PINNACLES NATIONAL PARK – I’d like to tell you how, while traversing the trails up, up, up to the craggy breccia peaks of our newest national park, I communed with the majestic, not-quite-so-endangered-now condors, how I felt at one with these gorgeous avian creatures as they reached full wingspan and rode the thermals in the gathering, rose-tinged dusk.
You know, I’d wax romantic, spout all that John Muir and Ken Burns sepia-toned stuff.
I’d like to, but I can’t.
See, I didn’t see any condors. Not a one.
Prairie falcons, yes. Other raptors, too, of unidentified inky dark hue.
But no condors. This, despite choosing as my path the Condor Gulch Trail at Pinnacles National Park, which leads to the Condor Overlook, which leads into the High Peaks, those geologic spires where the 60 or so condors that call the place home often perch, according to park brochures and the woman in khaki who took my $5 vehicle entrance fee.
So this is a condorless version of Fresh Tracks. You have permission to turn to the Sudoku puzzle on Page D2, if you must. But it might be worth it to stick around, because there is much I did see and one thing I didn’t, amazingly.
First, what I didn’t see (other than the elusive California condor): That would be people. Not a single fellow hiker or trail runner on a sunny Friday late afternoon in March.
Let this sink in: We are at a national park and there’s not another soul (or sole) on the well-trodden path built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps and maintained since to near pristine condition. What a boon this is for those accustomed to the year-round hordes of nature lovers who descend upon Yosemite and need reservations to ascend Half Dome. Here, I encountered no one, not even a German tourist in black knee-high socks – and those dudes are everywhere.
That could be because Pinnacles, though a national monument since 1908, is only a little over a year into national-park status. This summer, expect the crowds to drive 180 miles from Sacramento, 120 miles from San Francisco and 260 miles north from Los Angeles. But for now, you can pretty much have the place to yourself, at least on a weekday. Granted, I did see a dozen cars at the Bear Gulch Campground, just inside the east entrance. And, yes, I did spy two rock climbers belaying up Tourist Trap, one of the many playgrounds for rock climbers.
Still, this qualifies as solitude at a national park. It’s arguably a better, more reverent experience to go solo to soak up the visual splendor of the many natural wonders forged millions and millions of years ago by a massive, spewing volcano and the grinding tectonic plates of the famous San Andreas Fault.
You can spend all day rutting around the red-rock spires sculpted by epochs of erosion, gazing down upon the canyon carved to sheer stone, exploring talus caves where big-eared bats dwell, and meandering through blue oak and gray pine and tons of toyon bushes. I defy anyone to look at a map of the 26,000-acre park and not want to make a sojourn.
The names of the rock formations, coined for what they resemble, alone are enticing:
• The Hippopotamus, a wide, bloated swath of brown boulders leading to a snout of crags, found downslope from Hawkins Park.
• Lobster Claw, a jutting 20-foot spire near the black-streaked Casino Rocks (stacked like poker chips), seen from the Condor Gulch overlook.
• The Toes, two digit-looking boulders jutting Brobdingnagian-like, a podiatrist’s worst nightmare, viewed from the intersection of the High Peaks and Condor Gulch trails.
• Nebulous Knob, which, contrary to what its name implies, can clearly be seen below the 60-foot Popcorn Chimney as you make your way down from the summit of the High Peak Trail.
• The Anvil, standing starkly alongside the High Peak Trail, like one of the cliffs Wile E. Coyote used to fling himself from in cartoons.
The 5-mile trail loop gains about 800 feet in the first mile, as you make your way from the Bear Gulch Day Use Area to the Condor Gulch Overlook. You’ll be heading up the northeast slope of the gulch and, almost immediately, you can crane your neck and see the rocks of the High Peak. Though the droughtlike conditions have kept most of the spring wildflowers at bay, toyon and manzanita line the trail as you head into several long, spaced-out switchbacks.
As you go higher, the trail gets narrower. It’s single-track for the entire 5 miles and not that rock-strewn, considering the trail was likely cut from the boulders surrounding it. Once the Condor Gulch Trail ends at 1.7 miles with a T-junction (the High Peaks Trail), the views of the sprawling San Benito Valley are stark.
But you won’t be looking to the horizon for long. You start curving around massive boulders and pick your way through a rock garden, shadowed by looming spires, on a 900-foot climb to Hawkins Peak.
Here, you have reached the most difficult and best part of the trek. It barely lasts 0.3 of a mile, but you’ll be engaged in some major vertical. And you’ll be thanking the Civilian Conservation Corps for carving into the sheer face of the rock to provide steep stairs and a handy iron rail for balance, because one slip on this stretch and all that will be needed is to notify your next of kin.
Hang onto the railing, yes, but look into the distance as you trudge on. The views are sublime, red rock jutting out of the oak and pine, with chaparral serving as a mattress.
Descending the boulders at High Peaks is almost more treacherous; it’s steep going. Not only will you be using the handrails, but you’ll get the tactile pleasure of grasping onto the rough, scratchy boulders to steady yourself. You’ve only descended about 200 feet by the time you reach the 3-mile mark at the junction of High Peaks and Juniper Canyon trails. This is a good place to pause to take photos, catch your breath and look back with wonderment at the zigzagged route you’ve just completed. Oh, there’s an outhouse to the left, as well.
From there, it’s a mile and a half down the High Peaks Trail, via some easy switchbacks. Highlights include passing through a small tunnel carved into a hulking boulder partially covered in moss, and ducking under a boulder that overhangs about 4 feet of trail lined by twisted deciduous oaks. You don’t need the sign “Caution Falling Rock/Peligro Piedras Pueden Caer” to go slowly on those sections, but you soon pick up speed as the switchbacks lead you down toward Bear Gulch.
At 4.5 miles, you have a decision to make. You can take the Rim Trail or, a few hundred feet farther on, the Moses Spring Trail, both to the right, and head through the Bear Gulch Cave, well worth the mile detour. Those wanting an even longer trek can cross Bear Creek and continue 3.3 miles (one way) to North Chalone Peak, the highest point at Pinnacles (3,269 feet).
Or you could just follow the live oaks back to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area. Five miles, in the waning of the day, may be enough for most of us. I briefly considered adding mileage, if only to increase my chances of seeing a condor. But, with darkness gathering quickly and being all by my lonesome on the trails, I wimped out and returned to the trail head.
The good news: This gives me a reason to return to Pinnacles.