Thursday, December 24, 2015

Camping at the Pinnacles National Park

Dates: Camping is available year-round.  I camped there on December and April.
Place: Pinnacles National Park (eastern entrance), Paicines, California
Coordinates: 36.49141, -121.146351

The past year has been my Pinnacles year. And it took me as long to post all my of my Pinnacles hikes here too. This has also bee the first year I had camped at the Pinnacles, although I hiked there many times before.  This post is sort of a wrap-up for the year, focusing on my camping experience there. Today is exactly one year from the first time I had arrived at this park to stay for the night.

I have visited the Pinnacles National park many times before, yet never camped there until last year. And why would I, if it's only two hours drive from my home. But when I started planning my group hike camping trip I figured I should test that campground in person before I take people there. By now I have camped there three times, once in December and twice in April. Twice I camped alone, at the family campground area, and the last time I camped with the group at the group camp area.

On December 24, Christmas Eve, I was driving Papa Quail's little hybrid to the Pinnacles. Right after I passed Tres Pinos, at about 9:00 pm, I got a phone call. Thinking that Papa Quail who stayed at home with the chikas had needed to ask me something, I pulled over and took the call. It wasn't Papa Quail, but regardless of the caller identity, I soon found myself in a predicament: the road shoulders that looked perfectly firm from the road had turned out to be a mud trap. I had sank pretty deep and couldn't get out. It took nearly 2 hours before the tow truck showed up and put me back on my wheels on the road (The tow truck driver told me that sinking by the shoulders on that road is one of the most common calls he get.)

Take home lesson: If you drive at night on CA-25 from Hollister to the Pinnacles in winter, don't pull over to the shoulders. 
Bottom line: It was almost midnight when I finally arrived at the Pinnacles campground and found a spot. It was very dark and very cold, and I had to put up a brand new tent that I had purchased just a day before and had no time to open and study at home.

Acorn Woodpecker, December 25, 2014
After the tent was set I made a quick dash to the restroom and nearly had a heart attack when a large animal with wide eyes that shone brightly in the beam of my head light emerged from the vegetation. It was a large buck with a full rack of antlers and he was staring me down. I moved carefully with my back to the building wall and slid into the restroom. When I got out the deer was no longer there but my heart was still racing. I made it quickly back to the tent and took a long while to fall asleep despite my fatigue.
California Quail, male, December 25, 2014
I woke up to a chilly morning and a noisy and very merry choir all around me. I recognized the familiar acorn woodpecker's knocks and rusty door hinge calls, the quail's bottle cork-pooling, the chilling call of a red-tailed hawk, and othed song birds  did not recognize by ear.
Later that day, after finishing my hike to the Pinnacles Shoulders I sat at the campground and watched these birds at their activities.
Varied Thrash, December 25, 2014
It was very cold that night. I had brought the needed equipment and so had a comfortable night sleep but the cold spell of that week had deterred my hiking group from signing up for a camping trip in January. (Needless to say, the planned January date had a wonderful, ambient weather).

