I wasn't thinking about condors as I drove through the dusty foothills of Central California approaching Pinnacles National Park. The surreal scenery within Pinnacles, America's newest national park, was too distracting. Rocky spires and craggy buttresses soared above softly rounded foothills. The alien landscapes bore no resemblance to each other.
Score one for the San Andreas fault, I later learned, which dragged the volcanic formations known as Pinnacles a couple of hundred miles northwest from Los Angeles County atop the Pacific plate. It made me nervous just thinking about what would happen when the next big earthquake rumbles to life along the San Andreas. No wonder I forgot about the condors.
FOR THE RECORD:
Pinnacles National Park: In the Nov. 16 Travel section, an article about Pinnacles National Park reversed the driving directions to the park's entrances. The correct routes are: To drive to the west entrance from Los Angeles, take Highway 101 north to Soledad, then take Highway 146 east for 14 miles into Pinnacles National Park. To reach the east entrance, take Highway 101 north to King City. Exit at 1st Street and turn right; 1st Street turns into Bitterwater Road (Monterey County G13). Follow it to Highway 25. Turn left on Highway 25 (north) and follow for 15 miles. Turn left onto Highway 146 to enter the park. —
But I quickly remembered when I spotted the Condor Gulch Trail near the park's eastern entrance. Pinnacles is one of four release sites in the country for the endangered California condor and, like most visitors to the park, I wanted to see one of the giant birds.
By now, it was 10 a.m., the temperature was nearing 100 degrees, and the trail led up a mountainside. Lesson 1: Don't visit in the summer, as I did. Cooler times of the year are best; some park fans say springtime, when wildflowers bloom, offers the most picturesque views. But Pinnacles staffer Rachel Wolstenholme likes fall the best. "There aren't any crowds on the trails," she said. "The solitude is wonderful."
Regardless of season, Pinnacles is a stunner. Spectacular spires crown the hills, boulders as big as the Empire State Building form caves that visitors can explore, and 30 miles of scenic hiking trails ramble through the park's 26,000 acres. Although it wasn't named a national park until 2013, its pinnacle-shaped rock formations and caves have been protected since 1908, when it became a national monument thanks to Teddy Roosevelt.
I entered from the east, planning to see the highlights of this part of the park today and then visit the west entrance tomorrow. No roads go through the park, so visitors must drive about two hours to reach each entrance. It's well worth the trip; both offer outstanding scenery. (The west is the best choice for people with accessibility limitations; the rock formations on that side of the park can be seen from a car window. Hiking is necessary on the eastern side.)
Before it got any later — or hotter — I needed to conquer the Condor Gulch Trail. I grabbed water and started the upward climb to an overlook that promised a panoramic view. Within minutes, I had spectacular views of the High Peaks, a park highlight. And a few minutes later I noticed a group of large, black birds lazily circling the High Peaks.
Could they be condors?
Doubtful. Too easy. They were probably turkey vultures, often mistaken for condors. I climbed 30 minutes more. The birds had disappeared; 10 minutes later two reappeared. As I hiked upward, closer to the birds, I started to get excited. It looked like an adult and a juvenile, soaring on thermals. They were much bigger than normal birds.
Two other hikers joined me on the dusty trail and we relaxed in the shade of house-size boulders, our eyes on the sky as the two birds put on an aerial acrobatics show.
San Diego resident Bob Morris was optimistic. "I think they're condors, although it really wouldn't matter," he said. "This is such a wonderful place. And it's fun to watch them play. But it would be a bonus to see condors."
Other hikers passed; all seemed sure we were seeing the real thing.
Later, back at the trailhead, I ran into a ranger, described the birds and asked, "What do you think? Condors or turkey vultures?"
He was philosophical: "It doesn't hurt anything for you to think they're condors, one way or the other. They were probably condors."
He winked when he said it. So your guess is as good as mine.
Talus caves offer a cool, sometimes quiet, respite from park's heat
No matter how hot it gets in Pinnacles National Park, hikers can cool off quickly at Bear Gulch Cave in the eastern section of the park, or Balconies Cave in the western section. But don't forget to bring a flashlight.
The two caves are different from most. They're talus caves, formed by semi-truck-sized boulders falling across narrow canyons. Pinnacles features some of the largest and most accessible talus caves in the world.
Each cave can easily be reached along a scenic half-mile trail. Inside the air is cool, and as you wind your way deeper into the canyon, the light dims until it vanishes.
I broke out lunch during my visit to Bear Gulch Cave, sitting on a rock and chilling out in a fresh breeze. Frogs croaked nearby in a small pool of water.
Eventually the quiet disappeared as a twentysomething group passed me, a young woman making use of the cave echo to shout, "We love Pinnacles National Park."
After finishing my sandwich, I got up and began to climb. Above I could see layer upon layer of boulders, some as large as railroad cars, wedged between two cliffs.
