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88. North Wilderness Trail (10/03/98)

Hikers (9): Changhong, Eugene, Jane M, Nanda, Peter, Pistol Pete, Russ, Steve, Taylor
Distance: 20 miles
Rating: 3 difficulty, 8 beauty
Park info: Pinnacles National Monument south of Hollister

Write-up by Peter

This wasn't intended to be an 20-mile hike.

Once upon a time, a group of INCHers looked a map of the Pinnacles National Monument and saw a small dotted line at the top. It was the Northern Wilderness Trail and was marked as being an "unmaintained trail", so we thought it would be a cool trail to hike. Looking at the map, it looked to be about a 14-mile loop, including the 7.5-mile unmaintained portion. Let the adventure begin!

1, 2, 3, ... INCH!

The first part of the hike was very straightforward ... along the flat Bear Gulch Trail, then continuing out along the Old Pinnacles Trail towards the Balconies Caves. The trail forked just before the caves, and since only Nanda, Eugene, and I were brave enough to venture forth and plunge into the darkness, everyone else took the bypass along the Balconies Cliffs.

It was their loss! The caves were quite an adventure. It was pitch black in there and we were expecting to hear an animal growl or see a strange pair of eyes or feel something slither under our feet at any moment. At the very least, I was expecting bats to be flapping in our hair.

Well, no such luck, but at one point it looked like we had hit a dead end deep underground and would have to backtrack. I was just hoping that the batteries in my flashlight would hold out, otherwise I'd be royally screwed! At the last moment I caught sight of a small arrow painted on the side of a rock and we followed it to a tiny crack that opened up above our heads. We squeezed through and found ourselves in a large cavern. I could hear the Indiana Jones music now!

After climbing over some rocks we finally saw daylight overhead. Whew! That was definitely a lot of fun, and I would highly recommend it to all except the claustrophobic, or those afraid of the dark, or those afraid of bugs, bats, snakes, dirt, rocks .....

Back outside, we regrouped with the others and headed over to the Chaparral Camp, where we all stopped for a quick break. OK, decision time. This is where the unmaintained trail began. I had warned the group that we were likely to get lost on this trail (hell, we even get lost on trails that are paved and have huge flashing neon signs), so people were to proceed at their own risk. Eugene chose to go back. Everyone else decided to go on ...... and they were to never be heard from again!!!!! Bwah, ha, ha, ha, HA!!!


The first couple of miles were clear-cut. The trail led through some flat grassland, then up the side of hill and back down the other side. From here, it took us down into a canyon and out into a dry creek bed. This seemed like a good spot to stop for lunch.

I sat on a big tree trunk in the shade. It felt good to take a load off after having walked in the sun for almost three hours. The others felt the same way, and we took our time eating lunch while we enjoyed the shade. Esteban had not stopped for lunch, so we figured he was probably at least two miles ahead of us by the time we finally started out.

The trail led back and forth along the creek bed, going along one side for a while, then crossing over to the middle and then along the other side, then back in the middle again .... it was definitely unmaintained, and in some spots it disappeared completely and we had to hunt around for a while before finding piles of rocks left as trail markers by other hikers.

Needless to say, it was slow going and we picked up a good amount of assorted scratches, cuts, and bruises as we worked our way through the brush along the banks of the creek. The only consolation was that the creek bed was dry, so we could walk through it most of the way. This trail would really be a challenge with water in the creek.

As we went along, I noticed the creek bed was getting wider and wider. This made it harder to follow the trail as it meandered along the rocky creek bed. The trail markers were getting fewer and farther in between and I was concerned that the trail would branch off from the creek somewhere and we would miss the turnoff.

We kept slogging along ....

About two hours had passed since we had stopped for lunch. I surmised that we couldn't be far from the end of the trail, but we hadn't seen a marker for the last 20 minutes. We spread out and looked in all directions. Nothing doing. This was not a good sign.

Just then I saw Esteban walking towards us. He'd been searching the area for a long time and hadn't found anything either. Hmmmmmm ......

It was past 3 o'clock. We'd been walking for five hours already. We had less than five hours of daylight left. If we turned around and went back the way we came, we'd be able to make it back to the car just after sunset. If we looked around some more, we might be able to find the short way out of here, but if we were way off base, we'd just be wasting more time and then we'd definitely end up in the woods in the dark.

Under the circumstances, I figured the best thing to do was to play it safe and head back. I informed the troops. Jane looked like she was about to cry. Changhong was pretty tired and did not look too happy either. Rusty, Muffy, Nanda, Taylor, and Pistol Pete were not thrilled about this proposition, but as experienced INCHers they knew that sometimes the best thing is to retreat and come back to conquer the trail another day. Esteban decided to continue on. I figured since he was the fastest hiker among us, he could afford to spend more time looking around and could always catch up to us if necessary.

