Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Going Underground: Hiking to and inside Pluto's Cave

Spelunking 101

Date: November 25, 2019
Place: Pluto's Cave, Weed, California
Coordinates:41.571337, -122.279208
Length: about 2 miles including inside the cave
Level: challenging - involving much rock scrambling. Must take flashlights inside.

I always held fascination with caves, and whenever there is an opportunity I'll happily go into one for exploration. I'm please to say that my chikas share this fascination and are enthusiastic about cave exploration as well.
That said, most of the caves we visited in California were tamed with cemented trails and stairs, electric lights and guided tours. Occasionally we do get to explore a wild cave that hasn't been tamed or capitalized on, and Pluto's Cave is such. It had been on my wanna go there list for quite some time and last November I finally got the chance to go there.
Pluto's Cave Trailhead
The chikas' school was out for the entire week of Thanksgiving but Pappa Quail was still at work so I invited the chikas best friend and took all three on a three days vacation in the area of Redding. On Monday we had a lovely day in which we toured the Shasta Lake Dam and after that drove northeast to Weed. As the day progressed the weather changed from clear and windy to cloudy and windier. We stopped at the town of Mt. Shasta for a late lunch during which light precipitation begun - in the shape of flurries. I was a bit concerned but when we finally arrived at the Pluto's Cave trailhead northeast of Weed we were in dry land.
Late in the afternoon when we started down the trail. The sky was overcast and the air was very cold. We walked briskly, intending to get underground as soon as possible to avoid the cold wind.
Our hike as captured by my GPS.
The area of Pluto's Cave is a volcanic high desert. We walked on a narrow path of volcanic sand that was very dry despite recent rains. The ground was covered with sagebrush and sparse junipers. A couple of hikers returning from the cave came down the trail and paused for a quick chat. They described a short tunnel with a high ceiling and a steep pass on the other side. It didn't sound like the descriptionI read of the cave but I figured we'll soon find out for ourselves how the cave was. After these two hikers went on their way we were left all alone in the wilderness.
Junipers along the trail
Pluto's Cave is a lava tube, created when volcanic lava flow that crusted on the outside while the inside liquid lava drained away, leaving a tubular tunnel. The lava beds of the Cascade volcanoes in Northern California have many such lava tubes. A few of these caves, like those at the Lava Beds National Monument or The Subway Cave are arranged for visitors. Others are more 'wild', without artificial light, arranged trails, or even a spot on the map.
Pluto's Cave has a spot on the map with a small parking area, a trailhead and an access trail. It even has an entry in the Klamath National Forest website, but that's all. Otherwise, this cave is not managed in any way.
The Side Arch 
Lava tubes become exposed when the ceiling collapses. Naturally, people are not the only explorers who find and enter these caves. As we descended into the collapse area at the end of the access trail the chikas noticed a bird's nest up on a ledge right below the ceiling. The nest's builder wasn't there. I assume it moved someplace warmer for the winter.
Bird's Nest
A large gaping hole at the left side of the collapse area leads to a short tube that ends with a high opening. It is possible to climb there but we didn't. We explored this shorter tunnel for a few minutes, then returned to the collapse area and moved to the main cave's entrance on the right.
The Side Arch from inside
It isn't easy to see the main opening of Pluto's Cave because the entrance is low arched and because of the tall vegetation that grows in the collapsed area. All the bushes were bare while we were there so it didn't take us long to locate the entrance. We pushed through the vegetation along the narrow foot path toward the gaping dark hole.
Pluto's Cave's Entrance
Switching on the headlights we plunged into the darkness. The cave's floor wasn't flat and nice to walk on as that of The Subway Cave. Far from it- it was piles and piles of rocks, broken off the cave's ceiling. We had to carefully walk around or over these rocs and our progress was very slow.
Into the Darkness
It didn't take long however, before we saw light again - through a round hole in the cave's ceiling.
A Window of Light
The next bit of dark cave wasn't long either - we soon came into another place where the cave collapsed. Like the collapse area at the cave's entrance, this too was filled with tall bushes bare of leaves. The path here was much narrower and harder to walk through. It seems that much fewer people went this far.
In Between
Past the second collapse area we plunged once again into the darkness, and this time with no more 'windows'. By then I also realized that my headlight was low on battery and had to use my phone's flashlight app which slowed my progress whenever I needed to use my hands to climb the rocks.
The kids exploring a hole below the path
The cave was certainly more rugged as we moved forward underground. I read that it goes nearly a mile underground and that further on progress requires crawling in tight places. We didn't get that far, maybe a third of a mile altogether. We came to a stop at a large boulder that seemed to block the main tunnel. There was no path under it and going over and around it would have required more serious climbing than any of us was ready to do at the time. The kids were ready to turn around at that point.

