Preservation and Inspiration at Pinnacles

By Margaret Young

Our expectations for Pinnacles National Park were not high. While my husband and I always talked about stopping to explore whenever we trekked down US 101, it always seemed like a little too much bother for the potential reward. Pinnacles is known for its rocks, birds and heat — the latter frequently overwhelming the attractions of the former.  While spotting one of Pinnacles' twenty or so California condors is a crapshoot — the birds are just as likely to be out of the park as in it — the heat is pretty much a guarantee nine months of the year.

We aren’t the only people to overlook Pinnacles National Park. Despite being a mere 80 miles away the San Francisco Bay area, Pinnacles maintains a certain obscurity, even with its bump up from monument to park in 2013. Yosemite sees more visitors in a month than Pinnacles does in an entire year. Even Channel Islands National Park, accessible only by boat, gets more visitors. 

In the end, it was convenience that got us there. We went to Pinnacles because, now that we had a kid, we didn’t want to do a lot of driving. It would be relatively cheap and easy to camp a couple of nights, and we would see some caves, rocks, and maybe some wildlife. Then we’d drive some back roads and head over to the reliably spectacular beauty of Big Sur. So, late one spring day, we left our Bay Area home and headed south, arriving in the late afternoon. Yes, it was hot. The campground was a large and nearly empty field with some oaks at the edges. Surrounding us were the California dry golden hills and oaks. There was, however, a small camp store that sold ice and even a little swimming pool. We settled in, setting the tent in the little bit of shade we could find. After being refreshed by a quick dip in the pool, the long golden light of late afternoon seemed more soothing. We lit our tiny propane stove to cook dinner.  

Then, as the shadows lengthened into twilight, there was a cacophony of squawking and rustling, hundreds of black birds swirled near us and above us, rising on the day’s last thermals. I heard birds, rustling foragers, frogs, and insects. Our field and trees weren’t much to look at, but they were alive.  When I walked out in the night without a flashlight, I found myself in a ghostly starlit landscape, the Milky Way expansive and streaming above me. I realized that for the first time in a very long time that I heard no cars, no machinery, no electricity.

Bear Gulch Trail,  photo  by Eugene Zelenko /  CC BY .

Bear Gulch Trail, photo by Eugene Zelenko / CC BY.

The next morning, we made an early start on Bear Gulch trail, a short hike that had striking boulders, a cave that harbored Townsend’s Big-eared bats and a marvelous view. It was also one of the few trails at Pinnacles not marked “strenuous.” I could see lichen growing on the boulders, a sign of good air-quality — lichen had been one of the those things I took for granted as a child, but that I now seldom saw at home. We kept walking. We passed one person and then there was no one but us, making our way through a sheltered tranquil landscape of the valley floor along the Bear Gulch Stream, toward the eponymous cave where the bats lived. It was unlikely we would see one; the cave is closed when the bats are nesting. The day was already warm and the dark coolness of the talus cave a welcome respite. We walked slowly alongside the stream. We made our way through the shadows, and heard a splash. Even in the dark, I caught a glimpse of reddish amphibian legs. “It’s that frog,” my husband said. “That endangered one.” It was, indeed, a California Red-Legged Frog, made famous by Mark Twain as that jumping frog of Calaveras County, and now of Bear Gulch. We climbed higher--the stream had turned into a small series of falls. Then there was a rustle of air, a flapping, as something went skittering by.

“A bat!” cried my daughter.  A Townsend’s bat, then, had lingered past the nesting season. I tried to remember the last time when I’d seen two endangered species during a short hike, let alone a single cave — I couldn’t. Quietly elated, we continued to the reservoir with a sense of stepping into an earlier, less damaged world.

Despite its stone ledge, the small reservoir seemed more like a natural pond fringed with stone outcroppings and slender trees. In the water I saw a strange legless salamander-like creature. Below I saw miles of open fields and oak trees. With little but ranch lands near it, Pinnacles had maintained a wildness that I didn’t realize was missing from other places that I’d thought of as “natural”. Under federal protection since 1908, it remained just remote enough that nature had had a chance.

Pleased, hot, and growing tired, we were deeply content with what we’d found — but the park had one more surprise for us. As we walked back from the small visitor’s center in the late afternoon, we passed by a parking lot with a truck, three people and a telescope. We stopped, we looked. The man with the bird scope was there to monitor a group of young condors as part of the ongoing California Condor Recovery Program.  The other two people were like us, park visitors who couldn’t quite believe their luck. I took my turn at the scope. Through it, I saw a ridge with a dead oak about which clustered four condors. They did not, at first, seem remarkably large and then one spread its wings and I saw that its wingspan matched the width of the tree’s outspread branches. It was ridiculously enormous. It was magnificent.

California Condor at Pinnacles National Park,  photo  by Joe Parks /  CC BY .

California Condor at Pinnacles National Park, photo by Joe Parks / CC BY.

There’s rare, there’s endangered and then there’s the California condor. In 1987, it became extinct in the wild as every single wild condor was captured in a desperate attempt to save the species. Loss of habitat, DDT, lead shot, and the species own slow reproduction cycle, producing one egg every two years, had reduced the species to 27 birds. From this dire situation, a great walk back from extinction occurred. Biologists figured out condor reproduction and then doubled reproductive rates. Five years after the last wild condor was captured, two were released back into the wild. Bird by bird, year by year, more were released over a gradually expanding range, including Pinnacles, where 25 years after their near-extinction we saw California condors in all their gargantuan glory. Each condor is numbered and tracked. Lead-free carrion is left out to dilute the lead levels in the birds. The remnants of DDT still results in thin eggshells, making unassisted reproduction a continuing challenge. The goal of the recovery program is to create two self-sustaining populations of condors of 150 birds each, but even when this goal is reached, the program will continue to keep a third of the condors in captivity. They are a critical part of the natural world that we tend, much like we tend and care for our national parks.

It is easy to find reasons to despair; humans have been hard on the Earth. We’ve denuded its forests, slaughtered untold species and now face the terrifying and not fully known consequences of climate change and acidifying oceans. Each day brings grim news--the North American bird population has dropped by 1.7 billion since the 1970s. The mighty African elephant is critically endangered.

Much harder to find, but all the more important because of it, is hope. Pinnacles gives me hope that someday we will live with nature instead of opposition to it. So I look for other animals that we’ve learned to tend instead of destroy and hold on to their recovery; a Galapagos tortoise here, a Giant panda there. California condors remain at the brink, but they are still with us. This grand creature is my private token that maybe, just maybe, we’ll get out of this global man-made mess and some species will too. Truth is, I never expected to see condors in Pinnacles or anywhere. I hadn’t believed they could make it. So, I keep track of condors and hope: 435 and counting; 268 flying free.


Margaret Young is a free-lance writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has previously appeared in Businessweek, the San Jose Mercury News and other publications. She occasionally tweets as Margaret Young @UrbavoresBlog.


Banner photo by Stanislov Sedov / CC BY.