Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Balconies

As stated in my previous post, one of my many recollections about the Pinnacles involved caves. Not true caves, like Lehman Caves or Carlsbad Caverns where water leach caverns out of soft spots in the rock. Nope, these are talus caves, comprised of the empty spaces between large boulders. And when I say large, I mean large; the talus boulders are each approximately the size of Boise. Armed with flashlights, hikers can follow the arrows painted on the rocks and walk through the Pinnacles while hoping the nearby San Andreas Fault stays quiet for at least the duration of the cave hike. 

Shouldn't a creek have water in it?
There are two sets of caves in Pinnacles National Park: Bear Gulch Cave and Balconies Cave. For no reason at all, we chose the Balconies for our caving venture. The Old Pinnacles Trail took us in that direction, heading up Chalone Creek on a dusty and level path. It seems like the word "creek" gets carelessly bandied about as from an Oregonian's perspective, a creek should involve water flowing in it. The "creek" in this case was a dry wash paralleling the trail, the only difference between the creek bed and trail was that there were more rocks in the creek bed. Almost comically, we crossed the creek on a footbridge. Don't want to get our feet wet!

Rock wall along Chalone Creek
We had started relatively early, which really wasn't all that early because we were on vacation and never in a hurry. However, there still was a bit of morning coolness in the air and we were feeling frisky and fresh despite the notable lack of shade. As we worked our way up Chalone Creek, rock walls began to loom on either side of the trail. The walls gradually closed in and it soon felt like a real canyon.

Shade is not overrated
The Balconies are actually a large rock wall on the Pinnacles rim and I'm not sure why they are called that. A small glistening ribbon trickling down the face could be called a waterfall, given California's liberal use of water-related vocabulary. I shouldn't have gotten too snooty about water, or lack thereof, because at the base of a cliff was a small spring buzzing with thirsty yellow jackets. Green grass grew around the spring and the vegetation was, dare I say, rather lush.

Cave entrance
The water was trickling from the mouth of Balconies Cave and we went in a short distance before coming back out, eyes blinking in bright sunlight. Our plan was to hike the caves from the top down so we returned to the trail and began a short uphill hike as the trail switchbacked to and fro up the canyon walls. The morning chill had since departed and we baked under the hot sun like a pair of tamales. 

"Waterfall" on the Balconies
As we contoured below the cliffs, there were a number of climber trails heading to the base of the various rock walls with names like Tilted Terrace. Normally, I can support the concept of tilted terraces when hiking but when you have stretchers and bone splints stashed handily at the base...well, that tells me all I need to know about the safety of rock climbing.

We went under
Once we crested over a pass below the rock wall of The Balconies, the trail switchbacked to and fro like an undecided voter in an election year, bringing us to the upper cave entrance. Dollie and I entered an increasingly narrow trail that required mild rock climbing here and there. At the real entrance, we donned headlamps and I started to go down.

Dollie enters her home

Below me, a rock slope tailed away at a steep angle and my tender ankle (I had twisted it the day before) started to feel anticipatory pain. The idea of having to put my weight on the sore joint flexed at a 45 angle just made me cringe. Sad to say, I exercised caution over valor and retreated out of the cave, figurative tail between my legs. And equally sad to say, I think Dollie was kind of grateful I hurt my ankle if it meant staying out of the cave walk.

Trail shot on a hot day
So back we go and as we did so, the day warmed up considerably, making a cool cave seem inviting, even with ankle pain involved. Oh well, as we hiked back down Chalone Creek, we tried to keep cool by imagining the creek flowing with water flanked by happy ferns on the banks. It didn't work.

Let's just stay in the shade until nightfall

For more pictures of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Pinnacles National Park - High Peaks Trail.

Back when I was a Boy Scout in Watsonville (California), hiking and camping in the Pinnacles was a semi-regular staple of our outdoor fare. Of course, back then the park was "just" a national monument and I really don't remember all that much about the trails except that caves were involved. I also went rock climbing a couple of times but again, I have no idea what cliff we climbed up, only that ropes and pitons were required. In 2012, when the monument was upgraded to the lofty status of National Park, my interest in the Pinnacles was rekindled. Since the theme of this year's California vacation was all about reconnecting with old friends and family, it sort of made sense to pay a visit to the Pinnacles. Since Dollie came along, no ropes and pitons were involved in our visit to the park.

A Pinnacles pinnacle
The Pinnacles are divided into the east and west sections and for no reason at all, we first went to the western side. There were several options for hiking but since I superficially form opinions of trails by their names, "High Peaks Trail" immediately captured my heart solely on the basis of that alluring name.

