After saying a very sad farewell to the strawberries… er, I mean San Luis Obispo, we headed north and inland towards Pinnacles National Park, the nation’s newest national park (established Jan 10, 2013). Before its recent promotion, it was Pinnacles National Monument, established in 1908 by President Roosevelt. It’s a relatively small national park compared to others, and only has two entrances, with no road connecting the two. The east entrance is the only access to the campground where we decided to stay. The west entrance is for daily visitors only and not recommended for large vehicles.
The east entrance to the park is way off the beaten path and the majority of the drive was on a very winding, very narrow, one-lane-each-way road. While I’m glad I wasn’t driving this time, it also meant I had more time to stare at the narrow shoulder, sweat, hope the trees were cut back far enough, and keep pushing that invisible brake pedal with my feet. Even though the speed limit was 55MPH, we were driving as slow as 20-30MPH for several miles.
We made it to the campground unscathed and drove to our campsite. It’s a very large campground, but mostly no-hookups (no generators allowed either). There is one small section with 30 amp electric at each site and water spigots randomly scattered through the area. We lucked out (actually it was thanks to Mike’s extensive research before reserving the spot) with a water spigot right near our site, so we simply filled up our water tank once we were settled in.
We thought since Pinnacles is small and not very close to “civilization”, it would be empty and quiet but we were very very wrong. We must have hit the park right in the middle of spring break because the campground was bursting with families and large groups. Even with all the people, we still had a good time because of all the open spaces and places we could take the dogs.
The park is peppered with tons of ground holes which we originally thought were made by either gophers, prairie dogs, or some sort of weasel; however we quickly noticed squirrel-like animals running back and forth to the various holes. They look just like the squirrels back home except smaller with rattier tails. Since we had no internet, we decided these must be squeasels, a squirrel/weasel hybrid. (Once we hit civilization, the internet informed us that these are CA ground squirrels but we decided squeasels sound so much cooler).
Pinnacles National Park is known for it’s rock climbing, trails, and two talus caves: Balconies and Bear Gulch. Talus caves are created by large boulders randomly falling into and around narrow gorges, gullies, and canyons creating openings and caves. Since Bear Gulch cave is home to Townsend big-ear bats, parts or all of the cave is often closed to humans to prevent disturbances to the bat colonies. It is only fully opened for one or two weeks in March and then in October. Bear Gulch Cave happened to be completely opened while we were there. The Balconies cave is often opened, only closed due to weather or flooding and it was also open while we were there.
Since we were there for three nights (two full days), we decided to hike to each cave. The first day, we drove to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area, parked, and hiked up the Condor Gulch Trail. The overlook, about one mile up the trail had some very nice views of the valley below. After the overlook, the hike changes from “moderate” to “strenuous” and since we wanted to still hike to Bear Gulch Cave (in the opposite direction) and planned to hike to Balconies Cave the next day, we wimped out of the rest of the trail and headed back down.
To get to Bear Gulch cave, we took the Moses Spring trail. It’s an easy trail and signs to the cave are very clear. You do need flashlights while in the cave since there is little to no natural light. This is apparently the “to do” trail based on the number of folks we saw. The cave is pretty neat with multiple levels, cool air, and streams of water. Many of the trickier areas had carved stairs and handrails to make the cave exploration easier. Once out of the cave, we got a fabulous view of the Bear Gulch reservoir which made a great spot to stop for lunch. After lunch, we took the Rim Trail Loop back to the parking lot and called it a nice fun day.
The next day we decided to tackle the hike to Balconies Cave. Since Balconies cave is located further west, we parked at the Old Pinnacles Trailhead and skirted around the mountains on the Old Pinnacles Trail. It’s about 2.5 miles to get to the Balconies Cave but since there is no elevation gain the trail is really easy (and kind of boring). Unfortunately halfway to the cave, we realized that we forgot to bring our flashlights! Since we couldn’t do anything about it, we decided to just make do with Mike’s iPhone flashlight function.
We found the Balconies cave to be much more fascinating than the Bear Gulch Cave. The Balconies cave feels more primitive (not very many railings or handholds), you have to do lots of ducking, crawling, and rock scrambling to get through, and you can see the huge boulders leaning against the canyon right above your head. The boulders above us brought to mind the movie 127 Hours starring James Franco. Ugh, we were waiting for a tremor and one of those rocks to just crush us while we were under it. The way through the cave is not as well marked as Bear Gulch, so at one point we had to just guess and hope we were headed in the right direction. It was awesome!
Once out of the cave, we took the Balconies Cliff trail which winds around the top of the cave with some gorgeous views and circles back to Old Pinnacles Trail. Since we started around 9:30am and the trail was easy, we were back at the car by noon.
If you happen to hit Pinnacles National Park during the busy season, definitely start your hikes earlier in the day. Bear Gulch parking lot was half-full by 9:45am and overflowing when we left by 1:30pm. Old Pinnacles Trailhead has even less parking. It only had a handful of cars when we got there but it was full when we left at noon.
We considered it a good morning and headed back to Rover and the dogs. Opie seemed a bit frantic to see us so we took the boys for a walk around the campground. Opie will occasionally chew on some grass, but today he started shoveling in as much grass as he could find, which is very unusual for him. He stopped discriminating and just started eating anything green which is when I knew something was wrong.
To be continued…