Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Pinnacles National Park

So earlier this spring, Owen and I took a trip to Pinacles national park. Initially I was eager to get back to the desert, but I had spent all of fall around cedar breaks and bryce so I wanted to do something different. I had visited big sur national park with my little brother the previous year and wanted to go down there, but when we looked at the map and saw Pinacles-the newest national park I might add- we both got very excited.

It was a little tough at first to swing the plane ticket and rental car, but we were able to drive the price down to 200$ per person total. Once we arrived in San Jose we drove around trying to locate a camp site but had little luck until we reached the an area near east side of the Ventenna wilderness. Though we didn't get to explore this area much, I was glad we made it there. We spent a beautiful morning watching birds fly over this gorge, basking in the early morning sunlight.

Pinnacles is unique because there are two entrances to the park that do not connect. We first drove to the west side of the park and explored the balcony caves. These were created when talus broke off of the mountains above making underground chambers. During particular seasons several species of bats make these caves their homes. They were very dark and scary, but there were frequent shafts of light that made it less of a true spelunking adventure, much to my pleasure. The caves empty up onto a high point where we got our first glimpse of the elusive california condor. We spotted at least one with an extensive entourage of turkey vultures soaring on the evening breeze. Owen, an avid ornithologist, nearly wept in his excitement to add these guys to his life list. California condors are huge! And they are one of the rarest bird species according to wiki.

We then drove allllll the way around the park to the east side where the campsites are. We made camp and got a good nights sleep. The next morning I was woken by a racket of birds. The campsite is more wooded than most and each tree was alive with bird life. There were about 7 acorn wood peckers inhabiting the tree above our tent and man were they loud. Reading in Sibley about them reveals that they are "gregarious with complex social structures." You're telling me! There were more of these around the park than I could count. Later we would encounter this tree with thousands of acorns stowed safely away. This was just the beginning of the bird adventure Pinnacles had in store for us.

Now it was time to explore the gem of Pinnacles, the highline trail. This trail snakes its way up and around the towering lichen covered cliffs. Most of the trail is chiseled directly into the rock with steep steps and narrow bridges. Luckily, there are several handrails that offer some protection from exposure. Here we got a closer view of the condors, one juvenile and two adults. At one point, the juvenile nearly alighted on a stone spire 25 feet in front of us! He saw us at the last minute and flew away in a rush but it was a breathtaking experience. On this hike we also saw a golden eagle, a bajillion turkey vultures, and some smaller hawks.

After our hike we went back to the campground to relax by the pool. Yes, they had a pool. We had planned on swimming but after rinsing off in the showers all I wanted to do was nap and read. As we lounged by the pool we spotted a red tailed hawks nest in one of the giant trees. It also happened to be dinner time and through our binoculars we spied a few fluffy white chicks eagerly chowing down on mean strips from mom.

The next day we went back up to see if we couldn't
I insisted that we could not leave California until I touched the ocean.

Owen getting his bird on.


The lady at the campsite booth was so nice!

Grey pines are the only pines that grow in the park. Their cones are covered in pitch!

Owen fooling around in the balcony caves.

Grey pines and chestnut relatives in the Chaparral forest

This monkeyflower was literally everywhere


Lots of frogs jumping around in this pool

Here's me

Lots of turkey vultures!

Here's our buddy the condor

Capturing Owen's magic moment with the condors

The highline trail

Wooly blue curls

Notice this pine tree has a bajillion cones on its branches

Acorn woodpeckers at work

Shooting stars

Another of hundreds of wildflower varieties we saw

Mariposa lilies

Overall I would highly recommend pinacles. Between the 4 star campground and the 5 star birding and wildflower viewing, it was a magical time.

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