The light dimmed and I switched on my flashlight. Concrete steps wound upward. I learned later that the Civilian Conservation Corps had installed them decades earlier. I felt as if I were climbing to the top of a castle. Eventually I reached a small opening where a beam of light entered the cave. I scrambled outside.
Heat and bright midday light hit me. I squeezed back inside the opening to retrace my steps.
"I love Pinnacles National Park too," I said quietly, "especially the interior of this cave on a hot day."
Civilian Conservation Corps' work at Pinnacles National Park endures
They were paid only $30 a month, but their efforts resulted in a legacy of conservation within some of America's most treasured national parks.
Among the places the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, left its mark was what's now Pinnacles National Park, where buildings, trails, handrails and concrete steps remain decades after they were built.
The program originated in 1933, during the Great Depression, when newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt set it up to put young men to work.
Within three months, nearly 300,000 men were working in national forests, state and national parks. They cleared brush and replanted forests, built visitor shelters and ranger cabins, improved campsites and trails and fought fires.
During the Depression, the program eventually put more than 3 million men to work. They planted an estimated 3 billion trees and built more than 97,000 miles of fire roads in national forests.
An estimated $218 million was pumped into national park projects, including trails and buildings that remain today.
California condors on the upswing at Pinnacles National Park
The stars of the show at Pinnacles National Park are bald, have lousy posture and look as though they have been around since the Ice Age.
The condor, North America's largest bird, isn't much to look at up close, but it soars on wings that span nearly 10 feet and is a marvel to watch in the air.
Condors once nested within Pinnacles National Park, but by 1987 only 22 birds remained in the world. There were many reasons the birds' numbers declined, but the main cause of death was lead poisoning, experts said. They ingested pieces of bullets embedded in the bodies of animals shot by humans. Lead caused the birds to become paralyzed, according to conservation groups, which urge hunters to use copper bullets or other non-lead ammunition.
The birds were placed on the endangered list in 1967 and 20 years later the last wild condor was captured and placed in a captive breeding program.
Six of the birds were released at Pinnacles in 2003, with additional releases of birds taking place thereafter. Today there are 26 Pinnacles birds, including a new chick, said Rachel Wolstenholme, who manages the park's condor program. The condors often join those that were released in the Big Sur area, making up a Central California flock of about 60 birds.
"With those large wings, it only takes them a short flight to get to the coast," said visitor center employee Linda Regan. "So we never know from day to day how many birds are here and how many are over there."
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO PINNACLES NATIONAL PARK
From LAX, nonstop service to San Jose is offered on Southwest, American and Delta, and connecting service (change of plane) is offered on US Airways, Delta, American and Alaska. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $140, including all taxes and fees.
To drive to the east entrance from Los Angeles: Take Highway 101 north to Soledad, then take Highway 146 east for 14 miles into Pinnacles National Park. (Note: There is no road connecting both sides of the park.). To reach the west entrance, take Highway 101 north to King City. Exit at 1st Street and turn right; 1st Street turns into Bitterwater Road (Monterey County G13). Follow it to Highway 25. Turn left on Highway 25 (north) and follow for 15 miles. Turn left onto Highway 146 to enter the park.
WHERE TO STAY
Inn at the Pinnacles, 32025 Stonewall Canyon Road, Soledad, Calif.; (831) 678-2400, innatthepinnacles.com. This bed and breakfast is the only lodging close to the park. It has an amazing hilltop location facing the craggy pinnacles for which the national park is named; the 360-degree panorama also takes in vineyards and valley views far below. Fireplaces, decks, patios. Breakfast and wine and cheese party included in rate. Suites from $235 a night.
Pinnacles Campground, 5000 Highway 146, Paicines, Calif.; (831) 389-4538, http://www.1.usa.gov/1uXVNPu. Near east entrance to Pinnacles National Park. Tent and group camping, along with RV sites. Picnic tables and fire rings. Most RV sites have electrical hookups. Water available.
Super 8 King City, 4 Broadway Circle, King City, Calif.; (831) 385-4646, super8kingcity.com. Nicely decorated motel rooms, freeway close. About a 45-minute drive to Pinnacles National Park. Double rooms from $61 a night.
WHERE TO EAT
La Fuente, 101 Oak St., Soledad, Calif.; (831) 618-3130, Diners find authentic Mexican food at this small, brightly decorated restaurant just off Highway 101 in Soledad. Many specialty dishes in addition to standard combinations, which are priced from $7.95-$13.50.
Windmill Restaurant, 1167 Front St., Soledad, Calif.; soledadwindmillrestaurant.com. 1980s diner has little ambience but plenty of variety on the menu, from burgers ($8.50) to full dinners (T-bone steaks, $22.95). Burgers are large, juicy and a local favorite.
TO LEARN MORE
Pinnacles National Park, (831) 389-4485, nps.gov/pinn.