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.

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