What drought looks like
It hasn't rained in this part of California in something like eight years, and the more sensitive vegetation were covered in dried leaves, the dry leaves rattling in the breeze like skeleton breath. The more hardy species like ceanothus were thriving and we were glad the trail was well maintained, having saved us the trouble of wading through the thorns. The trail brochure had a picture of a mossy waterfall on a creek but water was about as elusive as a unicorn being ridden by a Sasquatch. The land was dry, dry, dry with nary a brochure-adorning waterfall to be found. Talk about false advertising!

Walking on top of the world
The Juniper Canyon Trail led away from the parking lot, gaining elevation at a gentle rate through the sere terrain. After about a half mile into the hike, the trail began switching to and fro, climbing upward in earnest. We were working our way out of the Juniper Canyon drainage and climbing up a steep slope that was garlanded with all manners of minarets, towers, thumbs, ramparts, walls, and balancing rocks. Each switchback offered a different view of all the rock structures festooning the ridge above us. After a mile or so, we took a right turn onto the High Peaks Trail, starting a loop hike around the Pinnacles crest. 

View to the parking lot

As we climbed, we also enjoyed great views of the Chalone Creek canyon and the surrounding Gabilan Mountains. On the horizon to the west were the Santa Lucias, home of the Ventana Wilderness. In between was the large Salinas Valley, full of farms producing crops for our nation's salads. When we began the hike, we peered up to a prominent collection of rocky knobs known as The Fingers, even though they looked more like thumbs; however, as we climbed, we went from craning our necks upward to The Fingers to looking down upon them. In short, the view was epic and one for the ages.

A great place for lunch!
The High Peaks Trail topped out at a mountain pass with a bench and we happily sat down and ate lunch while enjoying the view, which had even become even more epic. From our mountain aerie, we could see to the east in equal grand scope as the western view we had so far been enjoying.  We were on a narrow ridge crest that had rock pinnacles bristling formidably like the spines of an augustinia dinosaur. And coincidentally enough,  the large cluster of pinnacles are known as "The Pinnacles".  A deep and oddly straight valley paralleling our ridge crest was the rift zone of the San Andreas Fault. And just to reminisce, we could also take in the western view we had so enjoyed on the ascent. 

This would be the narrow part
The pass was kind of a meeting place for trails and we had many options for continuing our hike. But, really there was only one choice, a small and dusty trail with a sign reading "Steep and Narrow Trail". If anything, the phrase "steep and narrow trail" was even more alluring than  "high peaks trail".

Pinnacles, everywhere we look
After cresting a small rise on the ridge crest, the trail gently began losing elevation through an increasingly rocky terrain. We were walking at the base of the pinnacles and the ground dropped precipitously away from our feet as we hiked. As we contoured the massive cliffs, large scavenger birds soared on the thermals upwellling from the valley below. 

Look, it's NOT a condor!

The California condor is an endangered species whose last bastion of refuge is on Topa Topa Mountain in Ojai. In a desperate attempt to save the species, captive-bred condors were released into the Pinnacles and by all accounts, are doing quite well there. So naturally, we and several other hikers were quite excited to see these majestic birds soaring gracefully against a blue sky. Post-hike, I found out the condors have a distinctive white pattern on the underside of their wings unlike the birds we had been observing. It was a mild disappointment to find out we had been all agog over ordinary turkey vultures. 

The trail became cliffier and cliffier and soon railings (which were needed) and handolds made an a appearance. And once we got used to holding on for dear life while the rock wall dropped 1,000 feet below us, the trail became a series of small steps etched into the rock face. Way cool, in a scary, totally exposed way. At times we had to walk hunched over (well, more hunched over than normal) under monolithic rocks. And this went on for nearly two spectacular miles. Was this a cool trail, or what!

Tunnel on the Tunnel Trail
Sadly, the mountain goat portion of this hike could not last forever, and we began dropping back down to Juniper Canyon, closing our loop on the Tunnel Trail. The trail dropped rapidly into a narrow canyon where the trail builders decided trail building was too much darn work and blasted a tunnel through an impeding ridge. 

A totally awesome trail
After the tunnel, the trail behaved a lot more ordinary as it returned us back to civilization. Unfortunately, just as the car was virtually within sight, I stepped in a gopher hole and there went the ankle and I sprawled heavily face first into the dust. Fortunately, it was just a short limp to the car with a well dusted face, that was way too much reconnecting with my past, in my opinion.

Appreciative audience
For more pictures of this amazing hike, please visit the Flickr album.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Cape Arago loop

Cape Arago is a great dayhike. The trail is always spectacular, providing cliffy views of the rugged Oregon coast as the path rambles along the rather abrupt edge of Oregon. Periodically, the trail moves away from the cliffs and dips into the lush coastal forest. Given the right time of year, the woods yield plenty of wildflowers, berries, mushrooms, and newts. And no matter the season, the crash of waves upon the rocks is a constant along with the barking of sea lions. Yup, a great hike. But there is one small problem: I've hiked it a million times.