Before turning around however, the elder chika noticed a dark spot at the wall and called our attention to it - it was a bat! One of several we've seen in the cave that day, and the nearest one to us. Still, we avoided getting to close to it as to not bother it from its winter hibernation. Pretty exciting though!
Townsend's Big-eared Bat, in hibernation
As I mentioned above Pluto's Cave is not managed. That, however, has a big downside to it, which is that it is also not protected. Despite this cave being wild and natural, people seemed to have no respect to it. I was sad to see that much of the cave walls were defaced with graffiti.
While a few of the graffiti had some sort of artistic merit, most were simply junk. Either way, none of these belong in there and seeing it bothered me greatly.
Going back was faster than going in. We didn't stop as often to explore and once we've seen the faint light coming through the collapse holes we moved directly that way.

It was already late in the afternoon and also overcast, so the night filtering into the cave was faint. Still, t seemed bright compared with the total darkness inside.

Outside in the in-between collapse area I could tell that evening was at hand. It seemed though that we might have just enough daylight left to walk the long way back so I suggested it to the kids and they accepted.

I had misjudges how quickly the light was fading. It was already after sunset when we took the longer route back. At first there was no problem telling where the trail was. We were walking on a narrow foot path with the wonderful view of the high desert around us and the peaks looming over the lava beds.

Soon however, it became difficult to tell where the trail was and more than once I had to navigate cross country in what I knew to be the general direction of the trailhead.

We arrived at the parking area at nearly total darkness. The wind had picked up and the kids were grateful to get inside the car and away from the whipping gusts. I took a few minutes longer to walk around the parking area and take in the wild sights - I don't know when next I'll have the chance to get to that place.
Juniper at nightfall
Eventually I too got inside the car and we drove away back to Redding. 
We've had a number of nice hikes and other fun activities on the three days we spent in the Redding area before Thanksgiving but our spelunking hike at the Pluto's Cave turned out to be the highlight of our trip for the kids - the most memorable and exciting thing the did. It sure was so for me too! 

Friday, December 13, 2019

Squeezing Through The Narrows: A Grand Finale of a Grand Trip at Henry W. Coe State Park

Date: May 27, 2019
Place: Henry W. Coe State Park, Morgan Hill, California
Coordinates: 37.178681, -121.475425
Length: 7 miles
Level: strenuous

