Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Spring in the Pinnacles

April and May are the prime months to visit Pinnacles National Monument, the craggy remains of an ancient volcano that rise out of the Gabilan Mountains in central California, south of the town of Hollister. Last weekend, with the poppies and other wildflowers blooming and the hills a lush green, it was no surprise that the park's campground was at capacity. The weather was in the high 60s, perfect for the two main activities here: hiking and rock climbing. Even with parking lots full, you could still find plenty of solitude along the trails and in quiet moments gazing at the stars in the clear night sky.
Pinnacles is renowned among rock climbers, who love its dramatic outcroppings and sheer walls. The visitor center stocks climbers' guides describing routes. But most people come here to walk the trails and explore the caves and tunnels, many carved from the rock by the Civilian Conservation Corp. during a massive public works project in the 1930s.
A group of friends and I hiked the easy 2.2-mile Moses Spring-Rim Trail Loop, where the only challenge was crouching as we negotiated a few tight spots (with flashlights) in the caves. We came across a small bat taking an afternoon nap (photo at right), apparently part of a colony of Townsend's big-eared bats, which stay in the cave year round, according to park literature.

In recent years, the Pinnacles has become known for a much grander winged creature: the California condor. The park is one of only a few release sites in the U.S. and Mexico of this endangered species, which is the largest of North American land birds. A captive breeding program in the 1980s and 1990s has been successful and it's now common to see condors flying and swooping over the high peaks. Their wingspans can reach 10 feet. Two telescopes are available outside the visitor center to help with close up viewing and rangers are often close by to help with identification (they can easily be mistaken for vultures and ravens).
If you go, however, bring your own binoculars to carry along the trails. And, get to the Pinnacles before mid June when the wildflowers fade and the weather really heats up.

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