Saturday, March 26, 2011

Sunol and Ohlone Regional Wilderness: An Overnighter mini backpack trip.

by Gabe

Stones and Bones Ohlone Wilderness links page
Ohlone Wilderness large map

Entrance from parking
Kirk (trail name Captain Tardy) and I planned on conquering a big one this weekend - From Fremont to Livermore via the Ohlone Trail and Ohlone Regional Wilderness.  Due to injury on my part, we abreviated the trip to more of a scouting backpack trip just the Sunol Regional Wilderness for Friday night.  This meant driving to the Geary Rd. entrance to Sunol Regional Wilderness off of Calaveras Rd., and hiking the several miles to the Sunol Backpacking Campgrounds, where we would spend one night.

Kirk and I at the entrance, with rain gear.
The weather looked somewhat discouraging, with 70% chance of rain for both Friday and Saturday.  We made special preparations
- Backpack covers (Kirk's cover didn't end up with us, so we improvised with a garbage bag)
- Waterproof jackets, water repellent pants.
- Waterproof hiking boots
You can never stay completely dry while camping or even hiking in the rain, but if you do things correctly, you can minimize the rain's impact.

I had heard about the Ohlone Regional Wilderness trail online.  After seeing Mission Peak from Hwy 680 and discovering that it is hike-able and adjacent to the rest of the Ohlone Regional Wilderness Trail, I pieced together a potential two day backpack trip.  The trip is still on our list.

Afternoon, Mission peak
Sunol Regional Wilderness is the second of several preserves and land zones going West to East along the trail.  Calaveras Rd. separates Mission Peak Regional Preserve from the Sunol Regional Wilerness.  Sunol has several campgrounds and a staffed ranger area.  Backpack camps are located near the end of the park before the trail continues on towards the Ohlone Regional Wilderness and on.

Sunset, Mission Peak
Park staff was very friendly and helpful, and upon arrival around mid day Friday, we were able to find a spot easily since weather was bad.  A $28 fee included camping at two sites, one night at each site, for two people (we only used one of course), parking and nice maps.  At the entrance, we were given information, directions and told that we were the only people who had any sights reserved at the campground (yay!).

We parked at Sunol/Ohlone trail marker 41 (You can see it on the map) where McCorkle Trail and Camp Ohlone Road first meet.  From here, we hiked Camp Ohlone Road to the later connection with McCorkle Trail.  This road follows the Alameda Creek.  This time of year, with the heavy recent rains (flood warnings just Thursday), the creek was a torrent.  Areas that rarely see water were underwater, and old Oaks were popping out of the middle of the creek.  All of the grass in the park was green, and when the sun broke the clouds occasionally, patches of grass would light up - it was a very beautiful.  This is why I focus on hiking in the San Diablo Mountain parks during winter, rainy months.  (These mountains also include Alum Rock, Joseph D. Grant, Henry W. Coe parks and several other good ones as well as the San Antonio Valley).

After reaching McCorkle Trail, we began our climb to the ridge via Cerro Este Road.  This trail, along 1 mile climbs from an area called "Little Yosemite" at around 700 feet up to the junction with McCorkle Trail at 1161.  Along this point, we began sighting turkeys, a few newts, and plenty of free ranging cattle.  Even though Spring began just a few days ago, various wildflowers were beginning to show, and there was a decent showing from the birds.

After a third of a mile on McCorkle Trail/Cerro Este Road, the two split off at a mountain pond.  We broke right, and hiked the 1.28 miles East towards the Sunol Backpack Camp.  The views from this point were excellent.  One can see the back side of Mission Peak, the dam and most of Calaveras Reservoir and other great views of some familiar Diablo Range landscape.

Our main big challenge of the day we met along the trail to camp - where McCorkle Trail crosses Rock Scramble.  The creek going down Rock Scramble was pouring full blast, and it left only a few boulders popping out or just barely submerged.  This proved difficult and risky to cross with 30+ pound packs on, but we were able to take our time and make it.  Using hiking poles definitely helped here, when compared to crossing creeks back at Pinnacles under similar circumstances!

Camp at Sunol Backpack Camp
After another half mile, we reached the Sunol Backpack Camp.  A restroom (basically an outhouse) and water source (spigot and trough, requiring filtering or boiling) were the amenities.  Since the ranger informed us that we could have our pick of sites, we checked a few and ended up choosing Eagles Eyrie.  This site was on a small ridge that poked out south from the McCorkle Trail, and had a large rock (ten feet high, twenty by twenty roughly) with a large Oak at the end all to the site's self.  We set down our gear, checked out the view - excellent and able to see Mission Peak from the East side.  With a break in the sprinkling/rain, we set up Kirk's tent and then mine.  We were early, and were able to relax, and get everything well organized.  About an hour before dark, the rain stopped and stayed away for a few hours until after we had gone to bed.

