I’ve got corn nuts and a soda pop in my hand, and I’m being rung up at the gas station just outside Hollister, California, right off Highway 101. The clerk asks me where I’m going, which seems kind of weird, but gas stations are probably boring places to work, and so I tell him I’m going back home to Oakland. I had just finished hiking around the Pinnacles.
Oh yeah, he’s been there one time. Very pretty, the rocks. And was I hiking with my friends?
I was not. I was hiking alone.
This is actually not the beginning of a horror story. The clerk wished me safe travel and I took my corn nuts and soda pop right back to my car and drove through noted hellhole San Jose—oh, that’s not fair, San Jose is probably lovely but I only know it as a place of hideous traffic on the freeway. Onward through the noted hellhole San Jose, toward home.
I mention the clerk only because we’ve all been told certain kinds of fairy tales. You know the ones, I’m not just talking Red Riding Hood here. About what it is to be in nature. About who gets to be in nature. About who’s safe in nature. About who gets to have adventures. About who explores. Culturally, I mean.
I loved Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, just like everyone else, and I hope it opens a whole genre of Woman Adventurer writing, so people will stop asking me dumb questions about why I hike alone. Sure, it’s a feminist gesture and I’m down with those—I was a Girl Scout, hello—but that’s not why I do it. I do it because long walks by myself are one of the few times that my inner monologue just mumbles “pretty” and then lapses into silence. It’s mighty hard to get some peace and quiet around here, you know.
Speaking of women, let’s talk about caves.
Pinnacles National Park wasn’t actually a national park until January 2013, when Barack Obama upgraded its status; previously, it was a monument. I paid five whole U.S. American dollars to enter the park, which is located near the San Andreas fault, where the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate meet. Weird rock formations abound, because they used to be part of a volcano about 195 miles south that was ripped apart through tectonic plate activity. A volcano. Ripped apart. Nature is so metal sometimes I can’t even deal. Anyway the rocks are still moving north, at a pace of about 3 centimeters to 6 centimeters a year.
The rock formations have a number of talus caves, which are created by boulders piling up. They’re small and narrow. There are two that are on trails, Bear Gulch Cave and Balconies Cave. Bear Gulch Cave is home to hibernating bats, and so is sometimes closed in the winter. This is bat country: 14 of the 24 species of bats in California live in the park. I’ll tell you now: I didn’t see any. Clearly I will have to camp here and spend dusk creeping around the trails with a flashlight.
The Bear Gulch Cave trail loop was pretty easy, although there were a few patches of scrambles. Aside from the cave, the trail was sunny. It was perhaps 75 degrees outside, though the caves were much cooler. I bought a flashlight at the visitor’s center and once inside, understood why the park was so insistent about it (besides the obvious liability reasons). Listen, guys, caves are really dark.
If you’re like me, you’re exposed to unnatural illumination all the time, up to and including street lights and that weird green light on the phone’s charger. Even on nights I’m out in the woods, there are still stars and a moon and perhaps a campfire. Dim lighting is still lighting.
Inside the cave, though, there is no light. None. At one point I turned off my flashlight and stood perfectly still, hoping to let my eyes adapt. Even after a few minutes, there was still no visual input. Just perfect darkness.
But not silent darkness. Water flows through Bear Gulch Cave, and the sound of a waterfall is a pretty obvious thing. The closer you are to the water, the cooler the air is; I saw patches of snow and ice in the lower part of Bear Gulch Cave. Take layers—while I rocked a neon-pink tank top outside the cave, I was happy for my gray sweatshirt inside. Near the upper part of the cave, I sat in a dimly-lit area and listened to water rush by. It was the only thing I could hear. Of course bats hibernate here; it’s the perfect place to take a nap.
The hike is short and easy—you aren’t going to spend more than probably 15 or 20 minutes inside the cave, unless, like me, you’re a known lollygagger. I also suspect I went backwards on the trail loop, but I’m not sure it matters. I passed several people going the other way on the loop, which was probably easier, except for the patches of scrambles, which were uphill the way I went. I prefer that, actually: I’m less likely to fall on my ass that way. These patches come near the end of the cave, as you can see daylight again, but are still underneath the rocks. There’s some loose gravel, and I slid around a little.
According to the park map, I gained 300 feet in elevation during the hike, or about 30 floors. The hike didn’t feel particularly strenuous, but the change in elevation was very obvious once I left the cave. I emerged onto a cliff face, where there were—surprise!—more rocks.
The Balconies cave is accessible on the Old Pinnacles trail, which winds along a stream and involves about a three-mile hike through a desert valley. Actually, it’s more like the trail winds through the stream, repeatedly. There were some signs of spring, and also some enormous pinecones, like, the size of a grapefruit but longer.
As I got closer to the mouth of the cave, the landscape changed, becoming greener. I could hear bird song. I got to the head of the cave through the trail and discovered I would need to climb some rocks through the stream to get in. I considered it for a minute, then remembered that not only would I have to hike back to the car in wet shoes and socks, I’d have to leave them on for the drive back home.
Not worth it, I decided. I turned around and began walking back to the trailhead. The sun had gone behind the cliffs on my way back, and the temperature outside was cooling rapidly. On the way out of the park, black tailed deer grazed by the roadside.
How do you explain to a bored gas station attendant that you just spent the day hanging out alone in some caves because it seemed like a fun thing to do? I made a rictus of my mouth and took out my wallet.
“Listen, you should call me next time!” he said. “I’ll go with you.”
I did the only thing possible: I laughed, paid, and left. Halfway back to Oakland, I realized what I wanted to tell him: The main appeal of hiking alone is that no one can tell you how they feel about what you’re seeing and doing. As a bonus? The bats and the deer won’t hit on you.
Elizabeth Lopatto is a science reporter based in Oakland, California. She recently left her post at Bloomberg News to scientifically pursue a life of freelancing, photography and hiking. We expect her to file reports regularly here at Greenfriar. (The original version of this story misidentified the black tailed deer as female tule elk. It has been corrected.)