Saturday, October 31, 2015

On the Old Volcano's' Shoulders: The Pinnacles Eastern Slope

December 2014

Dates: December 25, 2014 and April 14, 2015
Place: Pinnacles National Park, Paicines, California
Coordinates: 36.494948, -121.172994
Length: about 4.5 miles
Level: Moderate

The Pinnacles High Peaks hike I posted about recently is strenuous and wasn't suitable for my hiking group who are families with children, many of them pretty young. So I settled for taking them up to the mountain's shoulders, from Old Pinnacles half way up the High Peaks Trail and down Condor Gulch Trail.
The first time I hiked this trail was back in December of 2014. I was by myself then, trying out the trails I thought to take my group on. Having only one car at my disposal, I had to hike the entire loop and make it back on foot to Old Pinnacles, where I had started. When I returned with my hiking group we had one car parked by the Bear Gulch Nature Center so we were able to shuttle drivers back to Old Pinnacles to bring up the other vehicles.
The trail between Bear Gulch Nature Center and the Old Pinnacles that I hiked alone in December I wrote about in a separate post. Here I post about the upper, longer segment of that loop trail, and my photos are from both hikes: the one on December 2014 and the one on April, 2015. 

Old Pinnacles to Bear Gulch: The Blue-labeled Trail.
The first part of the trail is a mild walk south along the Chalone Creek. I recently posted about my December hike of this trail segment, but in April it looked very different: it was covered with wildflowers!
Wind Poppy (Papaver heterophyllum), April 2015
Of such a diversity of shapes and colors, it was wonderful to see!
Golden Brodiaea (Triteleia ixioides), April 2015
When I hiked this trail in December I was in a hurry. Last April, with my group, we took our time, walking at and easy pace. I could pay close attention to the flowers and other sights along the trail.
The trail along the Chalone Creek is mild and much of it is shaded by oaks and pines. It is an easy trail to hike, and it is very tempting to simply continue along the creek all the way to the park's visitor center.
Cobwebby Thistle (Cirsium occidentale), April 2015
Looking back, some of the bloom had started already in December. The manzanita shrubs were in bloom then. By April, they were done.
Manzanita (Manzanita sp.), December 2014
After half a mile of easy walking we reached the High Peaks trailhead. Right by a good size patch of the scarlet bugler.
Scarlet Bugler (Penstemon centranthifolius), April 2015
From the first step, the High Peaks Trail proved to be a good workout. In addition, the tree cover disappeared, replaced by chaparral dotted with exposed rocks and scree, and an occasional pine tree.
A Rock Rook, December 2014
The vegetation along the trail was different, but no less beautiful. Early in April, chaparral wildflowers were at peak bloom.
Eastern Mojave Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum), April 2015
But some were already fruiting. In the case of clematis, the fruit is just as beautiful as the flower, if not more.
Chaparral Clematis (Clematis lasiantha), April 2015
We hiked up and up, occasionally stopping for a breather. Each stop I would find something interesting and share it with the group. Like the Pellaea fern, adapted to relative dryness with its thick cuticle, decorated the exposed slope areas.
Coffee Cliffbrake (Pellaea andromedifolia), December 2014
On my December hike I noticed small, red buttresses poking out of the ground underneath the chaparral chamise bushes. I found some close enough to the trail and stooped over for a closer look. They turned out to be budding Indian Warrior plants. By April they were already done with blooming.
Indian Warrior (Pedicularis densiflora), December 2014
he trail switchbacks back and forth along the less exposed north-facing slope. The rock face, wet from preceding rains, was wearing moss and lichen, and sheltering succulent dudleya rosettes.
Lanceleaf (Dudleya lanceolata), December 2014
Many lichen patches were as large as those rosettes.
Lichen, December 2014
The trail slopes for continuous 2 miles. Rock formations that I was looking up to I now was level with.
Rock Rook, December 2014
A grove of oaks shading the trail made me don my sweater in December but provided a welcomed respite from the heat on my April hike with the group.
Oak Passage, December 2014
The trail was leveling off at that point, which was also a welcomed relief for the straining youngsters in our group. I was glad that most weren't too tired to appreciate the colorful display of minerals and lichen on the rocks.
Volcanic Mosaic, December 2014
Up on the mountain's shoulders the trail turns the corner, switching from slope to a gentle meadow. In the most perfect spot in that corner: a single oak and the perfect vista point. It was there that I had my first real break.