Had another great dinner of Campbell's stew, Idahoan potatoes and canned veggies!  Sunset over Mission Peak was an awesome view, and shortly after we headed to bed.  Unfortunately, no campfires at the backpack camp.

Kirk, with our big rock in the background
Around 11 PM, the wind and rained picked up, and battered hard on our tents all night and the next morning.  I learned how important it is to fully stake down your tent even when you don't expect heavy winds!  Not worth fixing in the middle of the night!  I had about 3 hours of real sleep unfortunately.  We woke up when the sky lit, and packed up camp promptly since it was raining anyways.

Headed out via the shortest route - BackpackRoad down to Camp Ohlone Road along the Alameda Creek trail.  We saw wild turkeys, and more newts, and only three people over the several miles back to the car.  Overall a successful trip in which we prepared more for the total 28 mile Ohlone Trail!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Pinnacles: Days 2/3, Saturday/Sunday, February 20/21, 2011

Blog post for 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
Looking East from North Chalone peak - snow on the Diablo range

On Sunday, we woke up with a more lofty and determined goal:  Reach South Chalone Peak (3269ft).

Our plan was to drive to and park at the Bear Gulch Visitor's Center.  From here we would hike the Bear Gulch and Moses Spring trails to, and through, the Bear Gulch Caves (assuming they weren't over-flooded in which case we would pass around them like we did they day before with the Balconies Caves) to the Bear Gulch Reservoir - a total of 2.2 miles.  From here, we would hike south to North Chalone Peak, and further south to the southern-most and most distant point in the park - South Chalone Peak - distance of 4.9 miles.  This makes for a round trip hike of 14.2 miles.

I had hiked to North Chalone Peak before, where I posted about it in the Pinnacles Pre-Blog.  This time, Kirk and I decided to add South Chalone.  The 1.6 miles to South Chalone requires dropping about 700 feet or so from North Chalone  and then climbing back up to almost the same height.

Yours Truly in the Bear Gulch Caves
We started fairly early on the trail to the Bear Gulch Caves, and didn't see very many hikers.  The weather was already shaping up to be very nice, unlike Saturday, and so we were lucky.  I sported shorts and my North Face hiking shoes.  after a 3/4 mile trek through a steep canyon with some very cool rock formations (highly utilized by rock climbers of course!), we reached the entrance to the Bear Gulch Caves.  Flashlights are necessary at some parts, and we both had head lamps.

It was a relief to enter the caves since we had been unable to enter the other cave system the day before.  The sound of rushing water I had heard a few weeks prior when hiking the caves was now much louder, obviously due to the rains of the past week.  After a short distance through the caves, we reached a point where walking through water up to 6" was going to be necessary.  A lesson learned from yesterday, I removed my shoes, and hiked barefoot through the caves for a good 25 yards.  Kirk managed somehow with only stepping in the water with his Merril boots a couple times.  My hiking shoes stood no chance of resisting water, and I needed them dry for the day hike.  Going barefoot created two problems - one, and probably the more serious, was that these caves were heavily trafficked and so the risk of stepping on sharp glass or metal was high (we even spotted some).  The other problem was that the temperature dropped below freezing the night before and so the water was very cold, but after putting on my shoes, my feet warmed up!

Kirk and I at Bear Gulch Reservoir
Along the hike
Bear Gulch Reservoir
By this point, we had passed several hikers - most of these folks had camped the night before.  This made sense since most day hikers wouldn't be so likely to head down to the park after weather like Saturday's.  A few groups were hanging out at the Bear Gulch Reservoir's dam - which is directly at the end of the Bear Gulch Caves (Absolutely can't miss it!).  The Reservoir is really cool to see - giant boulders sit in it, and the dam itself is made up of big stones cemented together.  The whole scene looks straight out of The Flintstones.  It makes a great break spot.  At the end of the dam, we could see the overflow was still damp and obviously had been cresting the night or day before.  The reservoir was definitely at it's upper limit.  The Chalone Peaks trail is the only official trail that departs from the South side of the dam (requiring you to cross it).  After crossing, we saw that the trail that is usually dry 95% of the year was submerged (like parts of many trails in the park after/during serious rains apparently!).  We were able to climb a gap between two boulders and continued on.  On the South Side of the reservoir were several valleys, each with large boulder formations that surely make for great rock climbing.
High water flow through Bear Gulch Reservoir

South and North Chalone Peaks
After a short distance, we were able to see East to the Diablo Range but also South/East to the North and South Chalone Peaks.  As luck would have it, both peaks showed snow.  The South peak definitely had much more snow, and therefor provided an additional reward at the end!  The 3.3 miles from Bear Gulch Reservoir is mostly a steady incline, with brief periods of switchbacks or moderately steep climbs.  This time of year, there are two or three creeks with a little bit of water, but NOTE: I would recommend against planning on there being water anywhere after Bear Gulch Reservoir ANY time of year!

