Discovering Pinnacles, American’s newest national park


At Pinnacles National Park in California, visitors can hike amid an immense variety of rock formations, plants and animals. (Robin Soslow)
January 2

If you’re seeking a spiritual experience, this is the place where you’re likely to find one.

Eerie jagged spires, Stonehenge-like monoliths, implausibly round boulders and otherworldly caves are just a sampling of the colossal formations at America’s newest national park. And it’s one of the few places to glimpse the endangered California condor, the spectacular bird that resembles a robed Supreme Court justice sporting a nearly 10-foot wingspan.

Details: Pinnacles National Park, California

“This place is full of ‘national park’ moments,” says Gavin Emmons, a wildlife biologist who has lived in Pinnacles National Monument for several years. These abundant moments explain why the place received “National Park” designation last Jan. 10. The park is hidden south of San Francisco, in the Gabilan Mountains of California’s Coast Ranges, an hour from the Pacific Ocean just east of the Salinas Valley.

Mist-ringed mountains, rolling hills, shady woodlands, cratered valleys, blossom-edge creeks, hidden waterfalls — the landscape resembles a catalogue of natural wonders populated by diverse plants that range from coast live oaks to buckwheat to larkspur and animals such as bobcats, bats, bees, red-legged frogs, white-throated swifts, yellow-billed magpies and prairie falcons.

Few places on earth shelter such a symphony of geological features and fauna and flora. The park’s dramatic landscapes resulted from a volcanic eruption 23 million years ago, assisted by tectonic plate action. Plate movement along the San Andreas fault split the Neenach Volcano in the Los Angeles area, thrusting half of it 195 miles north. Earthquake faulting, lava and erosion sculpted the fantasyland pinnacles, and caves formed when large fallen rock, called talus, wedged into the tops of narrow gorges, creating roofed passages. Pinnacles’ are among the largest talus caves in the United States.

This unique geology and tectonic-plates origin story earned Pinnacles national park status. Advocates included Salinas-based Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) and filmmaker Ken Burns, who, as the man who made “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” is an ideal judge of unique landscapes.

Lured by mild Mediterranean weather that lasts through spring, a lack of crowds and elevations ranging from 824 to 3,304 feet, I’ve come to explore this 26,000-acre wonderland. Snow? It barely dusts the highest peaks, such as North Chalone.

The park’s west entrance is closer to the Pacific coast, while the east entrance abuts a campground. Thirteen well-maintained hiking trails, rated easy to difficult, weave past clues to the land’s violent past. On the west side, gray marble outcroppings resulted from the shifting earth’s heat and pressure. Bands of ivory-colored rhyolite mark where lava flowed through fissures in the granite. Rock fragments embedded in lava and ash give breccia rock faces, such as towering Machete Ridge, a pinkish concrete cast. On the east side, sand washes groove rock faces, and sandstone cliffs hover above the original location of the San Andreas fault.

“Dusk and dawn are particularly beautiful, especially for colorful light on the rocks, and for greater chances to see condors, prairie falcons and other wildlife,” says Gavin, who likes winter hiking for the temperatures and solitude and spring for the flowing streams and blooming wildflowers. He also likes rope-climbing the park’s 900-some routes, from sport-climbs at the east side’s Discovery Wall to the west side’s multi-pitch routes at Machete Ridge. Knowing that the breccia here is less stable than granite, I’m keeping my boots on the trails and my eyes on the birds.

California condors have been rescued from the brink of extinction by captive breeding efforts. “Condor numbers have rebounded from 22 in the late 1980s to around 400 birds [worldwide] today,” says Gavin. “Free-flying pairs have been producing wild-raised nestlings for the last several years.”

As a park biologist, Gavin helps manage the central California flock of around 60 free-flying condors, including 34 released and hatched at Pinnacles. Averaging 20 pounds, they’re among the world’s largest birds. Soaring on rising currents of warm air called thermals, they travel miles without flapping their wings, sometimes reaching speeds of 55 mph and heights of 15,000 feet.

Like other birds of prey, condors get poisoned by ingesting animals shot with lead ammunition. Measures designed to help save them include hunter education and a new statewide lead-ammo ban.

We spot a condor soaring over Machete Ridge, an astonishing and much hoped-for sight. But the assumed highlight of my visit turns out to be just a teaser.

The next morning, as dawn’s rays halo the west side peaks, I begin a hike with friends, birdwatching guide Tim Amaral and Rochelle Fischer, who’s with the conservation nonprofit Pinnacles Partnership. As we tramp up Juniper Canyon Trail to the High Peaks, two noble black-feathered, pink-headed birds appear on a cliff. They’re doing the same thing we are: gazing at surreal monoliths, deep canyons and pinnacle-studded slopes.

“If you think you’ve seen a condor, you haven’t,” Tim says. “When you see a condor, you know it.”

We know it.

As we quell our shaken selves to focus our cameras and scopes, our avian idols fan their huge wings in a sun salutation that reveals dazzling white underwing markings. Even their tracking ID tags are visible. It’s hard to look away and resume hiking, but soon we’re rewarded: Rounding a mountainside offers a fresh angle on the condors, who engage in a quick round of jitterbug moves.

Ascending slopes on the switchback-kinked trail, we encounter a cinematographer’s delight of real-life stage sets: volcano-sculpted spires, dizzying cliffs, bizarre formations jutting every which way, precariously balanced SUV-size boulders, mosaics of chaparral and desert, mountains with velvety surfaces facing slopes of worn-down stone. Then there’s massive Machete Ridge, named for the sharply angled wall beloved by daredevil climbers. Some remarkable features that at first glance seem nature-made were crafted by man: In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built stairways of stone ledges and, instead of ladders, blasted footholds into vertical rockfaces using dynamite. Rest assured, the iron handrails are solidly bolted and checked regularly by park rangers.

Surprises welcome us to each altitude: sky-blue Western scrub-jays, acorn woodpeckers, canyon wrens and other birds feeding upon the winter berries of manzanita shrubs, dazzling clusters of trumpet-shaped California fuchsia, mystical forests of moss-draped trees and rocks upholstered with tapestries of jewel-colored lichens.

In January, early-blooming wildflowers include purple shooting stars, white milkmaids and magenta Indian warriors. Then come sunny-yellow bush poppies, multi-hued monkey flowers and aptly named baby blue-eyes. Spring brings fresh hues with redspot clarkia, lemony Johnny-jump-ups, violet-blue lupine and mariposa lilies with white bell-shaped petals smudged with gold, pink and maroon.

It’s always ink-black in the caves, requiring flashlights to traverse the dips and rises of the rocky paths. An enormous, perfectly round boulder marks one entrance to the west side’s Balconies Cave. The east side’s Bear Gulch Cave provides critical habitat to a colony of Townsend’s big-eared bats (petite aside from those pointy ears). Sometimes the caves are closed when there’s high water or to protect the bats. As with the condor sightings, our timing’s right for exploring the cave passages.

Evening plans have us leaving before dark, so I’ll miss the moonlight hiking that Rochelle describes as transcendent. But that’s okay. The sweep of vistas, sunbathing condors and other “national park moments” more than qualify as a spiritual experience.

Soslow is an arts, food and outdoors writer-photographer based in Washington and Florida. She can be reached at rsoslow@gmail.com.

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