Pinnacles, CA: Starting out the Year of the Rooster with Condors

On the first day of the Year of the Chicken, we started our road trip with the last National Park to be added to the register, Pinnacles, which only became a National Park in 2013. It’s a two hour drive from our starting point in the Bay Area, and given it’s small size and quiet/new reputation, we hadn’t been expecting much. I’m learning it’s nice to be wrong.While a new member to the National Parks, it was a National Monument from 1908, due to lobbying from local fans of the unique scenery.  With the soaring rock formations covered in rainbow-colored lichen and various micro-climates, it’s kind of a Hobbit-esque fairyland so I can now see why people have been enthralled with this area for over a century.  I could never describe the beauties of this park as well as the NPS or other guidebooks, so the blog will just point out some things I enjoyed from my amateur first-timer point of view.

S was most excited for the chance to see the American Condor, as this nearly extinct bird has made a comeback in recent years, and of the 240 remaining, 30 have chosen to make this park their home.

… And we did.  We saw our full of the Condors – at various high points along our long day hikes up into and through the peaks.   They soared in pairs to a group of 10, sailing over the high rocks and circling us to check out the only people hiking on a Tuesday.  It was pretty amazing to see these enormous endangered birds in their natural habitats.   We quickly learned that there are a much much larger number of turkey vultures in the park… from a distance theylook similar, but only the condors have the white armpits.  Also, only the vultures would come close and hover over the grill at dinnertime.  We counted over 20 weighing down a single tree over our campfire.

Aside from condors and other birdlife, we also explored the talus caves (when narrow canyons are filled up with giant boulders to form “caves” aka tiny passages through the canyons walking under the very intimidating and not-so-stable-looking boulders), and hiked up and through and around the distinctive jagged peaks that characterised Pinnacles. All these formations were created by seismic shifts along the San Andreas fault, reminding me that while earthquakes destroy, they also create.

There was more than I expected to see here, with spectacular scenery along the trail. It moved from riparian corridors of dewy green ferns, to oak woodlands with gnarly trees covered in lichen, to chaparral associations of dry brush and low grasses. (BTW, I literally just learned all those words to describe nature from the helpful Parks posters. I love the phrase “chaparral association” even if it does remind me of bar associations and lawyers.).  Every hike felt like we were moving through all four seasons, where the lower north hillsides were moist, mossy and spring-like, and the higher southern peaks were dry desert shrubbery and volcanic rock.

And then there was the mass of breeding ladybugs.  That went from adorable to pretty gross very fast as I noticed it was thousands of bugs in mating season.Pinnacles was an unexpectedly delightful surprise as our first stop on this parks adventure. We expected to spend most our days at this first site doing prep work – practicing backing up our trailer or setting up our grill, but between the sunny days, marvellous colourful hikes, and hosting our very first houseguests, Pinnacles was the perfect way to kick off this New Year.

Happy Year of the Rooster one and all!

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