We only crossed one individual on the entire 3.3 mile hike to North Chalone, and ran into a pair of hikers at the top - it was still fairly early though.  Higher up on North Chalone, when you reach the ridge, you will have to climb over the fence two separate times as part of the trail.  At the peak there is a closed firewatch tower, and excellent views of almost all directions (except South - the best views South are of course obstructed by and provided by the South Chalone Peak, another 3.2 miles round trip or roughly 2 hours).  There is a bathroom that we didn't investigate, though the pair of hikers told us that they are decently kept.  No running water that we saw (no surprise up here).
Fire watch tower on North Chalone Peak
Entrance and stretch of South Chalone Peak Trail
Kirk investigated his foot which turned out to have a blister at this point, but with some duck tape it was kept from deteriorating and was alright for most the rest of the day.  We didn't see the trail head to the South Chalone Peak trail, but an old man who had hiked up told us that he believed it was near a gate we had passed a little ways back - the map was vague at this level of detail.  We hiked back to the gate area and sure enough, right at the gate, is a side trail.  (The last stretch of trail to North Chalone is actually a dirt road, whereas the South Chalone Trail is a narrow path).  The South Chalone trail was fairly overgrown.  By this point, we had seen some snow on North Chalone (not bad for being close to noon at 3300 feet within view of the ocean).  South Chalone was in view, and it's North face had plenty of snow.  The trail there began with snow as well, and we could tell that nobody had hiked it yet since there were no footprints.
South Chalone Peak from North Chalon

We hiked the 1.6 miles to South Chalone, which takes drops several hundred (roughly 700 feet) feet lower before climbing up to the peak.  This provided an additional and enjoyable challenge - especially being that everything south of North Chalone that day seemed to be empty of people.  The trail followed the ridge between the two mountains, and then climbed along the North face of South Chalone, where we were able to hike through the snow.  After about 45 minutes, we reached the peak.  Not too surprisingly, but surely enjoyable we found that South Chalone has excellent and unobstructed views South towards San Luis Obispo.  Anything blocked by South Chalone at North Chalone was now viewable, and rolling green hills stretched almost as far south as we could see.  South Chalone was definitely worth it!  NOTE: Hiking to South Chalone in warm or even moderate conditions, especially if the sun is out, can be very dangerous because there is NO water available and it can get much hotter than it looks!

View South from South Chalone - Actual view not given justice here.
During this hike, we discussed a future hike in which we would hike to South Chalone during a full moon later in the year.

View looking North/East from South Chalone trail
The hike back went well, and all the way down to Bear Gulch Reservoir we made great pace - sometimes jogging.  A few folks had hiked to North Chalone and on our way back, we saw at least 10 people or more.  When we reached close to Bear Gulch Reservoir, there were a lot more people relaxing.  Almost all had likely climbed around the caves, since the caves were flooded.  Kirk and I both removed our shoes this time for the underwater portion and made it through.  Several lesser prepared types were trying to make it in or through, and were messing around, but at least they were having fun.  We left the North end of the caves, and hiked back to the car, passing several groups.  By this time in the day, even on a very cold Sunday, there were plenty of cars parked at the Bear Gulch Visitor Center area.

We drove back to the camp store, where we picked up some additional wood, and made it back to camp.  Luckily this time it was both dry and light out, so we were able to relax a bit at camp finally.  The bathrooms, will unlit and cold, were fairly well maintained.  Just like the night before, we started up a big fire, cooked Idahoan Mashed Potatoes with veggies and also Campbell's Beef chunky stew - it was bomb after a day like that.

- Somewhere around midnight I woke up to the sound of Coyotes howling.  There sounded like close to 10 in the group, which was somewhere in the direction of the camp store.  It was fun to be woken to that and listen for a bit, and by the time I thought to and grabbed my camera to record their sound, they stopped abruptly.  As soon as their echo dissipated, I could hear more coyotes howling in valleys farther away.

Monday - by Monday morning, Kirk's feet were pretty well beat and both of us were sore after 21 miles of hiking the past two days.  We were determined to accomplish another, more symbolic goal.  To match the length of this years hopeful Mt. Whitney climb, we needed 1 more mile to reach 22 total.

We packed up all of our camp - tents and all - and drove back to Bear Gulch Visitor's Center where we parked at and hiked up Condor Gulch Trail to the overlook (check the map).  This was maybe 2.5 miles round trip.  It made for a great morning hike, and the views of the valley going up were awesome.  It had some very cool rock formations.  At the overlook, just below it were flowing pools of water that probably only flow for a handful of days each year - including that day.

All in all, the trip was a success.  Only shortcoming was that we wanted to hike a few more trails.  To call Pinnacles officially Conquered, we are going to return and hike the North Wilderness Trail that occupies the North quarter of the park - a loop that is no less than 9 miles from car back to car.  After this, and maybe another climb of High Peaks, we will consider Pinnacles completed by Stones and Bones!