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!

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