Day 3
On the morning of the third and final day of our two-family backpacking trip we woke up to an almost clear sky. The ground was still wet from yesterday's rain but not soaked through, indicating that all the rain spells we've experienced were really light.   
We took our time eating breakfast and breaking camp. Other backpackers walked up the trail on their way westward. As I mentioned in the Day 1 blogpost, our tents were quite close to the trail, so the other backpackers were walking right by our tens as we pulled them down. One of them made a snide comment as I quickly removed a tent pole from the trail before she would step over (or on) it. I merely shrugged, we were about to leave anyway. 
Leaving Shafer Corral
We were heading out today, back to the Coe Ranch Headquarters. This time however, we would go through The Narrows and climb up the hill from China Hole. With that in mind, we cleared Shafer Corral and instead of going uphill to the Blue Ridge Road where we came from on our first day we continued west along the east fork of Coyote Creek.
As soon as we cleared the campground area we had to cross the creek. Although we knew that we would have to walk in the water through The Narrows we were in no hurry to soak our shoes just yet so we crossed carefully balancing on strategically placed rocks.
Coyote Creek, East Fork
We begun our hike at a slow pace which suited me well because I would linger by the wildflowers that bloomed along the trail.
Western Larkspur, Delphinium hesperium
The trail itself was narrow and damaged in some places. There were evidence of recent by very light use. According to the docent we spoke with yesterday, this train was not maintained much by the park personnel.
Coyote Creek, East Fork
An interesting looking bush catches my attention. Superficially I get the impression that it is ambrosia, a common allergen known as ragweed. On a closer look I saw that it wasn't. It was durango root, a pretty and somewhat strange-looking shrub, with all of its floral parts hanging out.
Durango Root, Datisca glomerata
The mariposa lilies that bloomed along the trail I had no trouble identifying.
Yellow Mariposa Lily, Calochortus luteus
East of The Narrows there is a backcountry campground called Los Cruzeros. It was one of the sites I had tried to reserve when I realized that Poverty Flat was already booked. Los Cruzeros turned out to be booked as well, but when we got there we saw no signs of anyone being there for a while. Perhaps those who reserved the place didn't end up sleeping there. Or perhaps they were very good at leaving no trace. Either one, when we were there we had the whole place to ourselves.
Come to think of it, there was a funny-looking cairn under the tree, indicating that someone human has been there before us.
The creek near Los Cruzeros Campground
We took a short break at Los Cruzeros before getting on with our hike. I took a moment to enjoy the wildflower, although I wouldn't stoop or crouch while carrying the big backpack.
Monkeyflower, Erythranthe sp. 
And then the moment had come when we had to get in the water. The trail disappeared into the stream and there was no good way to bypass the water. Not that some of us didn't try - Pappa Quail and the mom of the there family did scramble through the brush on the north bank, but the kids were very happy to wade in the water and the other dad went obediently after them. Understanding that sooner or later I'd have to wet my shoes as well, I entered the stream rihjt away myself.
Coyote Creek, East Fork 
Little birds flew in and out of the creekside vegetation. They were after the bugs. And the bugs - they were after us. Although Henry W. Coe State Park is notorious for ticks we were fortunate not to see many ticks on our trip, only a few, and none of us was bitten by ticks. The mosquitoes however, did get us but thankfully, not too bad.
Brewer's Blackbird
Walking in the water was fun but also very slow and tedious. At first the water was fairly shallow but every now and then we would come upon a deeper waterhole and had to feel our way around it. So whenever we saw a trail along the creek bank we would get back onto dry land and quicken our pace.
California Poppy, Eschscholzia Californica 
There were certainly more wildflowers blooming along the creek in The Narrows than we've seen the day before when we hiked eastward. I was happy for the slow pace we walked at for it gave me the time to give each due attention. 
Meadow Deathcamas, Toxicoscordion venenosum
Although I also had to be very careful not to slip and fall into the water. I didn't worry about getting wet myself but I didn't wish my camera to be damaged. Pappa Quail too had to be careful, though he didn't use his camera as much as I used mine. There were fewer birds and only a few of those agreed to be photographed.
Black Phoebe

An interesting water plant grew in the creek. I didn't get a clear ID of the species but if and when I go down there again I'll take care to document this plant in better detail. Perhaps see it in bloom, even.
Mysterious water plant
There was another reason to pay closer attention to the water: big tadpoles wiggled over and between the creekbed pebbles. The kids were delighted to see them too.
Tadpoles in the creek
The hill slopes on both banks came closer and steeper, and the creek segment we were walking through came closer to its name. At this point everyone in our little two-family group had soaking wet shoes.
Into The Narrows
The water was very clear and the flow was slow and lazy. Tiny fish scattered before my clumsy, heavy feet as I sloshed my way through, zigzagging around rocks, water holes and clumps of rush and sedge.
Little fishies 
Progress became more difficult now.  The creek was more narrow with deeper places, and the bits of trail on dry land involved scrambling over and around rocks.
Into The Narrows
The rocks were very pretty to look at, when seen exposed of vegetation. I don't know the geology of the place (and from the little I read on the ark's website, it would be a pretty complicated thing), but I admired the rugged beauty of these rock formations.  Carved and smoothed by the creek the were nice to look at and good to walk or sit on.

