Day 3 (February 23, 2020 – Los Angeles, California): “Making The Worth”
It was about 5am when both Julie and I awoke.
Given that we had a long drive ahead of us, I also needed to make sure that we gave ourselves enough time to pursue some hikes at the Pinnacles National Park (formerly the Pinnacles National Monument before President Obama gave this place full national park status in 2012).
It was still dark outside, and we knew that it would be quite chilly as the temperature outside appeared to be in the high 30s.
In any case, I had mixed feelings about whether it was worth pursuing waterfalls in Pinnacles National Park because we had been having such a dry Winter after some initial storms that really hit California between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
But now that we’ve been hardly having any rain in January and February, I kind of knew that the waterfall sightings would be on the disappointing side.
Nevertheless, I had never been to the Pinnacles before, and I had hoped that our early start would at least allow us to find parking in the east side of the park as well as to fit in some hiking before continuing our long drive home (as I still had to go to work tomorrow morning).
Anyways, as we were busy packing, when we looked back on this Sonoma, Calistoga, and Napa Trip, Julie reiterated to me about how this trip really scratched this itch that she had since her university days at USC.
She said that some administrator or counselor took her and some classmates out to the Napa area, and once there, that counselor disappeared to Calistoga.
So that piqued her interest, but she didn’t make it there on that trip. All she knew was that it seemed to feature mineral baths and spas, and the more she wondered about it, the more it seemed to grow this notion in her mind that it would be the holy grail of spa experiences (something that she was into).
In my mind, I tended to think of these resorts and spas as nothing more than expensive extravagances, but if anything, perhaps it might give us a rekindling as well as precursor of an upcoming Iceland return later in the year (barring coronavirus complications and any associative racism that I’m sure will ensue).
That said, now that she had the experience, did the geothermally-heated swimming pools and the couples massage treatment at the Indian Springs Resort in Calistoga, I think her itch had been scratched, and we both agreed that we probably didn’t need to do something like that in the near future (if at all).
I guess she fancied a more remote and secluded experience with more Nature than what we ended up experiencing there, but the reality was that Napa Valley was too commercialized and crowded for such a secluded experience.
You’d probably have to go out of the way to a private retreat in order to truly get what she fancied, and I’d bet that would cost even more than the nearly $500 we paid for the couple of hours that we spent there.
Regardless, we were finally packed up and in the car by about 6:15am, which was a little later than the 6am departure that I was hoping for, and I hoped that it wouldn’t bite us in the ass later on when it came to the parking situation at Pinnacles National Park that I knew would be an issue if we didn’t get there in time.
That said, the drive south on the 101 was pretty smooth, and it even took us onto the Richmond Bridge on the I-580, which we didn’t have to pay apparently as they only collected the toll in the direction heading west but not east.
When we were near the Berkeley area, Julie fancied a gluten free doughnut indulgence recommended by Nom Nom Paleo, but it turned out that this place was closed.
She had this bad habit of having this spontaneous food cravings, and so I’d have to fret over changing course, especially after we would pass by such places and have to backtrack towards them, which would have been a major waste of time for a fruitless pursuit of food.
But I guess since we had skipped breakfast so far in the interest of time, perhaps I should relent on this position.
So we continued south alongside the East Bay until we got closer to Silicon Valley, where Julie then had me get off the I-580 near the city of Freemont just north of San Jose.
Unfortunately, she pulled another one of those last-minute pop-up interruptions and urges, and so we had to go on a bit of a detour backtracking north then east to this place called Gonuts.
I wasn’t keen on wasting time going backwards towards a different interstate (it was closer to the I-880) over this pursuit of food, but by around 7:55am, we would ultimately make it to the this hard-to-find donut joint.
This was where Julie picked up a half-dozen mochi donuts (a couple of them with chocolate frosting on them), which was one of her rare indulgences since gluten free donuts were quite rare.
I felt like we had lost another 30 minutes on this detour, and now I was really worried about whether this would burn us when it came to the parking situation at the Pinnacles National Park, which I mentally had in mind that we needed to get there at least by 9am or else risk getting shut out.
Once on the Hwy 25, there were long lines of slower drivers with no opportunities at passing so I was already fretting more about the parking situation, and my mind was calculating what we’d have to be doing if we couldn’t find parking and what hikes I would do in the limited time we’d be having there knowing that there was still lots more driving to do to get home.