Landmark oak, December 2014
To rest, to eat, to breath in the air and to imbibe the wonderful scenery.
View east, December 2014
It was in that spot that we had our group rest stop as well. What followed might have been the same in topography, but very different in appearance.
Upper Meadow, December 2014
And of course it would be. In the end of December, the entire upper meadow was bright green. So green, it made me want to run all over it, performing cartwheels and somersaults. I didn't, of course. And not just because I feared I won't be able to get back on my feet after the first attempt. Getting off the trail is forbidden for a very good reason: it is very damaging to the vegetation and the animals who depend on the health of these plants.
So I only somersaulted mentally :-)
So Green! December 2014
4 months later, on my April hike, the grass was turning yellow and the meadow was dotted with wildflowers. It was also sweltering hot and I felt more like taking a nap rather than performing bad gymnastics.
Mountain Clarkia (Clarkia unguiculata), April 2015
A little further up the trail I back in the Chaparral, and the air filled with the aroma of sage.
High Chaparral, December 2014
We stopped our ascend at the point where the High Peaks Trail meets Condor Gulch Trail. On my solo High Peaks hike I had climbed on the Condor Gulch Trail, but on my December solo hike, as well as on my April group hike, climbing was over. We took the time to rest and to appreciate the field of rock pillars, but then it was time to go down Condor Gulch.
Sitting on a Giant's Shoulders, April 2015
Being an old volcano that had multiple eruptions, the Pinnacles rocks are diverse in their mineral composition, grain size and solidity. As a result, they are also diverse in the rate of their erosion. The rock formations, therefore, are amazingly variable and immensely fascinating and tantalizing to the imagination.
December 2014
 A bit below the trail intersection there is a railed area, perfect for photographing the Pinnacles High Peaks from the eastern side. While group members were busy documenting the rocks with and without themselves in the frame, I was busy trying to get a busy butterfly on camera. 
Painted Lady, April 2015
Going down the Condor Gulch Trail comes as a big relief on the April hike. It was a hot day and the air shimmered in the heat. We were all ready to relax at the campsite or by the campground's swimming pool. 
On a cooler day: male gnats mating dance, December 2014
We didn't get very far before we arrived at a nice cluster of rocks that looked very inviting. Within seconds all the youths in the group were by the rocks, trying to climb them as high as they could to the cheering or frighted calls of their parents.
December 2014
It was only the promise of some pool time that peeled the youngsters off the rocks.
We continued down the trail, and I continued looking for more flowers.
Coyote Mint (Monardella villosa), April 2015
Down and down we hiked. In December I was racing against the sunset. In April we were trying to get in time to the swimming pool. Either way, gravity was on our side.
Pinnacle, December 2014
Condor Gulch Trail switchbacks down a south-facing slope. That means more direct sunlight, which in water-limited areas means less vegetation cover. Other than the occasional pine it was all chaparral. The biggest plant around were the manzanita bushes.
Manzanita Sky, April 2015
They are very, very beautiful, but not much for shade.
Manzanita Trail, April 2015
A large rock pillar by the trail marks the nearing Bear Gulch trailhead, where we were heading. The group passed it without a second glance. I, on the other hand, stood by it for a few long moments. It would be my last time on this trail for a long while.
Trailgate, December 2014
At the Bear Gulch parking lot all of the drivers squeezed inside the car that we had left there, and we drove off to Old Pinnacles to get the rest of the vehicles over. Then I sent everyone off to the campground, to have their longed for swim.
I remained a few moments more behind, looking at the family of acorn woodpeckers I had missed in December. They were very active and vocal. They have an excellent home in the Pinnacles, and I hope to see them again and again in the future.
Acorn Woodpeckers, April 2015
Back in December I had to continue hiking down Bear Gulch Trail to complete my loop. In April, my hike was concluded and I drove to the campground store, got myself a beer and went back to the campsite, where I laid back on a bench and relaxed while the rest enjoyed the pool.
The following day would be the last day of the group's camping trip, and we were to hike along the Chalone Creek, all the way to the Balconies.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

