The Pinnacles present a dramatic pageant of rock from the Chapparral trailhead.
This past weekend my family and I went down to Carmel to attend graduation parties for my brother’s oldest and youngest kids. His daughter completed high school and is heading off into the world. Meanwhile, his oldest son was in Carmel fresh from his graduation the previous weekend from the United States Naval Academy and his commissioning as a 2nd lieutentant in the United States Marine Corp. To say I am a proud uncle is an understatement (and it is worth noting that my brother’s younger son is entering his final year at the United States Air Force Academy).
The weekend was a fantastic one, filled with multiple graduation parties, lots of family and celebration. The balance between the excitement and merriment and the quieter moments appreciatating the beauty of the Carmel area made it a memorable time for my kids.
While these were all great features of an excellent trip, one of the most memorable for me was taking the family hiking at the Pinnacles. I had not been here for 5 years and my kids had never been there. The Pinnacles are a stunning collection of rock towers and spires, that also feature some excellent talus caves. However, to me, one of the best parts of Pinnacles National Park (I think it should still be a national monument, but that’s water under the bridge at this point) is hiking on the High Peaks Trail. This path features some of the most interesting, unusual and exciting trail engineering I have experienced and I was excited to get my family on it.
Examples of the unusual trail construction on the High Peaks Trail.
As the trail traverses the very top of the Pinnacles formation, it has been cut into the rock and routed through cracks, crevices and along ledges one would not ordinarily expect a trail to go on. This, coupled with the fascinating rock formations and the fantastic views of the Gabilan Range and the distant Santa Lucia Mountains make hiking this trail a joy.
However, the most memorable aspect of this hike, for me at least, was the recall of the encounter I had with multiple California condors 5 years ago, in April of 2016. I was rehiking the trail in order to include it in my guidebook “Hiking Northern California“.
I had just spent a few days hiking down in Big Sur, exploring a number of trails, 3 of which would ultimately find their way into my book. I left my brother’s house early in the morning and got a good start on hiking in the Pinnacles. I reached the junction of the Juniper Canyon Trail and the High Peaks Trail fairly swiftly, climbing 1,000 feet in short order. On the climb up, the views of the rugged spires of the Pinnacles get better as you climb and the Santa Lucia Mountains begin to make an appearance to the west. However, once on the High Peaks Trail, the hike gets far more interesting.
The High Peaks Trail at Pinnacles National Park is one of the most cleverly engineered trails I have been on. It weaves its way through the highest reaches of the rock towers, passing over, under, around, through and alongside the rocks. In many cases the trail consists of steps cut into steep rock and augmented with handrails because of the precarious falls that keep one falling into the deep ravines that radiate out from the crags. It is a fun hike and great for both serious hikers or families with kids. There are several ways the High Peaks can be reached, creating shorter lollipop options or long hikes that descend down to the east side of the Pinnacles and require unusual routes to return to the trailhead (including one that passes through 0.25 miles of cave!).
About midway through this section of the High Peaks Trail, I approached a series of steps cut into the rock that reached a bench about 100 feet below the highest crags in the entire Pinnacles formation. As I began climbing up the steps, I was buzzed by a black object swooping fast toward the rocks that rose above me. Initially I paid it no mind, assuming the dark blur was a raven that had swooped in to investigate me. However, a few steps later, a second dark blur flew passed and cause me to pause. The sound of small rocks clattering drew my attention to the crag above me and that was when I noticed the two large condors that had landed just a few yards overhead.
It is worth pausing here to discuss the California Condor. These incredible birds are the largest land birds in North America. Their wingspan is generally around 10 feet and they average about 25 pounds. Over the course of the 19th and 20th century their numbers dwindled until the last few condors, a total of 12, were rounded up and brought into captivity in 1987. Since that time, the number of condors have been stabilized and returned to the wild and now number somewhere around 600 birds. While they are still threatened, it is a remarkable tale of recovery and optimism. Many of the California Condors have been released in Pinnacles National Park, the northernmost point in their current territory.
On previous visits to the Pinnacles, I was aware of the condors but my interest lay primarily with the rocks, the trail and the scenery. On this occasion, however, I was destined to have a much closer encouter with them, an encounter better told through pictures:
Now I was uncertain what to do. If there were nests or any other considerations that might disturb the condors, I certainly did not want to have a negative impact on them. On the other hand, I was laying down a GPS track to use in for the map in my book and I wanted to complete the hike and not turn back. I also needed to update my notes and get good images to use. Looking over the park’s brochure, I found nothing giving direction for a condor encounter. Looking for input, I went back down the trail a short distance to a spot where I had reception and I called the National Park Service’s visitor center. I explained the situation to them and asked their advice what to do. As it turned out, the NPS ornithologist who was responsible for the park’s condors happened to be out in the crags trying to locate condors and assess their condition. I gave my location and asked to wait for her to arrive.
While I was waiting for the ornithologist, some of the Condors opened up their wings and began warming themselves in the morning sunlight. Seeing their long wings outstretched gave me a new appreciation for these awesome creatures. Rather than being impatient to continue the hike (which I initially was), I stood quietly and enjoyed the silent spectacle.
In about 20 minutes, she showed up breathless but excited. When she heard there was a large collection of condors right on the trail, she headed over straightaway. She was stunned when she got there, seeing all the birds collected right around the path and assured me that this was a very rare gathering of condors. We talked for a while and watched the birds. Finally, I asked how I should proceed. She said that this was somewhat unprecedented to find them on the trail and suggested we climb up to them. She explained that most of these birds were born in captivity and had no fear of people and would likely be calm and unconcerned with our presence.
We climbed up the steps and to the bench where some of the condors had decided to take up positions. We walked within 5 feet of a pair them perched on rocks. As I passed them, I had my camera at the ready and made sure to capture a shot of them. It was a rather astonishing experience.
After getting to the other side of the condors, I talked to the ornithologist a little longer before leaving her to take notes and continue her observations. I headed down the High Peaks Trail until I reached Chalone Creek. From there I followed the creek upstream for a few miles until I reached the Balconies Cave. Passing through the talus cave, I emerged back onto the west side of the Pinnacles and made the short walk to the Chapparral trailhead. The encounter with the condors had lengthened my hike by an hour or so but I was grateful and humbled to have had the experience. When it came time to layout the book, I made sure to include the image of the condors perched on the rocks. In a way, it sums up the entire Pinnacles experience: distant views, rugged crags and condors.
That was the last time I had been to the Pinnacles until this past weekend. Though 5 years have elapsed, I can still see the birds vividly and knew the spot where I encountered them when I arrived there with my family. Unfortunately, we saw only one condor on this hike, and only from afar (distinguished from vultures by the white plummage on the underside of their wings). That glimpse was enough to satisfy my wife and kids…for now. We plan to return to Pinnacles again, possibly next spring and do the entire hike up and over the rocks and down through the caves. Maybe then we will see more of the incredible condors.