Updated: Sep 22, 2022
Friday, 5 August 2022, Elk Grove CA
I took my time gearing up for the last National Park of this trip,
willing the time to stretch out. After downing a muffin for breakfast, I organized the car while waiting for the camp store and park bookstore to open at 8:00. Once I finally realized that nothing opened before 9:00 or 9:30, I decided 'avoiding the heat' overrode 'getting park info and more breakfast', so I headed to Bear Gulch, arriving at 8:30. Still cool at 64°!
This park features a pair of talus caves, which intrigued me. Forget about stalagmites, draperies, and cave bacon - this ain't that kind of cave! These caves are in narrow canyons where huge boulders fell. Some of them wedged into the canyon walls, forming a roof.
Other rocks accumulated, forming a dark corridor where you have to scramble over boulders in the dark as you ascend the canyon - flashlights required! They don't last long - likely around 30 yards in the darkest spots, in a cave under a half-mile in length - but they add spice to a hot hike.
From Bear Gulch (site of the smaller, east-side cave), the trail ran through scrubby terrain flanked by rocky cliffs.
Before long, I entered the cave, going in and out of light. The tightness of the quarters surprised me.
At one point, I had to crab-walk to get under one rock lodged against the canyon walls. The scrambling would have challenged me in direct sunlight, but doing it in the dark added a new level.
Above the cave, a tiny reservoir greeted me. Nestled in the hills, it looked too small to serve any purpose (though wildlife appreciates it).
Park info says that CCC crews built a rock dam to impound the stream, the reservoir staying unused. In the 1990s, they drained it to remove non-native fish, and have reintroduced the endangered California Red-Legged Frogs there.
I returned to the campground, grabbing a morning snack and stamping my passport book. In the store, I asked about my chances to see a condor (they nest in the park). "The best times are before 10 in the morning, and 6 to 8 in the evening."
Not what I wanted to hear. Facing a two-hour drive (minimum, without factoring in rush hour) to my AirBnB in Dublin, I'd planned on leaving the park by 4:00. If I'd waited this morning, maybe I could have still caught them...
With hours to spare, I headed out for the other signature feature in the park, the Balconies - home to the other talus cave. The Balconies lay on the west side, with no road running thru the park. That left the option of a long (over 5-mile roundtrip) trail with temperatures already soaring into the 80s. At least the trail stayed flat, running up a dry wash with a smattering of trees.
Once again, the cave lay in a tight canyon. I scrambled over the rocks as the light grew dim. The ranger had told me that this cave was harder than the Bear Gulch cave - a bit longer, a bit steeper.
When I reached the dark portion, my eyes took a moment to adjust to the light. Two other hikers stood at the bottom of the cave, where they waited for their friend to climb down. (Going up, not down, is the recommended direction.) I could see the light from his headlamp as he came down the steep, dark boulders. When he finished, I took on the climb. My light barely lit the rocks around me. As I neared the top (and the sunshine), I heard voices calling down. "Are you coming up? Is it hard to get through?"
I responded, "It's not the easiest scramble in the dark!"
"Oh... All we have is the flashlight from our cell phones. Will that be enough light?"
Going down... while holding a cell phone. "I don't think I'd try it, going down. That's just me." They didn't like that answer, and chose to go back from whence they came.
At the top, the trail wound through other small chambers, with other hikers waiting to descend .. or rethinking their choice of direction. Of course, I also saw kids eager to press on, too young to know fear.
From here, the trail looped onto the Balconies Cliffs trail, providing views into more craggy cliffs.
The number of hikers climbing up - and presumably descending in the cave - surprised me. They're in for a surprise.
I finished my hike in well under the 3-4 hours the trail map had estimated, leaving me another hour to pass. A treat at the camp store sounded right, and I found the last Dove bar to cool off with. The ranger looked lonely, so I sidled over. "About the condors. You said they start coming back to the High Peaks around 6:00. What are the odds that I might see one around 4 or 5?"
"You never know; nature is on her own schedule. You should try it."
Hmm... it's 3:30. I could push my departure until 5:00, and deal with the traffic when I hit it. With binoculars around my neck, I chose to deal with the heat (in the 90s) on the Condor Gulch Trail to the vista into the High Peaks.
The trail ascended steadily if not steeply, with little shade. It took a mile to reach the viewpoint.
I found a spot with a sliver of shade, so I took a seat, dropped my pack, grabbed my book to pass the time waiting, and looked to the High Peaks. Birds! I grabbed the binocs and found the corner of sky where they soared. Accord1ing to the ranger, the condor usually soars in tandem with a smaller turkey vulture. "The condors are basically lazy. They know that the turkey vulture has a better sense of smell, so the condors let them find the food, then the condor runs them off."
I tracked the birds for 15-20 minutes, trying to confirm my sighting. Once they moved on to other valleys, I waited for another bird to appear. How can I prove I saw a condor without a picture? I need a picture!
I opened my book, glancing up regularly to check for more soarers,
but they mostly stayed away. Occasionally I would spy one sweeping through, but it would disappear before I could bring my camera to bear. The minutes ticked away, bringing me closer to leaving. My sliver of shade grew.
At 4:40, I put my book back in my pack, stood up, and stretched my legs. Another couple came down the trail, so I traded niceties with them before they moved on. Then - as if on cue - two more birds appeared above the High Peaks. One big, one small. Quickly I took a shot, before they could vanish.
Success! (The photo shows the condor, enlarged.) Now I could tackle rush hour.
Travel note: The resident at the AirBnB, when I asked for a nice place to eat, pointed me to an Indian restaurant at a nearby food mall. I forgot that recommendation when I found a Malaysian eatery next door. I haven't had Malaysian food since I visited Malaysia in 1987! The food at the Banana Garden got a big thumbs up. Ironic, because when I stopped at Safeway afterwards for breakfast fixings, they had no bananas. Yes, we have no bananas!
NOTE: as I typed up this blog three weeks after my visit, I fact-checked using the park website, and saw an Alert: Balconies Caves Closed Indefinitely Due to Vandalism. As a result of significant resource damage in the Balconies Caves, the park has been forced to close the caves until such time as the extensive damage can be removed and repaired.
(I don't know if the above is part of the vandalism they're talking about.)
Now I ask you - what sort of a lowlife would vandalize a National Park? a people's park, for heaven's sake!
Does it all boil down to a lack of respect? A respect for nature - abusing and overtaxing this wonderful, fragile world entrusted to us. A respect for norms - deciding that rules don't apply to you. A respect for people - ignoring the impact that your actions have on others. Now all park visitors in the near future will not have the chance to enjoy the Balconies Cave as I did.
Today Ranger Cam from Saguaro NP, on an unrelated email, sent me a quote that rings true:
Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better. It’s not. - Dr. Seuss
I care. What can I do?