Eventually by around 9:30am, we finally made it to the Pinnacles National Park East Entrance Visitor Center, where we queued up to pay the $30 entrance fee, and then I had to wait for Julie to use a portapotty there before we finally were able to drive towards the Bear Gulch Nature Center, which was where the ranger recommended doing this loop hike that took in the Condor Gulch and High Peaks Trails.
Sure enough, when we got to the Bear Gulch Nature Center, given all the delays that Julie induced on the way here, it turned out that the car in front of us took the very last parking spot.
So after the initial disappointment at the prospect of having to drive back to the visitor center to park and take the shuttle and the associated delays with that, I then thought on my feet and decided that I was going to solo the loop hike while Julie could stay behind and stay with the car while parked illegally or at least move around the lot until she could get a better and more legitimate spot.
And so by around 9:55am, I finally started hiking with one complimentary bottle of water from the Hyatt Regency Santa Rosa as well as my own stainless steep bottle that was already full going into the trip.
After looking at the signs and taking a much-needed restroom break, I realized that the loop hike actually started behind the road closure sign, which led to a separate parking lot at the end of the road in another 0.3 miles.
Instead of hiking on the closed road, I followed a gentle trail that went by some picnic tables before reaching the actual trailhead by the end of the road at 10:10am.
That was when I saw the Bear Gulch Cave Trail signs, and followed that trail, which climbed up among the pinnacles towards the cave itself.
At one point, I reached a junction where the path on the right went towards the so-called Moses Spring. There was a climbing wall up here as well as some trickling spring feeding some ferns though I wasn’t sure if this was the actual spring or not.
Regardless, when I saw that this trail climbed high above the closing of the canyon, I realized that this trail was going to make me bypass the Bear Gulch Cave itself so I backtracked and then pursued the lower trail leading right into the Bear Gulch Cave.
After passing by a large Hispanic Family taking their time taking photos at some trail tunnel, I then reached a sign where I had to unsling the pack and take out the headlamp at around 10:35am.
Then, I proceeded to go into the eerie confines of the Bear Gulch Cave, while ascending its steps.
I could hear waterfalls falling within the cave, but I couldn’t see any of them until I ascended up some narrow steps beneath some wedged rocks. Then, I saw some slanted waterfall that I finally take a picture of even in the low light.
Of course, as I was taking the pictures of the falls, I also had a hard time trying to continue climbing up through the Bear Gulch Cave because there were scores of people going down in the opposite direction (they seemed to be mostly kids or teens or something).
It was kind of annoying, but having been part of a large group last week at Heart Rock Falls, I guess I could now understand what it was like to be on the other side of that.
Anyways, the trail was too narrow to get past what had to have been at least over 30 people or so, but ultimately I’d make it up to the upper reaches of the cave, where there was a closed gate that prevented me from following some side waterfall, and I had to crawl under a low space in order to regain daylight.
Once I emerged, I then found myself at the top of what appeared to be a bouldery slot where the trail hung a right and climbed up some narrow steps wedged between a couple of fallen boulders. I got here at around 10:55am.
Then, I saw a sign that pointed in a couple of directions as well as an unsigned path that appeared to go back towards the other side of the Bear Gulch, apparently.
I was a bit disoriented after having gone through the cave so I kept looking at my paper map trying to figure out just exactly where I was. Where was that waterfall I saw on GoogleImages where a cascade would go around a bouldery lip into the depths of a cave in the presence of some steps?
I kind of knew that the waterfall and cave combo was somewhere around here, so I spent the next few minutes trying to explore all the side trails to ensure that I didn’t miss anything.
I even followed the other side of the Rim Trail towards the Moses Spring before I realized that it was taking me away from the cave so I backtracked and followed a sign that pointed the way back to the Nature Center (which I found confusing). As a matter fact, I swore that that trail, which went past a climbing wall that people were using, was the trail going back to the Moses Spring.
However, when I saw that it descended back to a different part of the Bear Gulch Cave, I had to explore a bit more just to see where it went.
It ultimately got me to an interesting part where there was a wedged giant boulder perched above the narrow trail leading to a stairs.
And as I got closer to the stairs, I finally saw that there was a waterfall at the head of this gulch. And the further up I went on the narrow ledge-hugging steps, I noticed there were people sitting near the brink of this thin waterfall.
This must be the one that I had seen on the GoogleImages!
Sure enough, as I ascended higher, it turned out that the trail took me to the dam responsible for the Bear Gulch Reservoir, which seemed like a real popular hang out spot for a lot of day hikers that had competed for parking spots earlier in the day.
