempt if time, weather etc. permit.
- Hike to the South Chalone Peak in addition to the North Chalone Peak (3.2 miles in addition to 10 miles+ hike to North Chalone)
- Hike the North Wilderness Trail

I did a bit of a reconnaissance hike at the park on February 6th.  From about 8 AM until 5 PM I was able to hike to North Chalone Peak, High Peaks, the Bear Gulch Caves and Reservoir, a total of approximately 13 miles.  Here is a really brief summary.

Bear Gulch Caves
Start of Bear Gulch Trail
From the East Entrance, park at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area.  I hiked the short trail - I believe it is the Bear Gulch Trail (don't recall any actual name for this trail, but followed the signs for Bear Gulch Caves) and quickly reached the Bear Gulch Caves.

 Pinnacles is notorious for being a hard place to visit in the hot months and while I would agree with this for most of the park, it's not so bad on the Bear Gulch Trail.  This is because the trail is mostly along the bottom of a canyon, and covered in Oaks. 

Stairs in the Bear Gulch Caves
The actual hike through the Bear Gulch Caves is pretty short.  Note: Make sure to check with the park via the website or calling in if you really want to see the caves, since they can be closed due to either water levels or to protect the bat colonies.  You definitely need a flashlight, especially at some points.  Much of the cave has shafts of light reaching through and the whole thing is reminiscent of Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland.  While you can just hike straight through the cave, there are side trails and all sorts of gaps and areas in which you can climb through - so be ready to squeeze!

Bear Gulch Reservoir
The reservoir is a great place for a break.  It begins just after the Bear Gulch Caves and feeds directly into them.
Stairs out of the Bear Gulch Caves up to the reservoir

Bear Gulch Reservoir
North Chalone Peak
From Bear Gulch Reservoir, the hike to North Chalone Peak is 3.3 Miles.  Important: Make sure to bring plenty of water!  There is no water that I saw available at all along this hike, and most of it is in direct sunlight.  Hiking these 6.6 miles, I drank about 3 water bottles equivalent - on a day which didn't get above 72!  In the summer, you would be consuming a lot more water.

Along the hike to North Chalone Peak

Most of Pinnacles National Monument from N Chalone
Firewatch tower on N. Chalone
 The peak itself is 3304 feet, which is about a 2000 foot climb from Bear Gulch Reservoir in 3.3 miles. North Chalone is the highest point in Pinnacles, and only 152 feet lower than the highest peak in the Gabilan Range.  From here, you are provided an awesome view of San Benito County, and plenty of area of Monterey county including Salinas Valley.  On this particular day, I was able to see most of Monterey Bay, and the Southern half of the Diablo Range.  You also can see most of the significant features of the park in the valley below, including Bear Gulch Reservoir.
Monterey Bay from N. Chalone

N. Chalone Peak from Bear Gulch Reservoir
So that's a general summary of what we hope to see when we check out Pinnacles for a thorough trip!  Unfortunately, the flu started kicking in while I was about halfway up the trail to High Peaks and so I abandoned my photo activities due to low energy.  Bad timing!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Quicksilver "Cemetary Loop" at Almaden Quicksilver County Park

This blog refers to trails and sites found on The Almaden Quicksilver County Park PDF Map.

As my first post for Stones and Bones, I'll share with you my favorite hike.  Why is it my favorite?  It's a sure bet, enjoyable hike that I always go on with friends.  Some other time I will provide a post about Almaden Quicksilver County Park (I'll call it "Quicksilver" from here on out, as a lot of south bay locals refer to it).

Hacienda Entrance - the Rattleshake on a foggy January morning
After having hiked and explored Quicksilver countless times since I was a kid, I've developed this loop, which I'll call the "Cemetery Loop" after the Hidalgo Cemetery which this loop crosses through.  The Cemetery Loop is about 3.5 miles round trip - and if hiked straight through should take about 2 hours at a light pace. You can start and end at the same entrance, the Hacienda Entrance.

Start: Start at the Hacienda Entrance to Almaden Quicksilver.  This is probably the most popular and commonly known entrance to Quicksilver.  Reach it by taking Almaden Road from Almaden Expressway.  At about 3 miles, after passing through old New Almaden, you will see a dirt parking lot.  Across Almaden Road is a memorial to Pat Tillman, and also a historical market laying "claim" to the first mining in California.  As much history as there is here, I will save that for another more in depth post on Quicksilver.  At the back of the dirt parking lot is a information board, and a gate over a dirt road that goes up the side of the mountain (Capitancillos Ridge).  Make sure to grab one of the free maps at the information board.  Take the dirt road gate, which is "Mine Hill Trail". 
View of Almaden Reservoir, looking South from Quicksilver

Start to English Camp:  Continue on Mine Hill Trail, making a left at the first junction onto English Camp Trail, staying on this until you reach English Camp.  The trail itself, a dirt road, passes through nice views of New Almaden, Almaden Reservoir, and up to Loma Prieta (Above the site of the 1989 Earthquake).  It's a decent little climb of about 600 feet in just over a mile, and on a sunny afternoon you can get cooking pretty well surprisingly.  Reward?  At the end is English Camp, site of one of the original mining towns.
View of the clearing at English Camp

