Millions of years ago …
Last weekend I crossed another national park off my bucket list, but I did so with a frozen shoulder and a distracted mind. I still relished the experience, but with my Vincy and La Soufrière on my mind, and in a place that mostly looks as prehistoric as when it was formed, I was continually reminded that nature can be dangerous yet beautiful; unpredictable yet unwavering; deceptively calm yet molten; mercurial though immutable; and most of all, complex, just like a good friendship.
I have much to do and too little optimal time, so this post will be briefer than I would typically do for this type of trip. We decided on the visit to Pinnacles National Park less than a week before we took off. None of our other regular hiking friends could make it so it was just JT and I. Pinnacles National Park is about 4 ½ hours’ drive from our location. We left Friday evening and returned Sunday. It was relatively last minute so we decide to hotel it rather than camp. However, having seen the campground (tent ‘cabins’ and regular tent camping) on our hike, we’ll likely return to camp. This was a weekend worthy of celebrating National Park Week which started Saturday, April 17th and will end April 25th. Today, Thursday April 22nd, is Earth Day 💚🌎. Special note, I was born on a Thursday 😁.
What first piqued my interest in Pinnacles was its caves. I’ve explored caves in a couple other US states, in Barbados, and Cuba, so I was eager to explore these. Unfortunately on this trip we could not go through the caves. Usually, the caves are partially or fully closed to the public at different times of the year to protect its wildlife (e.g. Townsend’s big eared bat), but this time it was because of COVID-19 concerns. Fortunately there is much, much more to see and experience at Pinnacles. Nature is fascinating. Here are some interesting facts about Pinnacles:
- Chalon and Mutsun Indians lived around what now constitutes the park and used its resources. The Chalon lived west of Pinnacles; the Mutsun north and east. They were hunter-gatherers who stayed within Pinnacles in short stints. No archaeological evidence of permanent residences has been found to date.
- Spanish missionaries and their diseases almost wiped out these tribes.
- The spires, ramparts and other rocks that are central to the park, are volcanic rhyolite, not sandstone.
- The rocks are embedded with volcanic glass.
- The ‘caves’ are actually canyons or gorges into which mammoth boulders (JT and I coined that) that fell into the canyons to create roofs.
- The volcano which split and created Pinnacles, is believed to have originated some 195 miles southeast of the park’s current location, in Lancaster California (about 38 miles from my home). (So I left where I currently reside and travelled 195 miles north, to explore a place that used to be just 38 miles from me. Reminds me of when I flew from Christ Church in Barbados and landed in Christchurch, New Zealand).
- The park lies along the San Andreas Fault.
- The rocks as they appear today were shaped over millions of years by erosion caused by water, wind, and weather.
- Pinnacles’ biota includes thousands of species of flora, fauna, and lichen. Several of them are endemic to Pinnacles and surrounds (e.g. Pinnacles riffle beetle, Gabilan slender salamander). Several are also classified as Endangered (e.g. California condor), Threatened (California red-legged frog), or California Species of Special Concern (e.g. Long-eared owl).
- Over 160 species of birds have been recorded in the park since 1908, including Wild Turkey (the bird not the bourbon) and California Condor. We saw several species during our hikes, the only one I could identify was the woodpecker (but don’t ask exactly which ones because there are about 8 species). True and funny story – while hiking the Bench Trail/South Wilderness Trail, we heard what sounded like turkeys gobbling. Soon after a couple of hikers approached us and as they passed one of them said that there were a couple of turkeys back there (pointing the direction in which we were heading). I took that literally. JT thought the two people were the ones gobbling like turkeys. Guess who was right. Look for the evidence in the photos 😆.
- Pinnacles’ diverse species also include over 48 mammal species; some 400 species of bees (highest density/unit area on earth); 70 butterfly species; 14 snake species (we saw one), around 290 lichen; 50 shrub species; and some 90 wildflowers commonly found in the park.
- Pinnacles was established as a National Monument by presidential proclamation in 1908. It was declared a national park in 2013. So though it has had protected status for over a century, it is still one of the US’ youngest national parks (Yellowstone, the oldest, was established in 1872). Pinnacles, with is 26,000 acres, is the 59th of 63 national parks.
- The Civilian Conservation Corp worked at Pinnacles from 1933 – 1942, building the first lookout station, miles of trails, the current Nature Center at Bear Gulch, and more (NPS, 2021; Sandra Keith, Western National Parks Association, 2004).
- There is no hardened road that connects the west side of the park to the east side, but it’s possible to do a thru hike. That’s the plan for a future visit.
Initially our plan was to hike Saturday and Sunday, then do a local hike on Monday to complete our trifecta. What we ended up doing was two hikes on Saturday (around 9 ¾ miles) and one on Sunday (4 ½ miles).
Hike 1 – From Visitor Center via Bench, Sycamore, Moses Spring and Bear Gulch Trails to Bear Gulch Reservoir
Hike 2 – Bench Trail & South Wilderness Trail
Hike 3 – Balconies Cliff (with parts of Old Pinnacles and Balconies Cave Trails)