On April 2 we visited Pinnacles National Park, south of San Francisco in the Salinas Valley. Arranged in a 30 mile wide valley around the San Andreas Fault, the landscape was formed by volcanic activity 23 million years ago. The west side of the park is formed of rock that originated almost 200 miles south and was gradually moved north due to the sliding action of the Pacific Plate. The massive tumbled boulders and exposed pinnacles gave the park its name and provide spectacular scenery for visitors. The park is also home to a couple dozen California Condors. Nearly extinct in the 1980s, these magnificent birds with a 9.5 foot wing span are being re-established at the Pinnacles and other places in California and Arizona. The scenery and the allure of the largest flying birds in the US provide ample reason for a visit.
We visited April 2 and it was very hot – this is a great location for a spring visit and not recommended in summer’s heat. We hiked a short 2 mile hike on the East side, which also has the only camping in the park. There are longer trails on both the East and West sides. There are also talus caves on the east side but we did not visit these.
The parking lot at the trail was full so after getting our pass at the visitor’s center at the east gate we took the three-times-per hour shuttle up to the trail head. There are rest rooms at both end of shuttle ride. We were surprised to see wild turkeys looking for crumbs in the parking lot. Golden-mantled ground squirrels scurried about in their stop-and-go way.
We walked up the rocky and crumbling trail, shedding layers as we went. There was a long slightly uphill approach, yielding to numerous steeper switchbacks as we got into the tighter end of the little valley. What appeared to be a seasonal spring split the valley below us. Huge boulders protruded at angles. They were beyond boulders, these were bones of the earth. In their various distinct shapes and poses it was easy to see them as petrified giants; a sixty foot head there with sullen pouting lips, a massive arm over there with mast-height fingers reaching for the sky. These boulders, these bones of the earth presented a different appearance close to the trail. There the shapes were too close to comprehend but the artistic scattering of burnt orange and mustard blotches of lichen were a sophisticated wallpaper of great beauty. And rising in the valley amongst these monstrous stones were the chartreuse splatches of new oak leaves unfurling and the hazy-feathery blue-gray of sugar pines. Above us the vivid blue of cloudless sky with immense condors lazily circling, looking for carrion.
The condors glide far above us, wings spread wide and flat. We see perhaps 4-6 distinct birds at times. The tips are spread like fingers and they turn and glide in wide gyres without perceptible wing motion. Even from far below you get a sense of their majestic size. When they perch on the pinnacles above us their orangey-red bare heads and hooked beaks are distinctive. My sister was able to catch these magnificent photos with her small hiking camera.
There were also many turkey vultures, also black with red heads. However the vultures were generally easy to distinguish because of the smaller size, lack of white on the wings, wings held in a slight v, and their more erratic flight, bouncing and wavering a bit in their glides. I heard no cries from either bird.
At one point during the hike I pulled off the trail for 45 minutes or so. I picked a place hanging over a wide valley and just listened. At first there was no wind, just the barest breeze brushing cool fingers across my skin. There was an occasional hum from a plane far overhead, momentary chattering as hikers moved behind me on the trail, but beyond these disturbances a profound silence broken only twice by the chittering of small birds. The silence across that wide valley was almost a force in itself, a presence and volume that my ears strained to understand.
Sailors are rarely in complete silence. Even in a quiet anchorage boats are noisy places, full of creaks and groans; the piano of taut lines and the hull a drum for the smack of tiny wavelets. The boat is held in place as mild currents stream the water by, in quietude but not true silence. On the edges of oceans there is, in my experience, rarely a truly windless time, and the wind sings its own quiet tune as it skitters over the water. These subtle natural noises are restful and soothing.
The tremendous silence in that valley was a different order of thing. My ears, straining to pick up the tiniest stirring, heard their own blood moving, and perhaps some just-beyond-hearing movements from the valley below. In all that grandeur of silence my ears were noisy with their own biology, or some ineffable music just out of range. The peace was a different order to me, grander than a quiet anchorage, but filling me with a sense of space and hugeness I cannot explain. Then gradually, in breaths and scurries, the wind rose up and moved the leaves and blades and created the slightest of susurrations to fill that vast void. This too was a comfort and a joyfullness to my ears.
Finally the afternoon was ending and we worked our way down the trail again. The silky sandy surface of the trail, studded with jutting rocks was slippery and caused falls and near falls for most of us. Along the side of the trail we encountered a magnificent pine that served as the pantry for the acorn woodpecker family. The woodpeckers, over generations, drill the holes and fill them with acorns. We hurried back to the car to our own pantry where a cold beer and apple slices were waiting.
What a day!