Delightful arrays of plants and animals thrive among towering rock formations and winding cave trails of Pinnacles National Park.
By Donna B. Ulrich
Huge monoliths and sheer canyons bear silent witness to Pinnacles National Park’s dramatic ancestry as an ancient volcanic field. The San Andreas Fault lies east of the park in central California, and millions of years of faulting, tectonic plate movement and erosion have formed spectacular rock formations.
Pinnacles, which had been a national monument, became America’s 59th national park early this year. Situated east of the fertile Salinas Valley in the Gabilan Mountains, Pinnacles is far removed from California’s more famous destinations but is a boon to hikers and rock climbers looking to get away from the crowds.
In 1891, Schuyler Hain, a homesteader, arrived here from Michigan. Over the next 20 years he became known as the “Father of Pinnacles” by leading tours through Bear Valley and writing articles urging preservation of the area. Set aside as a national monument in 1908, Pinnacles’ roads and trails were greatly improved by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the mid-1930s.
This spring, on our first trip to Pinnacles in eight years, Larry and I were reminded that the area makes us think of Easter. Not only do wildflowers bloom that time of year, but the lichen-covered rocks are a soft pastel color, like Easter eggs nestled in a bed of grass. Blossoms of shooting stars, paintbrush and Johnny-jump-ups paint the green meadows in the exuberant hues of spring.
We hoped to see a California condor, re-established at Pinnacles in 2003. With a wingspan reaching 9 feet and beyond, a condor can live for more than 50 years. Pinnacles is now host to 34 free-flying condors.
Our first stop was the Visitors Center, where we met Sierra Willoughby, an interpretive park ranger. He’d studied geology, so we were not surprised to hear his favorite feature of the park: “Definitely the rocks. There are boulders the size of office buildings, and narrow canyons not unlike those found in Desert Southwest parks like Zion and Bryce. I also appreciate that the park’s ecosystem is incredibly intact—the plants and animals have been protected here since 1908. There are about 450 moth, 400 bee and 14 bat species.”
As the light faded at our campsite that evening, we watched a cottontail rabbit savor sweet young grass in the nearby meadow. Acorn woodpeckers tapped in the elegant old oaks, the rufous-sided towhee offered its simple tweet and crows cawed to let everybody know who was boss.
At dusk we saw turkey vultures land in a gray pine about 50 feet away. They circled overhead and came to roost one at a time until the tree held at least 50 birds.
We packed for a long day of hiking the next morning. Since the wildflowers were scarce this time, we took Sierra’s advice and climbed up the Bear Gulch Cave Trail, entering the caves along the way. The talus caves, formed from narrow canyons crowned with fallen boulders, are famous for their stair-step, zigzag complexity. It’s a stoop-and-slide-on-your-behind kind of hike. Bear Gulch Cave is closed from mid-May to mid-July to protect the bat colony as the parents raise their young.
Along the trail we heard one of my favorite birdsongs. The descending melodic trill of the canyon wren never fails to bring my soul into harmony with the boulders and canyons.
On the hike back I saw a big bird soaring in the distance and focused my binoculars—and hopes—on it. I called out to Larry, but he was taking a picture and was not to be distracted. When I saw the white shoulders and then the telltale identification tag on one wing, I knew it was a condor.
We saw only a few bees and didn’t see the bats, but the boulders and birds were more than enough to fill our days with beautiful memories.
Photos by Larry Ulrich