So my planned Pinnacles group camping trip got pushed back to April. A week before the group trip I came once more to camp at the park and do some more trail preparation. This time cold was not an issue at all. The main problem was to find a vacancy. April is the busiest time in that campground and I had not reserved a spot. Thank to last minute cancellations I was able to find a spot for two nights and had a very good time hiking and camping.
I was very happy to meet  more quails :-)
California Quail, male and female, April 9, 2015
The quails of the Pinnacles NP are all over the campground, seemingly unhindered by the human activity there. Even the normally shy females were out and about.
California Quail, female, April 9, 2015
 My first hike that visit, to the Balconies via Chalone Creek, I had finished at sunset. By the time I made it to the campground there was barely any light left. But that's the time the Indian tobacco opens up, and I strained my camera to get a photo of this pretty flower.
Indian Tobacco (Nicotiana quadrivalvis), April 8, 2015
The campground was at full occupancy. On my second day I realized than many campers simly enjoyed hanging out in the campground, playing ball and other games, riding their bike, drinking and eating, or going for a swim at the swimming pool that operates in the campground during spring and summer. Not everyone is into hiking, but the campground itself offers ample chances to encounter wildlife, so their's no need to go far for tha.
And it is a birding heaven.
I returned from my High Peaks Trail with enough daylight to spare so I walked over to the visitor center area and checked out the local residents.
Western Bluebird, April 9, 2015
As the light faded the vultures started circling down, pulling home to their roost from the skies all over. 
Turkey Vultures fly-in, April 9, 2015
Their roost - a large pine just over the ranger's residence, soon filled up with turkey vultures. They like to sleep in colonies like that. I didn't get close enough to smell them but I can imagine.
Turkey Vultures roosting for the night, April 9, 2015
The campground at the Pinnacles NP is very family friendly. While only few spots offer relative privacy, there are a number of separate loops that give the impression of several small adjacent campgrounds and not of a huge tent city. There are quarter-operated showers by the swimming pool, but only two stalls. I didn't bother. There is also a campers store that carries essentials (such as beer) and a friendly, helpful staff both at the store and at the visitor center. And there is the swimming pool, too. It is a very good place for families and beginner campers to start at.

On the following week I was back at the Pinnacles campground - this time in the group camp area. The major drawback there is that is has a single restrooms facility for the entire group area. Realizing that I had booked the group site that was closest to the restrooms. Having some very young kids in the group, as well as some beginner campers, that choice turned out to be a very wise one.
Also - the drinking water tap was in our site. Very convenient for us. Less convenient to the neighboring groups who had to come over to fill their containers, then haul it all the way back to their site. Conclusion - better do the homework before reserving a campsite. Particularly when other people's convenience is in consideration.

It was fairly hot when we were there and on the second day we finished our hike with enough time for the families to go to the pool and take a refreshing swim. I preferred to stay at the campsite by myself and enjoy a cold beer. I also enjoyed the visit of a wild turkey pair in the neighboring camp site.
Wild Turkey, male in courtship, April 13, 2015
There were just two of them. The female was walking to and fro, seemingly uninterested in the show that the male put up for her. The poor dude fluffed all his feathers, spread his tail, puffed his chest and wiggles his wattles, but the girl kept her back to him, slowly walking away. There were there the next day too. It's good to see a stable couple like that.
Wild Turkey, female, unimpressed. April 13, 2015
But the prized sighting at the Pinnacles NP is always the California Condor. Since the Pinnacles have been selected as a release site for these majestic birds the park was promoted from National Monument to a National Park status. Every time I go there I keep checking the sky for them.
And so it was that I was lying on the bench alone with my beer when the condor swooped over my, quite low. I yelped and run to the car to fetch my camera. By the time I had it on the condor had already gained altitude. But still - a condor! 
California Condor, April 8, 2015,
I am sure to visit the Pinnacles again soon. I also plan to camp there again, and with my family. I have no doubt my chikas will have a blast there.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Bonus Hike: The Pinnacles South Wilderness Trail

Date: April 10, 2015
Place: Pinnacles National Park, Paicines, California
Coordinates: 36.482288, -121.162274
Length: about 6 miles round trip
Level: moderate (because of rugged trail condition in some places).

