Pinnacles National Park
February 24, 2013
When I moved to the Bay Area, I did so with the intent of seeing as many birds as possible. And I absolutely could not miss the chance to see one of the rarest birds in the world: the California Condor, living free in its original habitat. By all rights, it should be extinct due to poaching, poisoning, and habitat destruction. But thanks to the people who captured the remaining 22 birds in 1987, it was saved by captive breeding programs and now about 226 of these birds live in the wild. And one of the best places to see these birds is just two hours away from my current home, in (newly-designated) Pinnacles National Park.
We set out onto the trail at about 8 am, when the parking lot was still empty. My roommate and I had the trail to ourselves as we explored the open section of Bear Gulch cave, which is home to breeding Townsend’s big-eared bats at some times of the year. It had quite a few tight squeezes; I am a pretty thin person, but at 5’9” (and carrying a backpack of camera gear) I certainly had to squeeze my way under some of the outcroppings. The effort was well-worth it, though - just make sure to bring a flashlight if you go, as they are required in the caves!
When we left the cave and doubled back to Bear Gulch to begin the long hike High Peaks Trail. It was 1400+ feet of elevation gain along the way, but the sights were well worth it. We passed the restroom hut near Scout Peak and continued along the ridge, lamenting the lack of condors thus far. But there was no arguing that the view alone was well worth the long grind up the hill. We stopped at an outcropping to rest and take photos, and as we settled in, I just happened to glance up at the right moment.
"Look up, look up, LOOK UP!" I hissed. A huge California Condor glided right over our heads - so close that I couldn’t even fit it in the frame of my camera lens.
My mind was blown. The condor continued past us and even its massive hulk was soon dwarfed by the surrounding cliffs. It circled around, gliding along the mid-morning thermals, spiraled high into the sky, and disappeared over the ridge. We sat in stunned disbelief for several moments before uncontrollable flailing took over. Within minutes, another condor (confirmed by the different wing tag) came around, and we were treated to a repeat showing.
Running high on excitement, we eventually set off along the trail again, and soon ran into a tech using radio telemetry to find the condors. At first, she thought we had seen turkey vultures, which were circling the area in spades. It was an understandable assumption - from a distance, the two are easily confused, and in a place where people flock to see the condors, many park visitors mis-identify them in their excitement. But I was able to find the photos on my camera, and not only confirm the sighting, but also provide the tag number for reference. (We did not notice the second tag until we got home.)
When we continued on, the trail became more busy and more strenuous. In some places, it is nothing more than rough ladder steps carved into the rock. Thankfully, there is at least a rail to help hikers up and down the steep, narrow steps. As we crossed the peaks and dropped back down Condor Gulch Trail towards the parking lot, I could feel the 4-hour, 6.7-mile hike wearing at me. The trail became more and more crowded, and when we reached the parking lot, we could see that it was completely full and rangers were sending people far back down the road to another lot. Lesson learned: arrive early!
I can’t even describe the elation I felt at seeing such a rare, majestic bird, so close, out in the wild. It is truly an honor. The hike is long and exhausting, but it is absolutely worth it. Even if you don’t see any condors, the views alone are unparalleled. I came out of this hike with a CF card full of reference photos, and a head full of artistic inspiration. Do yourselves a favor, and take the time to visit and support this amazing place!