Friday, September 26, 2014

Colours of Pinnacles National Park

It started with me getting a little bored of the usual places for hiking. Surely, there must be something other than Muir Woods, Yosemite, or Lake Tahoe, that's within driving distance of the Bay Area?

It took a little googling to find Pinnacles National Park. The Guardian in 2013 listed it as Top 10 national parks in California, not bad given that it only achieved its national park status in the same year. I had the impression that it wasn't well-known, so we would be in for a quiet hike.

We took more than the expected two hours to get there. Google Map didn't include impromptu shopping at Costco. After a three-hour journey, we reached the Visitor Centre, got our receipt, gobbled up some dry croissants and hard boiled eggs, then made our way to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area.

We followed Kevin, our guide, on the Moses Spring-Rim Trail Loop.

First rule, stay hydrated. Second rule, ignore the omnipresent swarm of flies. They tend to get in your face. A lot.

My friend said the West Coast doesn't have Fall colours, but I disagree. Pinnacles National Park has the most vibrant hues. The contrast of lush green trees against reddish yellow shrubs was adorable. 

Perhaps, a little misleading too. It was as if the sun wasn't beating down on us, we weren't panting from the heat but enjoying a cool breezy afternoon.

Carabiner signs were aplenty, and we saw two different groups of climbers working their way up the boulders. Pinnacles must be a popular place for climbers because of its rocky formation. 

Nonetheless, I read that these rocks are mostly weaker volcanic rocks, and climbers should check out the park's advisory and FAQs before scaling up the wall. 

This uphill trail felt longer than it is because of the smothering Californian heat. I didn't want to admit to the boys that I was getting a headache from the sun. Unlike Muir Woods, there was no protective canopy, no good place to take a rest, no respite from the sun.

If Spring and Winter are said to be the best time to come, Summer and Fall are a test of mental and physical stamina. Having sufficient water was a matter of life and death. The danger of heat stroke was extremely high.

It was a relief to finally reach the Bear Gulch Reservoir. Disney and other theme parks must have sought inspiration for river rides here; the reservoir is as beautiful as a story book. I half-expected to feel styrofoam when I touched the rocks. 

You can't swim in the reservoir though. Not in those murky green water.

The entrance to the Bear Gulch talus caves is next to the reservoir, down a flight of tapered stairway. It was impossible for two-way traffic, we had to wait till a large group passed before we descended. 

Then, we slipped under the first fallen boulder and began our adventure weaving through the gorge.

The rocks were hanging at such precarious angles, I was certain we would be buried alive at the slightest tremor of the Earth. Most of the time, we were able to squeeze through the cracks between the boulders with ease. Other times, we had to take our bags off and limbo rock our way out at contorted angles. 

It just got better when we climbed down to the Lower Caves. The boulders formed a hole in the ground. If you managed to wiggle past that hole, you would still have to curl up and squeeze into the narrow tunnel leading into the cold, dark cave. 

Not for the claustrophobic. 

Kevin was the only one who brought a torch light. It was pitch dark; I could not even see beyond one step. Relying only on an iPhone light, I led the way in, followed by Panda, then Kelvin. 

Excuse the screaming at the end of the video. Kevin had discovered bats and advised us against shining our light at the roof of the cave. 

Apparently, the Bear Gulch Cave hold the biggest maternity colony of Townsend's big-eared bats from San Francisco to Mexico. The Upper Caves were closed at the time of visit because these bats were highly sensitive to human disturbance. The entire cave is in fact off limits from mid-May to mid-July yearly for pupping.

Miraculously, we made our way out of the Lower Caves without injury. A fellow hiker was not so lucky; he had cut his arm against a rock.

Oh well, worse things could happen.

It was back to the unbearable heat once we got out of the caves. Fortunately, the route back was a walk in the park, after our earlier uphill endeavour. 

Spotted the back view of a Blue Jay, as well as a couple of woodpeckers burying acorns, near the day use area. 

Once we got back to the car park lot, we grabbed our food from the trunk, flopped down by the roadside, and munched. Same batch of dry croissants and hard boiled eggs.

I was dead beat.
I think my prayers of finding at a new place to hike have been more than answered.

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