When people describe me, I don’t think the words spontaneous and adventurer are usually found in close proximity to one another, but today that’s what I was. A cave exploring, solo hiking, not fully prepared, spontaneous adventurer…
Last night I ran the 10,000m in the Payton Jordan Invitational at Stanford University. It didn’t go exactly how I would have liked…which left me very disappointed, especially since my races and workouts recently have gone so well. So I crawled into bed at zero dark thirty and finally fell into a fitful sleep. I woke up a few hours later at 5am. WIDE awake! Dang, because I was planning on sleeping in and enjoying a lazy morning before my 12:30pm flight back to Minneapolis.
But it’s 5am and I’m not sleepy…so scratch plan A. What to do with myself now? My disappointment with the race has many layers, but one of them is that I spent good money to fly out here for this race and now the trip feels like a waste. So I quickly jump on Google maps and search “National Parks”. California has so many. “How far is Redwoods National Park?” I wonder out loud to myself. 6hours! Damn! Not manageable on this trip.
Ok, so what’s close? I look at the map and there is a park just 1.5 hours away…that’s manageable. I should be able to get there, hike around for an hour or so and make it back to SFO for my flight. I look more closely at the park…it’s Pinnacles National Park. Wait, I know that name. Why do I know that name? I pull up some info about the park and find it has caves, hiking trails and Bear Gulch. That’s it! That’s why I know the park….in the dreary frozen months of December and January in Minneapolis I spend time running on the treadmills at Lifetime Fitness. My favorite treadmills are at the Bloomington North Lifetime which has treadmills that display trails and parks around the world, giving cool facts along the way as you “run” on these trails (the treadmill even changes incline with the trails, it’s pretty cool if you ask me). One of these trails goes through Pinnacles National Park and ends at the picturesque Bear Gulch!
I’m already sold that this is what I’m going to do with my morning but, I read on a little further about the park anyways. It’s America’s newest National Park, becoming a Park in 2012 with legislation that was passed by former president Barack Obama. “The park’s namesakes are the eroded leftovers of the western half of an extinct volcano that has moved 200 miles (320 km) from its original location on the San Andreas Fault, embedded in a portion of the California Pacific Coast Range.” Awesome sauce!
Let’s go! So I quickly jump in the shower, shove all my belongings into my backpack and scurry out the door — trying not to wake up my AirBnB family. I manage to get in the car by 5:30. So I should make it to the park by just after 7am….after all, I do need to make a quick pitstop for a dose my lifeblood, coffee! So I head south on the 101 away from the Bay, towards the Salinas Valley. The drive is relatively uneventful. I get my coffee and continue South. Making a small side note to myself that I am heading away from sunny sky towards a gathering gray mass of clouds. I worry briefly to myself about the possibility of rain. I packed light for the trip, my racing uniform and one other pair of clothes…which I’m now wearing. So if it rains and I get soaked I’m going to have one of two option for the 3 hour plane ride home….look like a drowned rat or stink like a piglet. I send out a silent prayer to mother earth to hold off the rain!
Finally, I turn off the main highway, headed east towards the mountains. I’m no longer passing strip-malls and rows of cookie cutter houses, but farms that you can tell are comprised of many thousands of acres. You can just see the beginnings of the days laborers starting to gather for work in the fields. I pass one farm advertising cherries and garlic…that’s a curious combination! There must be some logical symbiotic relationship for the two crops, but I’m sure I have no earthly idea of what it is. Rotting cherries return nitrates to the soil for hardier garlic plants? No idea.
As I pass through the last small town, population 50? there is a sign warning that the next amenities are not to be found for another 76 miles. I’m not worried about needing anything, but it just made me realize that I really am headed toward the middle of nowhere. I did mention that this was a spur of the moment idea right? So I hadn’t told anyone where I was going or what I was planning to do. Oh well. It was a fleeting thought as the valley gave way to beautiful rolling foothills. Van Gogh himself couldn’t have painted a more beautiful image — yellows, reds and every color of green you can imagine dotted the hillsides which are pocked by cows lazily grazing on the spring grass.
Another 20 minutes of winding roads and I’m there! I enter the park, stopping briefly at the small rustic park headquarters to pay my park admission before continuing down the narrow road to where the asphalt dead ends into a semicircular parking lot. I made it! I gaze up at the steep rocky outcroppings that point towards the sky like long tapering fingers. It’s breathtaking and you can see instantly why the parks called The Pinnacles.
I look around my car. What do I need? I contemplate hiking in my Birkenstocks because I had read that the 1 mile hike to Bear Gulch was considered easy. But, it’s a little chilly out and I only have a thin sweatshirt and light running jacket, so I decide it would probably be prudent to put on my sneakers. I toss a bag of trail mix into a small day pack, my keys and wallet, and water? Hummm no water. Well as long as I don’t get lost or anything I should be fine for an hour hike without any water, right?? I shrug it off and hop out of the car. There are two other sets of hikers just heading out onto the trails. We are the only cars in the parking lot at 7:15am.
I begin up the steep trail following the signs toward “Caves, Bear Gulch”. Every new bend in the trails is more beautiful than the last. There are HUGE boulders crowding the middle of the steep ravine and a small dry creek bed. The boulders lie lifeless at the bottom of the sheer cliff walls that give way to the Pinnacles towering hundreds of feet above my head. It’s easy to see why the park is popular with climbers and hiking enthusiast alike. I continue to wind my way up the creek bed until I run into what looks like an inverse half-dome cut into the rock face and a dead end. I stop a moment and take in a small lonely sign that warns, “CAUTION, FLASHLIGHT REQUIRED, LOW CEILINGS, SLIPPERY WHEN WET”. I made it to the caves!
