Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Balconies Loop (Pinnacles NP)

Machete Ridge view from the Balconies Trail
2.5 miles loop, 400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate, some dark and wet rock scrambling in Balconies Cave
Access: Narrow paved road to trailhead, Pinnacles National Park entrance fee required

The Balconies Loop is a short hike that visits a talus cave and provides some decent views of the volcanic rock spires of California's Pinnacles National Park. While lacking the drama of the hikes that visit the High Peaks of the Pinnacles, this hike delivers views and a cave with minimal effort and is a good choice for a short and fairly easy hike for hikers arriving from the park's western entrance near Soledad. 

The Balconies Cave- a rare talus cave- is the highlight of this hike. Unlike karst caves that are the result of gradual weathering of limestone, talus caves are the result of rockfalls: a talus cave is simply the network of passages formed when massive boulders pile up. A flashlight- or preferably, a headlamp- is necessary to navigate the Balconies Cave. Traveling through the cave also requires a bit of rock scrambling on uneven, wet, and often slippery terrain, so come in hiking boots and be ready to use your hands. Balconies Cave has a population of nesting bats and may occasionally close; check the national park's website for the cave's status before you go. 

Pinnacles National Park is generally quite pleasant during late fall, winter, and spring, but can be extremely hot in the summer, surprising visitors from the Bay Area. While foggy San Francisco is often in the 50s or 60s Fahrenheit during the summer, temperatures here regularly exceed 100 during the summer. Temperatures in the 70s and 80s can be quite common even during winter.

I hiked the Balconies Loop on a nice February day. From the Bay Area, I took US 101 south past Salinas to the town of Soledad, taking exit 302 and then turning left onto Front St. to head towards downtown after exiting. I took Front St across the railroad tracks into downtown, where I turned right onto East St and followed it up for there blocks, then turning right onto Metz St, which is CA Highway 146 East. I followed Highway 146 east out of town for three miles and then turned left at the sign for Pinnacles National Park to stay on Highway 146. I then followed Highway 146 for nine miles into the Gabilan Range. The road was quite windy and narrowed as I drove into the mountains, eventually becoming a one lane road that accommodated two way traffic with occasional turnouts; however, the road remained paved the entire way. The road passed vineyards and a ranger station at the entrance of Pinnacles National Park before dead ending at the Chaparral Trailhead, which was the start of this hike. There's room for about 45 cars at the trailhead, but on weekends the lot may fill, requiring hikers to park in an overflow lot about a half mile back on the road.

The best view of the Pinnacles' rugged High Peaks region was actually right at the Chaparral Trailhead, where I could see directly up to the lofty rock spires. This view is the best road-accessible view of the rock formations of Pinnacles National Park and is a far clearer and more impressive viewpoint than any road-accessible view on the park's more popular eastern side. This geological oddity is composed of volcanic rocks deposited by ancient eruptions of the Neenach Volcano in Southern California over 20 million years ago, which then migrated north along the Central California coast on the San Andreas Fault.

High Peaks of the Pinnacles
Two primary trails left from the Chaparral Trailhead: the Juniper Canyon Trail, which headed off to the right towards the High Peaks, and the Balconies Trail, which led off to the left. I took the left fork to head towards the Balconies. The trail started out as a very wide, well-graded gravel path as it followed the flat bottom of the West Chalone Creek valley. I quickly passed a junction with the North Wilderness Trail, which leads through some of the least-visited areas of Pinnacles National Park. Shortly after leaving the trailhead, the trail made a broad turn to the right and came to some excellent views of Machete Ridge, an impressive, serrated rock ridge that rose directly from the floor of the valley. Collections of rock pinnacles towered further uphill on the slopes of the High Peaks. The trail was almost completely flat here.

Machete Ridge
There were constant views of Machete Ridge as the trail traveled through the grassy, flat bottom of the valley until the valley suddenly narrowed at a half mile from the trailhead and transitioned to a canyon filled with towering rock outcrops. The trail began to descend very gently as it traveled through this canyon, entering some pretty woods and crossing over West Chalone Creek, which keeps the vegetation in the canyon fairly verdant by California standards. At 0.6 miles, the trail passed by the base of Machete Ridge and soon the great cliff faces of the Balconies, a rock outcrop that featured an extended line of cliffs, rose above the canyon. At 2/3 mile, I arrived at a junction between the Balconies Cliffs Trail and the Balconies Cave Trail. I took the right fork for the Balconies Cave Trail, although I would later return on this loop by the Balconies Cliffs Trail.

The Balconies Cave Trail continued downhill through the canyon, entering terrain that became progressively rockier. Soon, the trail entered a massive talus pile with house-sized boulders stacked atop each other. I passed through a gate that marked the entrance to Balconies Cave; this gate is locked when the cave is closed. The trail then squeezed between some boulders and dropped into the dark cave. A flashlight or headlamp was absolutely essential to navigate the cave, which is pitch black once I left the entrance. Traveling through the cave required rock scrambling down to the base of the cave, which was a bit challenging during my visit because the rocks were wet. As this is an otherwise easy hike, the difficulties of working my way through the cave were the main reason this hike did not receive an easy rating. However, the thrill of wandering through underground passageways with underground streams was well worth the challenge.

Balconies Cave
Gaps in the talus above allowed light to stream into the lower reaches of the cave and I soon exited the cave altogether after passing through another gate marking the cave's lower exit. Returning into the daylight, I was back in a narrow, rocky canyon alongside West Chalone Creek. As I followed the trail further down the canyon, the walls of the canyon widened and I passed through some pleasant woodlands until reaching a junction with the Balconies Cliffs Trail and Old Pinnacles Trail at just over a mile from the trailhead.

Exiting Balconies Cave
I took the Balconies Cliffs Trail on the return leg of the loop. While this trail was quite nice, it unfortunately did not live up to my unrealistic expectations: I was hoping for a trail that would visit the top of the Balconies Cliffs, but this trail just followed the base of those huge cliffs. The Balconies Cliffs Trail had the only steep uphill stretch of this hike, which came on the initial third of a mile of the trail as it ascended from the bottom of the canyon up to a chaparral covered bench just below the mighty bluffs of volcanic rock that form the Balconies. The trail arrived at a high point at 1.5 miles just below the cliffs that had excellent views of both the high cliffs themselves and of Machete Ridge across the canyon.

At the foot of the Balconies
After passing the 1.5 mile mark, the trail began to gently descend back into the canyon. Machete Ridge and the High Peaks of the Pinnacles provided excellent scenery to the south; this stretch of trail provided the best views of the park's namesake rocks on this particular hike. The final descent back down into the canyon was quite steep but short and the Balconies Cliffs Trail rejoined the Balconies Trail to complete the loop at 1.9 miles. Back at this junction, I turned right and followed the Balconies Trail gently uphill back to the trailhead.

Pinnacles National Park
The Balconies Loop is an enjoyable way to experience the west side of Pinnacles National Park and visit a unique talus cave. However, I can't recommend this hike over visiting the High Peaks, whether on the Condor Gulch-High Peaks Loop or whether accessing that area via the Juniper Canyon Trail. If you want a less strenuous alternative to those High Peaks hike though or if you simply are driving by on US 101 and don't have time for a longer hike, then this can be a fun way to sample a bit of what this fairly new national park has to offer.

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