Balconies South

Sat, Mar 17, 2001
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I planned to hike a much larger loop through the Pinnacles, but a combination of a late start and curiosity got me to change my itinerary. Leaving San Jose at 4:30a, I arrived at the west entrance at 6:20a only to find a gate across the road with a sign indicating the park opens at 7:30a. Dang. I forgot that the park is closed at night, and as punishment had to wait an hour and and twenty minutes for the ranger to come by and open the gate. Oh well, it was a beautiful spring morning at least.

Leaving the parking lot at 8a, I headed north on the North Wilderness Trail. It is not maintained, but easy enough to follow. Orthogonal to my route, off to the east about a mile was a fine rock formation called The Balconies. Sheer walls maybe a hundred feet high rise from the canyon below. Atop this formation was a broken jumble of rock that looked like it might make for some interesting scrambling. As I reached the highpoint on the trail, about a mile and a half from the parking lot, I paused to consider the ridge connecting my location to the Balconies formation.

I decided to give the cross-country route a try and followed the ridge, bushwhacking through chaparral. It was moderate up and down for about a mile, overall, it was easier than I had anticipated. Lots of wildflowers, several large hawks and falcons, a few ticks. I climbed up a number of the large blocks near the summit, scrambling about, mostly class 3 friction climbs. The largest block was quite serious, and I was unable to find a non-technical route up it. Certainly it was climbable, as I could see a sling bolted to the summit from my perch on the block just east of it. On the west side I found the only route that looked < 5.8, a crack and chimney system that took one most of the way to the top (I couldn't see the final 15 feet or so, so it might be harder, but the route I was checking out seemed about 5.6 or so. I'm sure a guide book has the name and rating of several routes up this feature, the highest point above The Balconies, but I haven't consulted one to learn more. The views are quite nice from here, an excellent panorama of the surrounding Diablo Range. Interestingly, I could see snow on the northeast face of Junipero Serra in the Ventana range far to the west, even though the temperatures were in the 70s and had been most of the week.

I went south to the edge of the upper Balconies, and looked for a route down to the lower Balconies, a wide, sort of flat area between the two cliff areas. I tried half a dozen chutes on the south and east sides but could not find a way down. Finally, I wandered down the west side, all the way to the bottom, bypassing the intermediate flat area. At the bottom, I found a trail, a creek, and a number of rock climbers. It was very busy by 10a. I followed the creek down to where it enters the caves. The caves are located at the narrow point in the canyon where the walls shoot up quite steeply on the north (Balconies) and south (Machete Ridge) sides. It's not so much a cave as simply some gaps under a huge pile of rocks that had crashed down from above over the years. I didn't have a flashlight, but managed to find my way through a few dark spots, walking barefoot in six inches of water that flowed through different sections, and stopped to dry my feet and put my shoes on at the other end.

Once out the east side of the caves, I left the trail again and headed up the south side towards Machete Ridge. This was a much more difficult scramble, very steep, interesting route finding, slippery moss-covered rocks - much fun! I followed the ridge until it met the High Peaks Trail, then followed the trail back to the parking lot, returning around 2p. It wasn't till I got back that I noticed a "Raptor Nesting Closure" map, which indicated that both The Balconies and Machete Ridge were closed to hiking/climbing during the spring. Bad choice of routes on my part, as my route went right through the middle of these areas.

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