The sign only gives me a moments pause because I definitely do not have a flashlight with me, but I do have my phone which has a flashlight app. So that should work! I pull it out and turn on the flashlight. I poke my head through the first small opening between the rocks. “It’s not that dark in here.” The ceiling is made up of the same huge boulders as before, so there are plenty of vent holes letting in light. “I guess I’m not going to need a flashlight after all”. In this day and age of liability, I’m sure the park service felt a need to put “flashlight required” even if it isn’t. The other thing I take note of is the sound of falling water. The creek bed lower down was dry, but up here there is a small steady stream of water and the cascading sound of a waterfall further up the cave. So hopefully it isn’t too slippery and wet. I give myself a mental pat on the back for choosing to wear my sneakers instead of sandals. I also take a moment to turn off my “flashlight” and put it away. It’s not really that dark and I fear dropping my phone on the rocky surface or worse yet, in the water.
I hike, scamper and duck my way through the cave. Jumping from small rock to small rock when I encounter a flooded portion of the trail. It’s fun and cool! Once I get to the other sides of the flooded trail there is another smaller opening in the rock face….and this one is much darker! I walk a few steps in and realize it is not only much darker but it is pitch black!! I can just barely make out the bottom step of what must be a very steep staircase that has been cut into the rock. I look up and a few hundred feet above me can see a small hole of light that marks an exit. Good thing I have my flashlight after all. The cascading sound of water is also much louder now, the waterfall must be inside this dark labyrinth of rocks.
I pull out my phone, click on the flashlight app and walk in. It’s still pitch dark! What the heck?!?! I quickly back out, my heart rate elevated a few beats. I look at my phone. App says it’s on, but it isn’t on! I click on the app multiple times, try closing and reopening it several times, nothing. “Do I have to have cell service for the application to work?”, I wonder to myself. That sounds silly. I try it again. NOTHING! I look at the dark hole in the rock and gulp back my fear. I’m going to get to Bear Gulch! I summon my courage and step into the dark hole. Only to immediately back out again! What’s in there? Monsters?! What if I hit my head? Step into unseen water? I cold go back and just go on another trail! I go through this futile exercise 3 or 4 more times. In. Out. In. Out. In. Out. I stop and listen, water. That’s all I hear, the thundering cascade of water. My heart is beating quickly now and adrenaline is pouring into my bloodstream.
Finally, I gather up ALL my courage and walk in. I make it to the first stair and I can just barely make out the glint of a handrail from the small amount of light coming from the mouth of the cave. I grab hold and begin to walk. I can’t see any of the other stairs so I walk slowly because the steps are irregular in size and the trail keeps turning with the contours of the interior walls. I stub my toes into each new step so that I know I’m fully on the step and not going to slip and fall. If I could see my knuckles right now I know they would be white from the death grip that I have on the handrail. The waterfall is really loud now, I can tell it is directly beside me but I can’t see it at all. After maybe 20 or 30 stairs I see a tiny opening across a grated platform to my left…there is just enough light to see that the stairs continue to the right. But my courage is starting to wain so I jump onto the platform and squat down and duck walk my way toward an exit! I emerge into the daylight and breath a deep sigh of relief. Whewww. It’s necessary to scramble up a few more steep stairs and onto a trail. I look back at the dark hole, debating what to do and decide to continue on the above ground trail for now. Signs continue to point toward Bear Gulch, I rejoice that I’m still headed towards my destination.
The trail, despite no longer being inside a dark cave is still technical. It cuts in and out of rocky overhangs, over boulders, up steep narrow stairs next to a now swift moving creek. The trail is flooded again in some parts, but nothing too deep or hard to navigate. Up the last set of steep stairs I see another small rushing waterfall and finally emerge onto a flat landing. Before me sits Bear Gulch! It’s so beautiful. It’s a skinny but long reservoir of water, surrounded on every side by the stony points of the ancient remnants of a long ago volcano. I’m the only person here. I spend a moment taking in the silence and splendor.
After spending a little bit longer exploring a few spur trails leading away from Bear Gulch I decide I should probably head back. I contemplate exploring a little more, but I don’t want to cut it too close to my flight. Especially since I have to return a rental car and the SFO airport rental car center is a small hike via plane train to the actual terminal. Also, I still want to see the other part of that cave!! So I meander my way back down to the tiny opening to the cave where I exited before. I again squat down and pull out my phone. Let’s try the flashlight app again. STILL NOTHING!!! I again feel my adrenaline rushing because I want to try and continue up the stairs. And I suddenly have a thought…I have been taking pictures the entire time I have been hiking, maybe if I take a picture with the flash I will be able to get enough details about what is in the cave to continue up the stairs. Yeah!
I shuffle onto the grated platform, water rushing directly below me and snap one picture, two pictures. The cave lights up instantly. I look at the photos and can see that the stairs continue straight ahead and there doesn’t appear to be anything tricky about them. But I can’t see around the next bend completely in the photo. Is that a gait? I don’t feel all that much more confident. So I make one last attempt at turning on the flashlight app…and it works!! Finally! Why now and not before I will never know. But it makes a huge difference in the visibility and my confidence. I walk up the stairs and find that they do end in a gate. Which is unfortunately locked. So disappointing! So I turn back around and make my way back down the way I came up. But this time I can see the thundering waterfall and sinister stairs for what they really were, harmless.
The rest of the hike and trip back are uneventful. I make it to the airport by 11am for my 12:30 flight. Enough time to get some free food in the Delta Lounge and start writing my story. Which reminds me of why I wanted to share it in the first place….I’m so thankful for running, because even when it doesn’t go my way it still gives me the ability to live the life I want to live every day. Happy trails everyone, may you forever run free!
“Now bid me run and I will strive with things impossible” – Shakespeare