We began the long trek back .... even if we shortcut back over the High Peaks we still had about nine miles to cover and no time to waste. The troops were dragging. Some of them did not seem to appreciate how close we were going to be cutting it and were taking things a little too easy for my taste. Through a combination of scare tactics and personal abuse, I managed to get them to pick up the pace a little. Hey, it was for their own good!

We slogged our way back through the brambles and along the creek bed. My next immediate concern was that we would overshoot the turnoff that led us into the creek bed and have to backtrack yet more distance. I asked the gang to cut the chit-chat and concentrate on the trail. Any remaining vestiges of enjoyment on this hike had been completely wiped out by now!

Fortunately, we didn't miss the turnoff. As a reward, we took a five-minute break at the same place that we had stopped for lunch. Changhong looked exhausted. For some reason he had not brought food on the hike (even though it had been advertized to be at least 14 miles long). Bzzzzzzttt!!! Deduct 100 points, Alex! Luckily, Nanda had some cookies which he kindly shared with Changhong to prevent him from fainting. I didn't want to waste any more time, so once again I whipped the troops up and we headed out. It would be at least an hour back to the Chaparral from here.

The next part was fairly grueling. It's not that the hill leading out of the canyon was that steep, but after having walked under the hot sun for about seven hours, we did not have much energy left. The only good thing about the sun starting to go down was that most of the hill was in shade, which made the climb a little easier.

I finally made it to the marker at the top. After a few minutes, the rest of the gang caught up and after another brief rest we continued on. From here it was downhill to the Chaparral Camp. My aching knees did not like this part of the trail.

We made it to the camp at 6:15 and stopped for another rest. Someone produced the last remaining bag of cookies. I managed to get one before the others (well, mostly Changhong) tore into it like a pack of wild animals. That food disappeared faster than The Man's plate at the Indian buffet!

The good news was that from here it was less than two hours back to the car. The bad news was that it involved climbing straight up to the top of the High Peaks (a 1200-foot climb in just over a mile) and then down the other side. I exhorted the troops to get moving and was met with assorted curses and comments about being a slave driver. You guys should see me when I'm in a bad mood!


Rusty and Taylor started blazing along the Juniper Canyon Trail to the High Peaks. Rusty was motivated by his fear of the dark (remember Dipsea?), and Taylor was motivated by training for the big mini-triathlon. I tried to keep up with them as best as I could. Nanda was starting to fade behind me, and Pistol, Jane, and Changhong were slowly bringing up the rear.

We climbed higher and higher, up through the switchbacks. After what seemed like an eternity, I caught up with Rusty and Taylor at the top. I was so focused on getting there, that I did not have time to have my usual panic about the heights! At least some good came of this.

The sun was going down quickly now and we estimated that in about half an hour we would be in darkness. It was almost an hour back to the car from here. The Man did not want to hang around any longer. He said, "I'm gonna make a run for it!" and took off like a bat out of hell. Taylor and I stayed behind to wait for the others.

About 10 minutes passed. The wind had kicked up and it was almost dark now and we were getting pretty cold at the top. The stragglers should have been here by now. I thought of the possibility that they had taken one of the side trails that leads around the Peaks. Hmmmmm ... well, at least they were all together and they did have flashlights, so we decided to head down.

We wound our way down through the switchbacks. We had taken this trail in the past, and knowing that we were definitely on the right track made things a lot easier. About halfway down, we were enveloped in darkness. Time for the flashlights. Once again, I had to hope that the batteries would last (yet another valuable lesson for future hikes: bring fresh batteries!).

Despite a few stumbles and a couple of scratches, we made it to the bottom in one piece. Whew! That was a relief. The car was only a couple hundred yards away now.

In the INCH spirit, I suggested that we walk along the trail that went parallel to the main road instead of along the road itself. Just as we started heading down the trail, we heard some huge animal thrashing about in the bushes! I was pretty sure it was just a deer, but Taylor almost jumped out of her skin. I guess we'll stick to the road!

Back at the car, we found Esteban, who had eventually found the right trail (bravo!), Rusty, who had also managed to make it down in one piece and had also had the shit scared out of him by the animal in the bushes, and Eugene, who had been there for about six hours. I don't know who endured the worse punishment, those of us who had to slog back along the unmaintained trail and through the darkness, or Esteban, who had to spend four hours alone with Eugene!

A few minutes later, Nanda showed up, followed a little later by the rest of the gang. All right -- no casualties! This would definitely be a day to remember.

I think that despite the pain and suffering, everyone did enjoy themselves, but as I sit here writing this about five months later, I note that Changhong's wife has not given him permission to go on another INCH hike since then and Nanda has packed up and left the country! The INCH will do that to ya!

Pistol Pete's 10th leaf

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