Anyways, as I had a brief orange break while admiring the reservoir, it dawned on me that the waterfall itself below must have been kept artificially alive longer thanks to the presence of this reservoir, which would supply the water for longer than if it had just been an ordinary creek allowed to exhaust its water supply quickly.
So I guess the Bear Gulch Cave Falls can owe its longevity to this man-made dam. Otherwise, it would just be another ephemeral waterfall like Condor Gulch Falls (which I had hoped to see later on in this loop hike) as well as the Bear Gulch Falls itself, which was downstream from the visitor center.
Both of these falls, by the way, were in the Ann Marie Brown book, and they were the main reasons why I pursued waterfalling in the park.
Eventually at about 11:20am or so, I finally started off again as I left the reservoir and then pursued the Rim Trail towards the High Peaks Trail.
From looking at the map, I had a long way to go as I had only gone about 1.2 miles (not counting all the detours I took to ensure I thoroughly checked out the Bear Gulch Cave) out of the 5.3 miles of the entire loop.
After all, I don’t know when I’ll be back here, and I had to at least make the $30 entrance fee worth our while. This contrasted with the $100 extra ($50 per person) we had to pay for the geothermally-heated swimming pool at the Indian Springs Resort and Spa in Calistoga, which I thought was a rip off, especially since we were only in the water for perhaps 20 minutes.
But if we lingered in the spa just to stay in that pool (which had lots of chlorine), then we would have wasted our full day in Napa and not be able to do the Benziger biodynamic wine tasting, or the Farmstead experience, or the Grace’s Table experience, etc.
At this point, the scenery was a bit less concentrated than the Bear Gulch Cave and Reservoir area, and there were more sweeping panoramas of the Bear Gulch itself as well as some pinnacles in the distance.
Shortly after going past a small man-made arch or tunnel at around 12:10pm, the trail then started climbing up a series of switchbacks in earnest. Along the start of this stretch, I saw some kind of jug handle arch (or at least a budding one) that reminded me of some kind of swan pecking at its own neck, so to speak.
When I ultimately made it up to the Scouts Peak area at 12:30pm where the High Peaks Trail and the Juniper Canyon Trail junctioned, I joined a handful of people just looking west towards the western side of Pinnacles National Park.
Indeed, I could see the pair of parking lots of the western side of the park down below as well as more pinnacles rising against the ridge that I was on in a scenery that kind of reminded me of Bryce Canyon or Cedar Breaks.
I even noticed in the distance the coastal mountains that separated the US101 from the Monterey Coast and Big Sur further to the south.
So it dawned on me at this point that this High Peaks Trail essentially was about to skirt the crown of the Pinnacles National Park, and would be the main reason why there was no road that directly connected the east and west sides through the park.
Anyways, after having my fill of the panorma near the Scouts Peak, I then followed the trail about 0.7 miles that afforded me views both to the west as well as to the east and then back to the west or the north as this trail reached the Tunnel Trail junction, which I got to around 12:55pm.
Near this trail junction, I saw that there was a pakr ranger helping a couple of women take pictures, and I also started to see even more pinnacles formations that faced more towards the north (which I’d imagine were where the Balconies part was).
As I continued keeping right on the High Peaks Trail, I saw that the path finally started to descend though it did involve a bit ledge hiking with railings and etched rock steps along the way.
But eventually, the interesting parts started to give way to more conventional trail hiking as I descended towards the Condor Gulch Trail junction while getting more panoramas again.
Once I finally got to the Condor Gulch Trail at around 1:15pm, I then followed this descending trail past some people hiking in the opposite direction.
After going around a long bend, the trail then descended back towards the impressive pinnacles formations that I had just hiked through, which turned out to be part of the Hawkin’s Peak.
This wall of pinnacles was very impressive as I descended towards it, and I also started to notice some bird ‘caws’, which turned out to be condors nesting atop one of the pinnacles!
When I soon reached an overlook at the top of Condor Gulch at 1:30pm, I could see circling birds overhead, which I’d imagine were these rare California Condors.
Without an L-series lens on a Cannon DSLR, I couldn’t bring them closer in the viewfinder and take quick shots of them in action, so I did my best with the Sony mirrorless with 240mm zoom.
It wasn’t as quick, but it was decent enough provided I could keep them in the viewfinder.
As I looked downstream from the overlook, I could clearly see that the creek in Condor Gulch was completely dry so there was no shot of seeing any Condor Gulch Falls on this home stretch of the loop hike.
I guess that was the reality of the dry winter that we were having, but by this point, I was concerned less with finding this waterfall than I was with just savoring the Nature that was still clinging onto its existence around me.
