Monday, September 19th: Hike Balconies when it's cool and Caves when it's hot.
Weather: a welcome 50F last night rising to 105F with light breezes (prediction was for 90s)
Route: drove to the Old Pinnacles Trailhead; walked the Old Pinnacles Trail -> Balconies Cave Trail -> Balconies Cliff Trail -> Old Pinnacles Trail (~4.8 miles); drove to Moses Spring/High Peaks Trailhead; walked Moses Spring Trail -> Bear Gulch Cave Trail -> Reservoir -> Moses Spring Trail(~2.1 mile loop)
With a prediction for a high in the 90s today we wanted to hike the Balconies Trails early in the morning when there might be a chance of some shade. Two mule deer were quietly grazing in the campground while we were eating breakfast.
-> We started the hike at 7:30 -- just us and a variety of birds, most of which we could not identify. We noticed none of them eating a fig-like fruit on one tree so we didn't eat it either. Outbound we chose to squeeze through the Balcony Caves, a series of talus caves, then looped back via the Balconies Cliff Trail which gave us sweeping vistas of the pinnacle and balcony rock formations which this National Park wants to preserve. Given the temperature, we probably should have chosen to hike the cliffs trail first and return through the cool caves.
By mid-morning we were glad to be at the Bear Gulch Cave trailhead, where there were modern restroom facilities and potable water outside the Nature Center.
Even though the temperatures were already at the day's forecasted high the gullies and caves of the Bear Gulch Cave Trail were remarkably cooler. The well-marked trail wound its way into the lower Bear Gulch Cave through some tight passageways. The upper cave was gated closed for the pupping season to protect the Townsend big-eared Bat babies born in the Spring. When the Ranger told us about the large crowds that visit on weekends we felt lucky that we only had to share the caves with one family today. By the time we hiked back on the Moses Spring Trail to the parking area - the final leg of our 7 miles today - the shady bench near the Nature Center looked like the perfect place to air out our feet and enjoy our lunch, even though it was only 11:00.
After perusing the Nature Center displays we drove back to Campsite #31. What better way to pass a 101F day than to wash out today's hiking clothes and have them dry before dinner. The afternoon breezes were keeping the flies at bay so we had time to relax, read and cook dinner in peace. After the dishes were washed we didn't wait until dark tonight to drive to the showers.
What we learned today:
-> Our tent was only in the sun for a short time in the late evening when the air was starting to cool, so our setup behind the screen house served its purpose.
-> The Bear Gulch Cave is home to the largest maternity colony of Townsend big-eared Bats between San Francisco and Mexico. These bats are categorized by California as a "sensitive species".
-> Talus caves are large spaces under and between boulders in rock piles normally found at the base of cliffs and steep slopes or blocking narrow canyons. Talus piles are usually made up of rocks that have sloughed off tall rock formations due to erosion.
-> The "figs" we saw along the Pinnacles Trail this morning were the very poisonous fruit of the California Buckeye tree. It reminded us to NEVER EAT WILD FOOD unless you are certain you know what it is!!!
-> The San Andreas Fault only cuts through California to just north of San Francisco, where the "simple" movements of the Pacific Plate sliding north along the North American plate as it pushes west become complex at the Mendocino Fracture Zone.