I woke up on the final day of my solo prep trip to the Pinnacles with plenty of time before having to go home and no more 'must do' trails. It was a wonderful opportunity to explore the Pinnacles' more peripheral areas. I selected the South Wilderness Trail and after breaking camp I packed everything in the car and drove to the trailhead.
My hike of the South Wilderness Trail as captured by my GPS
I parked at the Peaks View Picnic Area and looked for the Bench Trail, which connects the parking lot with the South Wilderness Trailehead. I crossed the Chalone Creek back and forth before finding my trail adjacent to the paved road. It was early in April and the creek was already dry.
Chalone Creek
It was obvious, though, that water was running there not that long ago. Some of that moisture was still under the pebbles and supporting a nice spring bloom right there on the creek bed.
Yellow Pincushion (Chaenactis glabriuscula)
The segment of the Bench Trail connecting the Peaks View area and the South Wilderness Trail is less than a third of a mile. There is much to see on along that short segment, though. Particularly in springtime.
Woolly Bluecurls (Trichostema lanatum)
The gray pine is the dominant tree in the Pinnacles NP.  Previous years' cones collect under the trees, adding nice texture to the grassy ground.

Butterflies were everywhere, enjoying the fantastic bloom in ways more practical than mine. Sometimes they even stood still for a second and posed.
Painted Lady
The moon, a waning gibbous, was up. A week later the skies were completely dark and I had the pleasure of sharing my fascination with the stars and constellations with my hiking group.

A cluster of scarlet buglers grows by the intersection with the South Wilderness Trail. These common penstemons were just beginning their spring bloom.
Scarlet Bugler (Penstemon centranthifolius)
I started down the South Wilderness Trail only to stop after a few yards to appreciate the massive oak trees that grow from the valley floor. They were all shining with new spring foliage and glowed in the bright sunlight.
A deciduous oak (Quercus sp.) stretching after its winter sleep
The bright sun was very potent that day. It soon got very hot and I was hopping from one shady spot to another, thanking the trees that cast them. In between shades - bushes of silver lupines and patches of California poppies.
Silver Bush Lupine (Lupinus albifrons)
And suddenly - a creek.  Grassy Canyon. And it was running yet, and there were tadpoles in the stream.
Tadpoles in Grassy Canyon Creek
There is no bridge there, but the creek is narrow enough to jump across.
 I continued south, going in and out of tree groves. Relishing the shade, enjoying the bright light. A lot of hyperactive butterflies flying around me.
Western Tiger Swallowtail
The hot sun brought the lizards out. There was a lizard on every rock, literally. The one in the photo below did a few warning push ups before slinking off to the other side of the log.
Western Fence Lizard
And more butterflies. Many, many more butterflies.
Painted Lady butterfly visiting a larkspur (Delphinium sp.)
The South Wilderness Trail goes along the Grassy Canyon. The vegetation there - riparian. Meaning the densest and tallest grow by the creek itself, where water is not as limiting as on the slopes.

The day grew hotter by the minute. As I progressed south the trees seemed fewer too. The air shimmered in the heat and I dripped sweat on the trail. The golden California Poppies looked like little flames burning on their narrow stems.
California Poppy (Eschscholzia california)
Hot and getting hotter. April is a busy month at the Pinnacles, but there was no evidence of that on the South Wilderness Trail. I saw no one else on that trail. It was just me and the flutter-by butterflies. And ants to. Many ants.
And lots of pretty wildflowers.
Purple Clarkia (Clarkia purpurea)
I was getting closer to the end of the trail. Having walked ceaselessly for two hours I was ready to take a break and I planned to do so at the turn-around point.
The trail curved into the creek bed and disappeared. It wasn't the end, I was pretty sure about it. Not year, anyway.
California Golden Violet (Viola pedunculata)
The creek is wide but the running water was confined to a narrow strip. I kept walking south on the dry pebbles that made most of the creek's width. Soon I saw three rocks piled on top of each other. And further down - another such pillar. Someone had marked the trail. I followed the rock signs until I picked the regular trail again, a bit further south.
White Skipper Butterfly
One more curve. The trail cut across on the hillside and all of a sudden I was approaching a fence and a sign marking the boundary of the park.
I reached the end of the trail and the turn-around point. I was hot and dripping sweat. I found a large oak with a low-hanging branch and sat down to rest and eat.
I was completely alone. There was no sign or sound of any other humans in that area so I allowed myself a privilege usually kept for males and let the light breeze on my skin.

