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317. Balconies Caves and High Peaks (05/10/03)

Hikers (25): Blinky, Bunny, Carol F, Christina B, David, Ernie, Eugene, Glen, Gwynneth, Hoy, Janice, Jinglan, Judy, Mozhdeh, Nancy, Nanda, Padraig, Peter, Rus R, Steve, Sue B, Taylor, Tim, Todd, Vrinda
Distance: 10 miles
Rating: 3 difficulty, 9 beauty
Park info: Pinnacles National Monument south of Hollister

Write-up by Peter -- Pictures by Bunny and Steve

We had not visited the Pinnacles for almost 3 years -- 150 hikes to be exact -- so we were long overdue. This is a great place to hike, and I'm sure if it was a little closer, we would come here all the time. There had been a lot of anticipation leading up to this hike, and when I sent out the hike notice earlier in the week, over 20 people immediately replied that they wanted to go. This was going to be one of the largest turnouts ever!

We arrived at the Pinnacles, only to find the Bear Gulch parking lot was full (as Bunny had warned us about the day before). A group of about a dozen INCHers had managed to find parking, so I deputized Bunny and asked her to start leading them down the hill towards the Chalone Creek bridge, while I went to park there and to head off any other members of our group who were driving up. I did manage to get Nanda to follow me in his car, but everyone else was now in a state of confusion.

Meanwhile, Steve's carpool group from Intel arrived later, and saw the sign that the upper lot was full, so parked down below and hopped on the shuttle to head up. This was becoming a nightmare! Thankfully, he did see some of us heading down, so as soon as he got to the top, he hopped back on the shuttle down to the lower lot. Even then, the confusion was still not over because I had told the group to meet at the bridge, but Steve was insisting on taking a different trail. Not wanting to get even more split up, I decided to go along with Steve rather than argue. Lo and behold, his trail did a long loop around and brought us back to the bridge where we originally were. Listen next time, dumb-ass!

We finally got everyone assembled at the bridge. A count of the heads showed that we had 22 people going on the hike, 2 short of the all-time record. Not bad! We posed for a group photo, and I handed out the maps and explained to the group that there was choice of two trails -- a 6-mile inner loop and a 10-mile outer loop. The reason for the choice was that I had originally advertized this as a 6-mile hike including a stop to the caves, but during the week we found out that the Bear Gulch caves were closed due to bat mating season, and so the only way to see some caves would be to do the outer loop which went through the Balconies Caves.

All smiles before the big hike

A show of hands revealed that about half wanted to do the shorter hike and half the longer hike, so we decided to split into two groups. Steve would lead the longer hike, and I would take the shorter route. Rus overheard me saying that I would have preferred to also do the longer route, so he volunteered to lead the 6-mile loop. Good job! We finally headed out.

1, 2, 3 ... INCH!

Half a mile into the hike, we arrived at the point where the trail forked into the 6-mile and 10-mile loops. Coincidentally, we came across Judy, Sue B, and Ernie at this point. Wow! This made the tally 25 hikers -- a new INCH record! As I was explaining the two-loop plan to them, I noticed that everyone (except Rus) had already taken off on the long loop. Arrggghhhhh!!!!!! I quickly handed out maps to the three additional hikers and ran to catch up with the crowd to let them know that half of them were on the wrong trail.

As I worked my way through the crowd and spread the word, everyone unanimously agreed that they would do the longer trail. Good attitude! My concern had been that people had not brought enough water for the extra miles, but everyone seemed to be cool with it. Peer pressure is a wonderful thing! Finally, the confusion was gone and I could now settle down and hike in peace ... I'm happy to have a large group on the hike, but organizing it can feel like planning the Normandy invasion.

It was a couple of quick flat miles to the entrance of the Balconies Caves. The trail was very pleasant, criss-crossing back and forth over the Chalone Creek a few times. We also saw the point where the Northern Unmaintained Trail hooks up with the Chalone -- a point we had desperately looked for (but only Steve found) on our ill-fated hike a few years back.

Everyone was very excited as we approached the caves. In the words of Christina, "Is this the coolest hike, or what??" It was pretty dark inside, and it was a good thing that enough people had brought flashlights. I'd brought my miner's headlamp that Dobby had given me a couple of years ago. Wearing it made me look like a dork (more than usual), but it was good to have both my hands free for climbing around inside the cave and not have to worry about dropping the flashlight.

We stumbled around in the cool darkness, being careful not to bump our heads on the overhead rocks. It was slow going most of the way, especially since some elderly people walking in front were having difficulty climbing up through some of the tight spots, but I was not complaining. We were enjoying the moment and were in no rush to get out. Thankfully we didn't have anyone with severe claustrophobia otherwise it could get ugly real fast!

We eventually emerged into the light, and continued on our way. The group was starting to get spread out now, so we stopped for lunch about a mile down the trail at the Chaparral Area to give everyone a chance to rest and regroup.

The view from our lunch location

After a short lunch, we headed out on the Juniper Canyon Trail and up towards the High Peaks. This was the only uphill portion of the whole hike. I had told the group to take the longer trail to the top to ensure they all got a good workout and also experienced the pleasure of climbing up the famous rock with the carved steps while holding on to the handrail for dear life. Just to be sure that nobody shortcutted (Dobby!), Steve and I went up front and blocked the different alternate paths so that everyone would be on the same trail.

For once, our plan worked perfectly. Everyone took the handrail trail, and made it safely to the peak. There were a couple of moments of trepidation for Vrinda who, like me, is afraid of heights, but she came through with flying colors. As for myself, I have to say this time was a piece of cake compared to previous visits. Maybe I really am ready for Half Dome!

After a good rest at the top, including time for Janice to sunbathe at the bench, we headed down to the reservoir. Naturally, a couple of people didn't pay attention when I was describing the route (Dobby!) and ended up taking a shorter trail back to the visitor center. It was their loss, as the reservoir was absolutely beautiful. We sat there and enjoyed the afternoon sun sparkling on the water for a long time, before finally packing up and heading back to Bear Gulch on the Moses Spring Trail (unfortunately the bat caves were closed).

INCH takes the bridge

What a great hike! A long drive, but well worth it. I think the two dozen other INCHers on the hike unanimously agree with me.

Carol F's 1st leaf
Janice's 30th leaf
Todd's 1st leaf

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