English Camp: Great place for lunch or a break.  English Camp is located in a gap in Capitancilanos Ridge.  You will notice several non-indigenous trees and plants originating from the 1800s inhabitants that worked the nearby mines.  Several structures remain - a large barn/shop likely built in the early 1900s, a few of the original shacks here and there, a stone chimney (follow Church Hill trail East - it's short), and also the partially restored "Chart House" I believe it's called, which used to house maps.  Theres picnic tables, a memorial to the Civilian Conservation Corps, a horse trough, and some decent views both North towards San Jose and South towards Almaden Reservoir. 

Yellow Kid and Castillero Trails: Take either of these West.  Yellow Kid Trail (named after an old comic book character that was painted yellow) is more of a real trail, being only single track and more windy. Yellow Kid will pass you along one of the most heavily mined areas.  As you hike it, observe the mine tailings and rugged terrain remaining from the former mines. (Mine tailings, which you will see plenty of in Quicksilver, are the rocks and dirt remains that came out of a mine as it was being dug, sort of like an ant hill.  Even after the mine is sealed, tailings usually remain.). 

Rotary Furnace and Spanish Town: Not much remains of Spanish Town unfortunately, but one of the largest structures in the park - the Rotary Furnace - is there.  This furnace in particular was built a bit later, but is opened up and allows you to see how cinnabar (The orange rock that contains mercury) was broken apart and smelted down to remove the mercury.  Also nearby, a large section of earth to the north that is slightly terraced and clearly man made - this is where probably the largest mine in the park was located at the bottom of Mine Hill.  It is still being worked on to contain the mercury waste.  Here is where one of my favorite parts of the parks is - If you are standing in front of the Rotary Furnace and turn around to point at Mt. Umunhun (The highest mountain in the Sierra Azul range, with the large rectangular building on it), you will see an Oak tree not far away at the edge of a trail heading out, right above a long, treeless slope.  This tree was the "Hanging Tree", which was used on multiple occasions in the 1800s to hang criminals.  Criminals would be noosed to the tree while sitting on a horse, and then the horse would be prodded away quickly so the criminal would fall.  As Oaks live a very long time, it's no surprise that this one still stands!  Around the rotary furnace you will also find a picnic bench, some eucalyptus trees and a gas pump (seems random).  Take the Hidalgo Cemetery Trail!

Old Cypress Trees (I'm next to the third one)
Hildalgo Cemetery Trail: This trail, which heads South, passes through what was once "Spanish Town" - where Mexican and Spanish workers lived and worked (The camps were very segregated - there was also a Cornish Camp and a Chinese Camp I believe.)  Very little evidence remains of this, but along the trail before reaching Hidalgo Cemetery (the cemetery that the Mexicans and Spanish used) you will pass a few large cactus plans.  These plants are one of the signs of the former inhabitants.  The cactus are not indigenous to North California, and were actually brought from Mexico and planted during the 1800s, and still survive today.

Soon you will come to Hidalgo Cemetery.  What remains is the white fence around the cemetery, depressions where remains once were and a row of beautiful old cypress trees (uncommon to see cypress older than a few decades in this area - they're much more beautiful when they have been growing for so long).  This is also a nice spot for a break, with great views West towards Mt. Umunhun, and also at the end the cemetery looking south over Almaden Reservoir. 

From here, take the trail at the back called "Donotenternotatrail".

Chimney looking East.
The Chimney: Donotenternotatrail can be very steep, so use a lot of caution.  From Hidalgo Cemetery, it heads almost directly East, and straight down towards the Chimney.  The chimney was used as part of the smelting process to extract Mercury from Cinnabar.  This chimney is very old and clearly not safe to climb on, so I recommend nothing more than viewing it!  It's pretty impressive that it has stood for so long.  From here you are almost done with Cemetery Loop.  When looking at the chimney from the trail that you came to it on, the trail continues to the left and down into the gulch ahead.  Follow this.  By this point, if it's later in the day, it can be dark since you are East facing and under a lot of trees so be careful.  Not long and you reach a dirt road, which is Deep Gulch Trail.  Deep Gulch Trail parallels English Camp Trail back to the Hacienda Entrance.  Take this out and it will bring you right into the overfill parking lot at the Hacienda Entrance to Quicksilver.

Conclusion and Notes: If you are fast, you can complete this loop in about under 2 hours.  Unfortunately, I didn't design the loop to be a race.  It's intent is to give the hiker a taste of everything that Quicksilver has to offer.  This includes history, views, some brief climbs and drops, different hiking terrain and plant life.  I recommend planning 3 hours so that you can take your time and enjoy some of the spots (English Camp, Rotary Furnace, Hidalgo Cemetery and The Chimney).