I wanted was to lie down and take a nap but I needed to start going back. I got to my feet and slung the backpack on my shoulders and started north on the same trail I arrived by.
Cobweb Thistle (Cirsium occidentale var. occidentale) 
I walked more briskly, not stopping as frequently as I did on the way south. Some sights, however, become apparent only when seen from the opposite direction.
Black Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)
About half way back I was walking on an open stretch of the trail when two hikers emerge from around the curve ahead of me. In a flash I spun around and reverted back to the Clark Kent mode. I turned around in time to smile at the hikers. They were an elderly couple and they were smiling politely back at me. We engaged in a pleasant chat that involved exchanging trail experiences and interesting wildlife encounters, and then we went on our separate ways: they south and me north.
I remained decent for the rest of the hike.
Side-bloched Lizard
I didn't see any more people until I had reached the Bench Trail again. Butterflies, however, were still in abundance.
Common Buckeye
I needed to be home in time to take the elder chika someplace and I dreaded having to cross San Jose in rush hour, so I picked up my pace.
I didn't want to stop for anything, anymore, but I cannot resist a pretty flower.  
Blue Witch Nightshade (Solanum umbelliferum)
Still, I made it back on time to the Peaks View Picnic Area, and even had a few minutes to spare just for sitting down and relaxing before taking off to the road back home.
The Pinnacles High Peaks

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Easy Recreation: Hiking Around Laguna Niguel Lake

Date: November 23, 2015
Place: Laguna Niguel County Park, Laguna Niguel, California
Coordinates: 33.551960, -117.709510
Length: 1.9 miles
Level: easy

The chikas are off school the entire week of Thanksgiving - perfect time to go on a longer road trip. This year we traveled south, and not just on Nature discovery: we have friends that we wanted to see and also a 2-years old promise to keep. But with and around all that, Nature was still a top priority.
one of the places we visited was the lovely little park of Laguna Niguel Lake. In the town of Laguna Niguel, north of San Juan Capistrano, there is a creek called Sulphur Creek and that creek is dammed to make a small reservoir. That reservoir is a place for boating, fishing and picnics (very nice picnic areas!) and it is also surrounded by an easy and pretty hiking/biking trail, just under 2 miles long.
Our trail around Laguna Niguel Lake as captured by Papa Quail's GPS
We arrived at the park at mid-morning and immediately embarked on the trail, not before promising the chikas a mac n' cheese picnic.
The trail goes south on a pavement, cutting through a nice, green lawn that had me raise my brows. I do hope they kept that lawn green with recycled water.
Laguna Niguel Park Lawn
Most of the trees there are introduced species, with Eucalyptus being the dominant in that area. The woodpeckers didn't seem to mind.
Nuttals' Woodpecker
Following the offspring's Manual, the chikas started wondering aloud how long and difficult would the hike be. Before I had the time to come up with an appropriate response we were at the lake side and the chikas got distracted and forgot their lines.
Laguna Niguel Lake, Dam side, view southeast. 
A few sleepy ducks on the water swam away as we approached. One stayed behind to make sure we're no trouble.
Ruddy Duck, male
The pavement ended, but the trail continues on a convenient, packed dirt road. The lake on the right, the hill side on the left, and plenty of sunshine from above.

I considered that hill slope foursome time. Behind the hill crest there are houses that are outside the photo frame. Some of the slope is stark - I can almost see the mudslide with the next torrent. Behind - a mishmash of large bushes/small trees from many parts of the world, thrown together to mix withe locals to form a functioning mosaic, home to bush birds, rodents and reptiles.