Indeed, this was the whole point of having National Parks, and I definitely savored the moment before continuing on with the hike.
Eventually at about 1:55pm, I finally made it back to the Bear Gulch Nature Center Parking Lot, where Julie was about to get out of the car and let me sit in the car to drive off.
However, I told her that I still had to pursue the Bear Gulch Falls, which I knew was around a quarter-mile downstream from the Nature Center. So I promptly went in that direction while Julie was busy napping some more or doing restroom breaks.
So I started off by going past the Bear Gulch Nature Center before going past some more park buildings with conference rooms as well as a ranger’s office.
Soon afterwards, the trail that hugged the road joined up with the trail I was on, and I then found myself going past an employee residence driveway before the trail continued its descent into a wide clearing.
At this clearing, the Bear Creek appeared to go dry once again and then re-emerge somewhere near a footbridge at the mouth of this clearing before the trail then skirted by some rocks where I’d imagine the Bear Gulch Falls was supposed to be.
Unfortunately, this waterfall was also bone dry despite there being water further upstream and I could even hear the sounds of water further downstream.
But given the rocks here, I knew that the water was well beneath the surface and it would have to flood for there to be water flowing over here as a waterfall.
By about 2:10pm, I made it down to a footbridge with a “5” label on it, and that was where I saw the re-emergence of Bear Creek with a few more tiny intermediate cascades.
I had a feeling that there was no more chance at seeing any more waterfalls so this bridge was pretty much my turnaround point.
As I headed back up to the brink of the Bear Gulch Falls again, I couldn’t help but wonder how Ann Marie Brown got down to the base of the waterfall in her photo shown in her California Waterfalls book. So I looked around for any scrambling paths that might get me there, but it seemed like the only way to get down there was to do an unsanctioned scramble on a steep slope towards some trees and rocks.
I don’t think the park service would appreciate such off-trail scrambling, but at least I finally made it down there and saw where the shot was taken.
After having my fill of this waterfall’s base, I could see further downstream that the re-emergence of Bear Creek was quite close.
But with no water here, there was no more reason to linger longer other than to scout out the area, so I scrambled steeply back up to the trail and then quickly made my way back to the Bear Gulch Nature Center car park at about 2:35pm.
I hadn’t anticipated leaving Pinnacles National Park this late in the day, but at least Julie and I could finally look forward to returning to LA though we still had a long drive ahead of us just to get back to the I-5 from here.
Indeed, we finally left the car park at about 2:40pm, and after some idyllic driving through some remote farms along the Hwy 25 (and some Trump 2020 signs and American flags, which definitely reflects the demographics of where the “red” parts of America are at; another rural versus urban divide), we finally made it to the I-5 at 4:20pm near Coalinga.
Coalinga was interesting in that it had a huge state-run prison as well as a huge hospital next door. I guess this was where the serious offenders got shipped out to.
Anyways, the rest of the drive was about as smooth as I could expect for a Sunday afternoon broken up by annoying drivers who clog the fast lane instead of using them as a passing lane, but ultimately we made a booking to eat at Raffi’s in Glendale for some really good Armenian or Middle-Eastern food of a quality that you just don’t get at mom and pops that we’ve been at.
Unfortunately, we made our bookings at 5:30pm when we were somewhere near Valencia (as it only let us get within 40 miles to queue up in line), and by 7pm, that was when we finally parked at Raffi’s while still around 43 in the queue from 100 when we started!
It was still quite busy here, and we wondered if we were better off ordering take-out instead so we wouldn’t have to wait and pay for tip.
But suddenly at 7:20pm, we jumped the queue and our table was ready so we had to cancel our take-out order and just order at the table.
Eventually, we had our large dishes of the filet mignon kebobs, beef kafta, chicken kafta, Ghormeh Sabzsi, and Fesenjoon. We knew it was a lot of food, but we were going to take the leftovers home since we wouldn’t go through so much trouble to eat here again unless we were trying to break up a long road trip.
Anyways, we had to endure some pretty bad service, but we’d eventually leave at around 8:30pm, get through some fairly fast driving on the 134 to the 2 and then the I-5, and we were finally back at home at about 9:10pm.
And so ended this rather spontaneous and expensive foodie trip, but it still had the waterfalling surprises to let me revel in it and talk about it in this blog.
But now with Julie’s spa itch being scratched, we now looked forward to the next adventure (corona virus or other Climate Change-related calamities notwithstanding)…