Scenic little cove, below the trail
So what is one erstwhile faded and jaded hiker to do? Why, apply an O'Neill twist to the route, just to keep from getting bored with one of the more scenic hikes on the southern Oregon coast. The latest and greatest change-up was to park the car nearly two miles shy of the customary starting point at Sunset Bay. Hopefully, I'd be able to work my way south to Sunset Bay and in the process, get a good view of the Cape Arago Lighthouse perched on Gregory Point, the point actually being an island. 

Is this a cool trail, or what?
Speaking of goats, you almost have to be one to get down to the beach from the Cape Arago Highway. Yeah, I know, we weren't speaking of goats but that's my segue and I'm sticking to it. A faint and muddy track dropped nearly vertically down to the beach but fortunately, a rope was tied to a tree for us non-goat human beings. Even though I sport no goat genes (that I know of), I still bleated happily on the way down, which either confused or bemused the seagulls.

Rock formations on the beach
Once upon the beach, well, I could hear but not see the lighthouse as a thick boa constrictor of fog strangled the life out of the sunny ocean views. Tortured metaphor aside, visibility was quite limited on the beach and the main attraction (the lighthouse) remained sleeping under the thick foggy blanket. The beach route going south was likewise hidden, so I decided to turn back. No sense hiking down the beach only to find access to Sunset Bay impassable, I'll retry this on a sunnier day where I can better judge the feasibility of the intended route.

So, back to the car I go and going up the rope was not quite as much fun as coming down, I didn't happily bleat like a goat on the way up. Still in the mood to change up the normal route though, I decided to hike from Sunset Bay to Shore Acres and then take the hidden perimeter trail that I had hiked on once before with the South Coast Striders.

Fern tongue

It had been baking hot (I often use a different adjective, also ending in "king", to better describe the run of hot weather) and it was getting to be so not-funny. It seemed inconceivable that anywhere else outside of Roseburg could be anything but a dry sauna; therefore I was clad in shorts and a tank top. Oops. At Cape Arago, the weather was cold and foggy, the air had a liquidity to it that stopped just short of being actual rain, and me without any raincoat or jacket. Oh well, the exertion of navigating the steep ups and downs of the perimeter trail would hopefully be enough to keep me warm.

The tide was well out and the ocean was quiet. There were few hikers encountered on the trail and the mist muffled sound, making for woods peaceful and still. Periodically, the trail ran alongside the Cape Arago Highway and every now and then the odd car slowly passed by, tires hissing on the wet pavement. Ripe salmonberries were there for the picking and the hike was berry nice at times. I have the orange juice stains on my lips to prove it.

Still life with foxglove and aphids
At Shore Acres State Park, I left the coast trail and crossed the Cape Arago Highway. The perimeter trail begins there but you have to know exactly where it is as the trail is unsigned and impossible to see from the road. Displaying the secret South Coast Strider sign, I pushed aside the brush and began hiking uphill on a trail surrounded by blooming rhododendron and foxglove.

Flies waiting...just waiting
A brisk climb took me to the top of the ridge that marks the park boundary and I had basically climbed into the low cloud cover, the woods were now mysteriously misty. In less mysterious fashion, the overhead skein of tree branches sifted the mist and fog, making sure to drip water on one lone hiker improperly attired in shorts and tank top. 

Went down into the ravine and then over the hill...yup

The upper section of the trail has some serious ups and downs as it dropped into and out of several ravines. I got my exercise in and kept plenty warm with the exertion. Whew! On the final pitch downwards, it was really hard to maintain traction on the muddy trail and I had more than a few impromptu ski runs. When I got home, I noticed my boot tread was totally worn, which would explain the slipping and sliding. As an aside, that particular little problem was later remedied on a mid-week excursion to REI, a true Happy Place on Earth.

The Cape Arago Trail provides great views of the coast
On the descent, the trail joined up with the old pack road leading to and from the group day use site and it was nice to not have to worry about sudden and unexpected mud-ski runs. Now at Cape Arago itself, I was back on familiar territory and it was a perfunctory hike back to Sunset Bay as the day darkened. Periodically, I'd work my way to a cliffy viewpoint to see what I could see, which wasn't much.

A bee hugs a sneezeweed flower
Even though I was wet and cold at the end of the hike, I deigned to turn on the car heater. There would be plenty of heat waiting for me in Roseburg and I gladly shivered in the wet air. It felt good to be cold, if even for just one day.

Future blackberry fruit
For more pictures of  the hike, please visit the Flickr album.