March 11, 2013 by Deborah W. Trotter
What’s in a name? Pinnacles National Monument or Pinnacles National Park? Although it became a National Park in 2013, California’s newest, most of the signage there still says “Monument,” which it had been since 1908. But as Shakespeare knew, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” and the Pinnacles – no matter what designation the signs bestow – are a geologic wonderland.
The rock formations that make up Pinnacles are part of an ancient volcano, born many millions of years ago and miles away in southern California. Because of earthquake fault and tectonic plate activity, the Pinnacles portion separated from the rest of the volcano, creeping north along the San Andreas Fault, leaving a lesser part of itself behind as the Neenach Formation, 195 miles to the southeast. And it’s still creeping north today. Pretty wild, wouldn’t you say?
Inside the Park’s boundaries you will find not only uniquely marvelous peaks, gulches and caves, but a range of diverse habitat for hundreds of species of insects, birds, trees and flowers, amphibians and reptiles. Surprisingly for a Parks lover and California native, I made my first visit to Pinnacles just a week ago, the first weekend in March.
We were lucky to get a parking space at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area to begin our hike up Condor Gulch toward the High Peaks. The strenuous loop trail is 5.3 miles long and climbs 1,300 feet. Leaving the road, we crossed a bridge over a dry creek bed, a disappointing reminder of the consequences of California’s abnormally low rainfall since December. It would have been lovely to have sounds of a burbling stream tantalize our ears on the way up the Gulch . . . maybe another time.
Except for the lack of flowing water, early spring was already in full evidence in the Park. The temperature was in the 80’s, and as we hiked up, we were pleased to find many varieties of wildflowers, including Indian paintbrush, and an abundance of buck brush whose fragrance hung sweetly in the air like the scent of a bouquet. The trail climbed steadily past many craggy outcroppings, and finally came to a saddle with a view of the High Peaks. We were on the lookout to spy California condors, those rare and amazing raptors that weigh up to 20 pounds and have wingspans of up to nine and a half feet. Most of the dark birds soaring on the updrafts were common turkey vultures, but at least one condor flew over our rest spot.
We continued hiking and eventually turned west on the High Peaks trail. We were delighted by more wildflowers,
more views of audacious rock formations,
and two or three more condors overhead
before we got to the steep and narrow part of the trail. There we had to focus on our footholds and handholds, sometimes having to crouch under the curved rock wall to get by.
At the top of the High Peaks trail we stopped to rest and enjoy the view and the cool air flow, and got a mini-lesson about condors from one of two members of a Park “Condor Crew” who had been up there all day. They had a radio antenna and were hoping to get a signal from the transmitter on a juvenile condor that had been released the day before.
Down the other side on the High Peaks Loop, we descended more steep trail with handrails and footholds chiseled out of the rocks, but soon we were steadily tramping downhill on fairly steep switchbacks throughforest and lupine.
We met quite a few hikers coming up, including one couple who warned us that a bee hive hanging in a tree near the trail was swarming, and we might not be able to get past. The thought of returning the way we had come was a bit daunting, so we decided to take our chances. When we got to the hive – which was right next to the trail around a “blind switchback” – it was a mass of bees. But they were not swarming in the air, so we quickly scooted past. Without taking a photo, I’m sorry to say! I found out later that Pinnacles National Park is home to 400 species of bees, more in one place than anywhere else in North America.
Traversing more varieties of terrain on the well-maintained trail, we made our way back to where we had begun our hike. We savored more vistas and quirky rock sculptures,
and breathed in the sweet scent of buck brush in the warm afternoon air.
Now that I have experienced some of the pleasures of Pinnacles National Park, I can’t imagine that I won’t return to get to know the Park better. And I’m 5.3 miles closer to my goal of hiking 60 miles of new trail in 2013 (see my Happy New Year post)!