The local birds also used these rocks as and convenient perch.
California Towhee
Light, fluffy white clouds started drifting overhead, like a flock of sheep across the deep blue sky. The forecast I've seen before going out on the trip had no rain predicted for this day.
The Narrows
There were more wildflowers blooming in The Narrows than in the wider part of the creek valley. Perhaps the higher complexity of the habitat allows for more species t thrive there, or maybe it's because of the prolonged spring conditions? I do not know.
Philadelphia Fleabane, Erigeron philadelphicus 
The creek becomes deeper and more difficult to wade through as we progress downstream. Eventually we come to a waterhole that can be either passed by swimming or bypassed by climbing the rocks around it. None of us feels inclined to swim with the backpack on so we all scramble onto  the bank and file through the narrow path between the rocks and the thick vegetation, a path carved by people before us who made the same decision.
A Castle and a Moat 
That narrow path produces a new palette of wildflowers. Once again I become the caboose, lingering at each flower in turn.
Rock Lettuce, Dudleya cynosa 
None of these flowers were new to me but I was very please to see them all. The lovely colors and the lively display made me happy.
Wind Poppy, Papaver heterophyllum 
Spring seemed to linger longer inside The Narrows. I knew that once outside the canyon I'd be once again in the realm of summer.
Canyon Larkspur, Delphinium nudicaule 
Indeed we were closer to the end if The Narrows now. The final part there was no way of going on land so back into the water we went. Slowly and carefully we waded along the steep, rocky banks, placing one foot in front of the other along a narrow strip of shallow creek margin, avoiding the deeper water.
The clouds seemed thicker now and the sky no longer blue save for small patches here and there. Accordingly the temperatures took a dive and suddenly I was eager to get on dry land again.
The Narrows
Almost out of The Narrows I found that my camera had been on the macro setting since almost when we entered the water, what caused nearly all my photos to be unusually dark. I had to adjust the levels  before posting here. At the time however, I simply changed the setting again and hoped that the photos turned out ok anyway because I wasn't about to go back that day.
Algae anchored on a rock. 
At the opening of the canyon we got back on shore and quickened our pace. The kids started complaining that they were hungry and all of us were ready for a good break. The Narrows passage isn't long, but walking through it was slow and tiring. Still, it was by far the best trail segment of our entire trip.
Licorice, Glycyrrhiza lepidota 
Finally we were out of The Narrows but still not completely out of the water - the east fork of Coyote Creek meets the west fork at that place, somewhat upstream to China Hole. We still needed to cross the main stream and the only way to do it was through the water.
Coyote Creek
We walked a little downstream along Coyote Creek until we found a suitable place to cross it. On the west side we found the China Hole Trail and continued south toward China Hole in a single file.
I was at the rear. suddenly I heard Pappa Quail calling me urgently from the head of the group - they had found a rattle snake!
Quickly I pushed my way forward and managed to see and photograph the snake before it slithered away. It is amazing how well these creatures blend into their environment in perfect camouflage!
Western Diamondback Rattlesnake 
There were a few other people in China Hole, all of them day hikers. We dropped our packs and for a few long minutes we were just grateful to sit and relax and enjoy the sudden lightning of our load. This bliss didn't last very long - we had to prepare lunch.
China Hole
At the beginning of our trip I noticed the heavy loads of our friends. Having their first backpacking trip they're yet to calibrate their packs to their exact needs and avoid carrying too much. We had packed exact number of clothes , no extras to carry.
Now however, I was watching our friends stash away their wet socks and replacing them with their dry extras, while my family members could only wring the excess water from ours and rewear the same wet socks that we waded through The Narrows with.
Pappa Quail found a pretty dragonfly that was resting on the wet sand near us.

