Pinnacles National Park: California Wildflowers and Condors
April 29-May 2, 2019
After witnessing the splendor of Carrizo Plain National Monument’s superbloom in March, I was determined to get back to enjoy more flowers. But by the time I had a few days available to make the trip, the superbloom had passed. I will have to wait until the next one, which could be next year or in 10 years or ?
Fortunately, the regular spring wildflower season wasn’t over and I could go somewhere closer to home to find them, possibly Pinnacles National Park, Henry Coe State Park or Mercey Hot Springs. These are not places of superblooms but good choices for reliable yearly wildflowers. I decided on Pinnacles, only two hours away. I’d been there once before on an unpleasantly crowded weekend. This trip, I was arriving on a Monday. Pinnacles is also home to condors, a bird I’ve long wanted to see.
Arriving without a reservation, I was still able to find a good campsite, #59. It was spacious, shaded by oaks, with a small stream running through it. California quail, acorn woodpeckers, juncos, scrub jays, spotted towhees, gray squirrels and ground squirrels made frequent visits. After one hike, I sat quietly for a long time, watching the various animals come and go, sometimes photographing them. On the last night, raccoons decorated my car with muddy footprints. The only downside to this spot was that it was near group campsites where boisterous excitable teenagers had gathered for an outdoor adventure.
My first full day was cool and cloudy, perfect for hiking and photographing flowers. After getting a suggestion from a park ranger, I hiked five miles round-trip on the Old Pinnacles Trail. It was a leg punishing day, not because the trail was long or steep but because photographing flowers meant I was constantly doing deep knee bends while caring weights (cameras, telephoto lens, water, lunch). It was six hours of walk 15 feet, deep knee bend, walk 15 feet, deep knee bend, walk 15 feet, deep knee bend.
The next day I went on a shorter, steeper hike, the Condor Gulch Trail from the trailhead to the Overlook, only two miles round-trip. At the Overlook I met a couple from Walnut Creek and a young American woman living in Tel Aviv. We ate lunch together, sharing stories about nature and birds. (It turns out that Israel is a great birding destination.) The couple had seen condors the evening before from the campground and explained where to meet at sunset to see them again.
After lunch I meandered a little farther on the trail, admiring in silence the towering cliffs and volcanic rock formations. Turkey vultures flew in and out of view above the tallest pinnacles. Then I saw it. A soaring bird much larger than the vultures with white on its underside. A condor! It only appeared for a few seconds. I grabbed my bridge camera with its 600mm zoom (my good telephoto lens was still in my pack.) It appeared again for a few seconds and I took some quick, what I call, panic shots. It disappeared again. Then I waited. And waited. And waited. My good camera poised for action. Eventually I gave up and put the camera down to pack up for the hike home. At that moment two condors soared right overhead, like low-flying aircraft, darkening the sky with their nearly ten foot wingspan.
There are only 160 condors in all of California and about 27 are in Pinnacles. As you probably know, during the 20th century, their population was decimated by poaching, lead poisoning and habitat destruction. The few remaining condors were captured and became a part of a captive breeding project. In the 1990’s, they began to be introduced back into the wild.
Back at the campground that evening, I joined others at sunset to watch the arrival of condors taking advantage of the last updrafts from the sun’s dwindling heat. Above the hill behind the campground they soared acrobatically, being lit by the sun’s last rays.