Saturday, September 19, 2015

Springtime at the West Pinnacles

Date: April 7, 2015
Place: Pinnacles National Park
Coordinates:  36.492010, -121.209701
Length: 1.5 miles
Level: easy

Our plans for the last spring break were to spend the first half of the week at Carizzo Plain National Monument and the second half in the area of Mount Pinos, southwest of Carizzo Plain. High on our wish list was observing condors at Bitter Creek State Park or otherwise, at Mt. Pinos Area, as both these places are sanctuaries for the reintroduced birds.
As it happened, we fulfilled only the first half of our plan. By the time we arrived at Mt. Pinos (after failing to observe any condors in the Bitter Creek area), we found out that a large weather system was rolling in. Our hopes of sneaking in a short hike were dispelled when a sharp, bitter-cold wind, blew our faces off when we exited the car. We decided that a good vacation need not include unnecessarily braving miserable weather, so we drove off the mountain, wondering where to go next.
Papa Quail suggested terminating our vacation on that day and swinging by the Pinnacles National Park on our way home. Having taken the entire week off already, he proposed to stay the last two days at home with the chikas while I would go somewhere else on my own.
I agreed and soon we were northbound.
It was late in the afternoon when we arrived at the Pinnacles, entering the park from the west. The sun was already low and we had only little daylight time left for a hike. A short hike it would have to be.
We hiked the familiar and always beautiful trail to the Balconies. A quick in and out, without going into the cave or up the Balconies cliffs.
Our hike to The Balconies as captured by Papa Quail's GPS

As always, the first spectacle awaiting us were the pinnacles themselves: those magnificent pillars of volcanic rock, older than the San Andreas Fault itself. The peaks, proud, naked rocks were poking out of a dark-green mantle of pine trees and chaparral bushes that looked lush and healthy. 
Pinnacles, west
Our previous hike to The Balconies, of which I posted here a while ago, had been in August. I was amazed at how different that place looked in April. Even after a whimpy winter. Even after being told by a local ranger that the wildflowers had peaked a month before.
There were lots of flowers everywhere. Some, indeed, were already on the decline, but many others appeared to have just begun their bloom.
Valley Lupine (Lupinus microcarpus var. microcarpus)
Leaving the parking lot, the trail leads onto the hillside, only a few feet high to bypass the large picnic area that's at the trailhead. The slope showed a rich display of vegetation: Between the sparse oaks an pines there were lush annual grasses and weeds and numerous shrubs that were far enough apart to have a cushion shape, yet near one another to provide good cover to rabbits and bush birds from potential predators and eager photographers.
And laced in all that green were numerous colorful wildflowers.
Western Larkspur (Delphinium hesperium ssp. hesperium)
If that was well past the peak bloom, I wish to see it when it is at peak!
Castilleja sp.
Despite the quickly-failing light we took our time going into the Chalone Creek, where The Balconies are. And not just because of me stopping for the wildflowers. As always,
Papa Quail was on the lookout for birds and my elder chika was pointing them to him.
Northern Flicker, western, male
But the prized sighting was way up, high in the sky: a California Condor circling above at high altitude.
California Condor
We arrived at the trail intersection where hikers chose if to go through the cave or up the Balconies. On that day we chose to turn around and go back whence we came.
At that point, Papa Quail was ready to just get to the car and drive off, but he yielded to elder chika who insisted he should photograph the bluebird  she saw.
Western Bluebird, male
And once the camera was out again, the rabbit behind the tree with the bluebird also got immortalized :-)

Because I already photographed all the bigger wildflowers on the way out I was now paying closer attention to the little ones.
Contorted Suncup (Camissonia contorta)

As we were leaving Chalone Creek the setting sun rays were lighting the rocks to their full magical appearance.
The trail leading into Chalone Creek
It is hard to leave a place when it's showing its best. So we lingered some more, until the sunlight faded even more.
A sole oak tree north of the trail
Eventually, however, we had to say goodbye to that beautiful place. I think it was at that time that I decided to go back there on my own on on the days Papa Quail was giving me. I had another excellent reason too: on the following week I had planned to take my hiking group there for a three-day camping trip and although I knew my planned trails well, more preparation is always good.
California Quail, male
We drove off into the sunset. On the following evening I would arrive back at the Pinnacles, at the east side of the park.


  1. short but beautifful hike. The condor is very impressive!

    1. Thanks! Swinging by the Pinnacles West is always an excellent diversion when taking 101 either way :-)

  2. really beautiful place,
    and you DID get to see a condor! great!!
    (and larkspur again :-) )

    1. Seeing condors is a special treat :-) A got to see them several time in the past year, each time it was at the Pinnacles.