We finished our lunch but no one was too eager to start going again. What awaited us now was the big long uphill climb of the China Hole Trail to Manzanita Point. I believe we would have lingered longer at China Hole but suddenly the clouds burst and an unforecasted rain started. Within minutes we were all packed and ready to start uphill.
Needless to say, within a few steps uphill the rain stopped. It had fulfilled its purpose of motivating us to move on.
China Hole Trail up to Manzanita Point

Despite some complaints from the younger generation about going uphill, we were actually hiking pretty fast. It might have been the somewhat lighter load of the third day, or the lower temperatures, or the faint promise of a restaurant meal once outside the park, but the kids were leading our small group and they set a quick pace. I stopped momentarily to form a gap for the photo above (and others not posted here) but I would also stop to look at the wildflowers, already familiar to me from the descent to Poverty Flat on our first day.
Fringed Checker Mallow, Sidalcea diploscypha
For the most part however, I too continued on forward with very few stops. I did turn around every now and then to look back at the deep canyon we had walked through earlier. It was very difficult to see the thin strip of water between the steep slopes and under the tree canopies. I waved a mental goodbye to The Narrows, hoping to get back there at some point in the future. It would have to be a long and strenuous day hike or another backpacking trip.
View of The Narrows
Soon we left the oak savannah and now we were walking in thick chaparral. The kids in the lead arrived at the trail junction where we had turned onto the Poverty Flat Trail on our first day and they were waiting for all of us to gather there.
The chamise bushes were blooming nicely, like white fluffy clouds on the earth.
Chamise, Adenostoma fasciculatum

In between the chamise grow other shrubs and vines. The California man-root is one of the early spring bloomers and, by the time we were there, it was already bearing its spiny green fruit.
California man-root, Marah fabacea 
We continued uphill toward Manzanita Point. The trail curved so that we no longer had a view of The Narrows. We did however, had a very nice view of the Coyote Creek as if flowed south and away below us.
Coyote Creek
Closer to Manzanita Point the two older kids were walking so fast that they were almost running. Meanwhile the youngest of our group had nearly reached her limits so she and her dad had slowed their pace. I instructed the fast kids to wait for us by the campground's facilities until everyone arrived and meanwhile I placed myself at the one trail junction on the way to direct everyone behind me in the right direction before bringing up the rear.
Among the manzanita bushes Pappa Quail saw a wild turkey - surprisingly the only one detected on this trip.
Wild Turkey
I too took the time to once again enjoy the ground irises that were blooming at that location. They really do deserve another representation in the accounts of this trip :-).
Grund Iris, Iris macrosiphon 
We had a long and refreshing break at the Manzanita Point campground area. The clouds dissipated and the warm sun heated the air and us.From there we expected a smooth walk back to the Coe Headquarters, about 2.5 miles ahead. Once again we skipped the opportunity to sit by Bass Pond.
Bass Pond
We didn't anticipate any surprises but the people in the lead did get surprised by a gopher snake that sunned itself by the trailside. Pappa Quail photographed it but by the time I covered the gap it was already gone.
Gopher Snake
Taking the high road again I enjoyed much the beauty of the day and the light breeze that cooled us now that the sun was out. In smaller numbers than I've seen them in previous years but still very present - the sky lupine patches mirrored the blue and white sky above the ridge.
Sky Lupine, Lupinus nanus

We continued on without any major stop back to the Coe Ranch headquarters where we sat down to say our goodby words. Just then the elder chika reminded us that we promised them a restaurant meal. (Did I? Really? Couldn't remember that ...)
Back to the Coe Ranch Headquarters via Manzanita Point Road
And so it was that we said our goodbyes sometime later after a nice Thai meal in downtown Morgan hill. We summed up this trip as a raving success and made tentative plans for a future trip. So about now would be the time to get that ball rolling again :-)