Pinnacles

Pinnacles National Park: have you seen it? It doesn’t lie far from the San Francisco Bay Area, but to visit is to step into another world, where enormous birds straight out of prehistory ride air currents through rock palisades, where stars wheel at night above the shadows of oaks, where coyotes slide through the winter grass with the majesty of wolves. I only visited for three days, and I managed to hike nearly every trail in the park, but I left feeling like I could have spent weeks there, clambering through rock mazes and exploring trackless valleys, and still would have found new mysteries to investigate. America’s newest national park is not huge, but in its diversity of life, in its allure as a playground, in its intoxicating geologic narrative, it is boundless.

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When I climbed into the High Peaks, I was struck by the castle-like ridges. The landscape was almost reminiscent of my trekking adventures in Nepal, except instead of rounding the bend to find brightly-painted little tea houses, I was hiking among herculean citadels. It was architecture too rugged to have been built by man. Hawks, and not humans, call those ramparts home.

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The forests captured my imagination, too. Oak trees, shed of leaves, twisted skyward like vasculature exposed. Grey pines stood like ghosts between the rocks.

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The Pinnacles rise up within the Gabelan Range. In Spanish “Gavilan” means hawk, and it is a mountain range aptly named. Red-tailed hawks, kestrels, golden eagles, and nearly a dozen other raptor species nest in the park every year. The Pinnacles see the country’s highest density of nesting prairie falcons. And, most fantastically, the park is the only NPS participant in the California Condor Recovery Program. Within the park, 32 of these bizarre, endangered animals—vestiges of a bygone earthly epoch—fly free. You can’t come expecting to see one—one visitor has returned twenty times to the park and has never seen a condor, a ranger told us. But our first day in the High Peaks, we stopped in our tracks to watch a solitary condor—its wingspan nearly 10 feet across—swoop low overhead. It was about as transcendent an experience as if a pterodactyl had risen out of the fossil record and graced us with an appearance.

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That’s a California Condor up there.  No big deal.

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A professional condor tracker.  I’m going to go ahead and call that device a “condorometer.”

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Condor tracking equipment

The park draws the eye upward to the strange and mammoth handiwork of erosion, but it also contains networks of talus caves, where bats nap and where waterfalls carve caverns into the soft rock. I didn’t get any good pictures of the caves (too dark!), but we also explored several tunnels carved out by the CCC back in the early days of Pinnacle National Monument.

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Seussian formations stopped me in my tracks at every turn along the High Peaks trail. The rock is volcanic, formed by cataclysmic eruptions from a volcano that is now removed from the Pinnacles by nearly 200 miles, thanks to plate tectonics. Time, wind, and water have carved away at the ash and conglomerate, leaving behind towers and palisades, angles and shadows, that for all of their grandeur, represent a fleeting moment in geologic history.

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Climbers flock to the rock formations here. If you run out of trails to hike, follow the carabineer climbing signs and explore upward, instead (with the appropriate gear and experience, of course).

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Of course, no trip to a grand and sweeping landscape is complete without some attention paid to the little things, too. I am certain that a person could spend several lifetimes among the Pinnacles studying the bright lichen communities and still not know it all. If nothing else, the colors could occupy your imagination for a good long while. And to think what wildflower season might look like here!

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Pinnacles now ranks among my favorite national parks. It isn’t particularly remote, and even during our winter visit, the lower trails were thronged with visitors—mostly local families from Soledad and Hollister. But part of the appeal of Pinnacles lies in the interplay between the human and the wild, from the packs of Spanish-speaking little girls moving through the talus caves by the light of their cell phones to the condor reintroduction program, from the vestiges of landscape alteration (a reservoir, an RV campground) to the park’s successful efforts to bring back the red-legged frog from the edge of disappearance and back into the oak-shaded waterways of this sanctuary.   I’ve been mulling that balance, and what it means.  Writing poetry usually terrifies me, but I did come away from the Pinnacles with a new poem in my notebook:

 

Pinnacles

 

In the place where we

send signal smoke

rising beside jeeps

and into the winter constellations,

raccoons yowl in the near trees

and waddle off with whole bags of

marshmallows.

 

We saw a coyote across the road

as resplendent and quick

as fire in the grass

and later

followed a trail

of diarrheal spatters

left like breadcrumbs

by an animal that ate a thing

it shouldn’t have.

 

We damage.

 

But also

in those tall pinnacles

I wandered off trail

into a green glen

where a junco sat

and cared very little about me

at all.

There are frogs in the scant creeks under

the dry rocks.

They live their whole lives

without seeing us

or we, them.

 

And this morning

above the valley a

condor

with wings as wide as night

glided low

above my head

all splay-feathered

and swift on the

charging thermals

and he vanished

into the sky

with no backward glance.

 

In less than an hour

he can fly from here

to the sea

where the blown salt

mixes with airstreams

from Japan

where the network

of roads

and shining cites

must seem so

small

and inconsequential

from his vantage.

 

He does not want your

unwatched marshmallows

he wants your dead

hot

and opened,

turgid with the juice of land

still wild.

 

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To learn more about the California Condor Recovery Program, check this out.

To plan a visit to Pinnacles, head to the National Park’s website here.

It’s not a bad idea to brush up on your geology before visiting. Check it out.

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