The trail soon delves into the bushes. Of the local residents I noted the two that were blooming like spring. The California Buckwheat:
California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum)
And the Coyote Brush:
Coyote Brush (Baccharis pilularis)
Papa Quail and the elder chika lagged behind. Papa Quail was trying to capture some of those evasive bush birds. Birding sure takes a lot of patience!
House Finch, male
I admit that I don't have that much patience. Particularly when younger chika complains aloud that only her sister gets to find cool birds. Then she points at the nearby bush and I quickly click my camera in that direction.
Sometimes it's luck over patience ...
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Papa Quail catches up with is. He got tired of waiting for the Little Brown Birds (LBB) to come out and display themselves and settled for a lizard.
Western Fence Lizard
The lake was barely visible behind the bushes, but Papa Quail managed to find a gap and photograph the cormorant that was standing there, drying its wings in the sun.
Double-crested Cormorant
That day the sky was completely clear and blue. Clear of clouds, that is. The raptors circled above head.
Red-tailed Hawk
When we cleared the bush part of the trail the lake was already behind us and we were walking along Sulphur Creek.  We walked right into the campground area and crossed the creek on the low bridge there, starting our slow return on the northwest side of the loop.
Sulphur Creek
In the creek - a couple of mallards, some coots and a single moorhen. I don't get to see moor hens all that often, but on that trail we saw several. That bird is now called Gallinula (little chicken), but I like Moorhen better.
Shortly we were at the lakeshore again - on the southwestern side. From this point of view the houses on the hill are a visible reminder that we were hiking in the middle of a large urban area.

 I quickly dropped that thought when I noticed the hummingbird. Papa Quail noticed it too, and we were all standing there for sometime, appreciating this cutie. 
Black-chinned Hummingbird, male
Eventually he flew off, but another one made appearance instead:
Allen's Hummingbird, male
The western shore of the lake has the boat launch and a long line of picnic tables by the water. The placement of these is perfect for a nice view of the lake and its dwellers.

The hill on the western side of the lake was lower and seemed less interesting than the hill on the eastern side of the park. A line of Eucalyptus trees barred the higher landscape from view, but a sole tree in front provided a much more interesting sight: it was full of great-tailed grackles.
Not so visible at this wide angle, but trust me - they're there. 
While I tried to capture the greater picture Papa Quail, as always, was getting straight to the point.
Great-tailed Grackle, male
We continued on. As we approached the eucalyptus trees the chikas noticed a cottontail rabbit. It noticed them too and darted into the trees. Papa Quail tried to get a picture but gave up and moved on. The younger chika followed him, but her older sister was not ready to give up. She has a very sharp eyesight. Promptly, she located the rabbit and pointed it out to me.
I didn't see it. She dieted me again and again, until my eyes finally made out its shape.
That's the best I could get of that rabbit. It's duck season. 
The west shore trail is higher than the lake lake water, and the birds on its shore stayed put as we walked above them. There were quite a few of them, too, walking around the shoreline, or sitting in the sun.
Spotted Sandpiper
A bit of action off shore: a Western Grebe catches lunch.
Western Grebe
It was a warm morning and we walked slowly and lazily. I wanted to join the sleepy geese on the shoreline.
Canada Geese
I didn't lie down on the shore, but the snowy egret did. I don't think I ever saw an egret lie down like that before.
Snowy Egret
A group of mallards and coots huddled in the shade of the eucalyptus trees. A large, white bird stood erect at a distance, shaded still: a great egret.

A closer look at the great egret. It's a common enough bird, but I'm always happy to see it.
Even in the shade.
Great Egret
There is a small boat launch area on the west shore and the trail ends there. To complete the loop we had to walk along the paved road.
Laguna Niguel Lake's dam
Before the chikas figured out it was already lunch time we were back on the lawn, walking to the parking lot and the picnic area. We had a relaxed picnic lunch (the chikas got their mac n' cheese) and we moved on south to San Juan Capistrano.

The trail around Laguna Niguel Lake is under 2 miles and easy, comfortable to walk and fully accessible to strollers/wheelchairs. It is the perfect place to stop for a relaxed walk and for bird watching.