Thursday, January 18, 2007
Hundreds of bats hang three feet above my head. In some areas, they lurk within inches. They’re hibernating, yet I can only imagine the consequences should my backpack accidentally scrape one off the cave wall. As in most areas inside the Bear Gulch Cave at Pinnacles National Monument, I have to squat, which gives my thighs a better workout than they’ve had in months.
Such moments of adventurous exercise are common at Pinnacles, thanks to its 30 miles of hiking trails, an extensive networks of caves, and ample rock climbing areas, all of which challenge one’s agility, strength, and stamina.
My visit last week with three friends covered 12 of these miles. Winter’s gifts—the air that cooled us during hikes and the utter lack of distracting human traffic—helped energize our rambling day.
We took the Balconies Cave Trail, a two-mile trek with an elevation change of 200 hundred feet, to start off. The scenery was beautiful, and the cave at its conclusion was more dramatic than anything I expected to find in Monterey County.
As we approached the mouth of the cave, we passed beneath large boulders that fell thousands of years ago and became lodged between the canyon walls. Beyond those initial boulders, the real fun began, with the trail diving deeply into the dark. Flashlight in mouth, slippery rocks beneath my hands, I climbed down into the large, wet expanse, and was immediately thankful I’d brought the flashlight—it’s a necessary tool to negotiate your way by illuminating the directional arrows painted on the walls. Finding good footholds, and moving under, around, or over the rocks inside kept us active—like we were doing a series of lifts, push-ups and squats. It’s not somewhere to take Grandma, but the caves, we quickly realized, were likely not the most intense activity in the Pinnacles—on the path back to the car, we passed several vertigo inducing rock-climbing areas, including the massive Machete Ridge (for more on Pinnacles rock climbing, see box, pg. 28).
During our Chex Mix-and-jerky recharge, we had the feel of a football team winning after the first half. The half ahead looked longer, more strenuous, but potentially more rewarding: The Bear Gulch Cave lay at the opposite side of the 1,000 foot speed bump in front of us. It was either the 60-mile drive to the east park entrance via Hollister, or the four miles over the high peaks to the other side. The obvious fitness-friendly answer: the Juniper Canyon Trail.
As we moved up the trail, juniper trees gave way to groups of large rock spires linking together like excited fans at a concert. As we drew closer to the high peaks, large bird nests became visible on their shoulders. The 1.8-mile trail to the high peaks proved rugged, but certainly doable for those in decent shape, especially without the at-times oppressive summer sun. (A park ranger agreed, telling us that clear, uncrowded winter days might just be the best time to hike at Pinnacles.)
Over the peak, down two miles of the east side, and past several Stonehenge-style rock clusters, we encountered a beautiful and glassy reservoir. With six miles of hiking behind me, I was ready to jump in, but an eyeful of bacteria and leeches corralled my charge. We turned to the eastern end of the lake, and the long staircase leading down into Bear Gulch Cave.
Aware that the upper part of the cave was closed due to the hibernating Townsend Big Ear Bat population (it’s only entirely open about two weeks a year), we emerged from our first walk through the lower cave mostly disappointed in the wide, well-marked and family-friendly path that required very little scrambling. A group decision to double back and explore the cave more deeply proved the best decision of the day.
Back inside, we veered off the trail, searching with our flashlights for a new arrow and a new passage to explore. When my friend spotted one, I proceeded to follow through an opening by using my arms to bridge my body parallel to the ground in order to stay out of a small stream running through the opening. We repeatedly encountered closed off areas, but an antlike persistence netted new exciting discoveries.
Just when I could feel my legs burn after walking crouched through several cave sections we came close, very close, to the bats. Avoiding them as the walls and ceilings tightened grew more difficult. Minutes later, I was around the corner from where I could hear one of my friends describing “the mother lode.” Somewhere in the caverns of my mind, a voice echoed. We’re four miles from the car on the opposite side of the mountain, and I’m in a cave that I don’t know how I’m going to get out of. Curiosity and peer pressure quickly out-voted my inner voice, however, and I decided to follow.
The scene rewarded me with an other-worldly view of a few hundred bats, sleeping in groups, some seemingly close enough to touch. As I roved around the pyramid shaped rock cavern with my flashlight, I was shocked at the hundreds—the thousands—of bats dripping from the high angles of the cave ceiling. We crept slowly on the mud and bat droppings, our whispers carrying the power of 60mph winds in the still air.
The infinite crevices and secrets of the cave made it hard to leave, but logic returned and we slipped out through an alternative exit. The return trip, an adventure in itself, went quickly, as did the day. Swept up by the drama of the scenery and the exploration, it didn’t completely register just how much we’d worked out. My body, however, reminded me for a full four days thereafter.