At the Condor's Nest: The High Peaks of the Pinnacles

Date: April 9, 2015
Place: Pinnacles National Park
Coordinates: 36.481456, -121.181377
Length: 6 miles
Level: Strenuous

The High Peaks of Pinnacles National Park can be seen from Hwy 101 when passing the town of Soledad. The stand out, strange, beautiful, and alluring. Last April, on the second day of my solo post Spring Break vacation time, I hiked a wonderful loop trail going up Condor Gulch, ascending the High Peaks trail from north, and descending through Bear Gulch Reservoir and Cave.
My hike to the Pinnacles High Peaks as captured by my GPS
On the previous day I had hiked all the way from Old Pinnacles to the Balconies, making it back with very little daylight to spare. Not wanting to have to race my trail again I was out by the trailhead really early. I took the time to have my breakfast there and then hoisted my day pack and started up the trail. It is a nice ascend: a good, clean and easy trail, that's not very steep, yet constantly ascending. I walked slow, appreciating the views.
Unraveling Pinnacles
Condor Gulch was deep green with lush vegetation and spring bloom was all around me. On my first steps I already encountered my prized flower: the Mariposa Lily. Many of them, in fact.
Butterfly Mariposa Lily (Calochortus venustus)
Besides the mariposa lilies there were many, many other flowers. Not all of them California native.
Star Thistle (Centaurea sp.) Not native.
Wildflowers are a springtime spectacle, but the Pinnacles rocks are gorgeous year-round.
Whenever I see a hole in a rock I wonder what's living in there. Usually it's too dark for me to see, and not always I have the time or patience to wait until I see something goes in or out.
Knock knock! Who's in there?
I didn't stick around to see if anything flies out of that hole in the rock. The flowers were much more interesting.
Venus Thistle (Cirsium occidentale var. venustum)
 But as I was getting higher, the rock pinnacles came into view with all their of striking beauty.
The remains of an old, eroded volcano, the colorful rock formations stand against the sky in stubborn defiance of all the erosion forces, a geological testament of the forces in action in the Earth's mantle.

Standing out in soil composition, height and climate, the Pinnacles make a unique and fascinating ecosystem combining riparian, chaparral, and rock face and scree.
And rock face and scree is not usually a place where one expects to see ferns. The Pallaea, however, had evolved to fit these conditions, which are too extreme for other fern genera.
Bird's Foot Fern (Pellaea mucronata)
About half way up Condor Gulch there is a nice overlook on the gulch and the narrow, curving rock groove that channels the creek water down to a big drop.
Condor Gulch Overview
Despite the gulch's name, I did not see any condors there, or anywhere on that trail that day. There were plenty other interesting sights, though. Like the mosaic of volcanic stones embedded in the volcanic ash, pressed all together into a huge conglomerate.
Volcano Mosaic
I wasn't the only one there who appreciated that rock: little fence lizards were sunning themselves out in the open, and didn't budge when I passed by, just followed me with their eyes.
Western Fence Lizard
I kept going up. The trail isn't very steep, and on some segments it is almost level. Higher up, before meeting the High Peaks Loop, the trail goes through chaparral: a contiguous thicket of bushes adapted to low precipitation.

Chaparral comprises of several dominant bush species that vary between geographical areas. In the Pinnacles, chamise and manzanita are most dominant chaparral species, but other bushes make a strong appearance as well. Like the beautiful bush poppy that was in full bloom at the time of my hike.
Bush Poppy (Dendromecon rigida)
On my previous hike up the Pinnacles on December 2014, the Indian Warrior was just beginning to emerge from the ground. By April, it had already finished blooming. Thorny leaf rosettes with rusty fruiting stalks were all I could see of this magnificent plant.
Indian Warrior (Pedicularis densifolia)
Although the Indian Warrior was done, plenty of other wildflowers were at their peak bloom:
Bitter Root (Lewisia rediviva)

The patch of bitter roots was growing near the trail intersection. After a short break I turn left onto the High Peaks Loop and kept ascending. As I was getting higher the views opened up below me.
Jagged Rock line, like a multi-pointed crown on a giant king's head
I was walking at the heart of the Pinnacles. No more mild, round contours, but a field of ancient mythical figures turned to rock with a wave of a magic wand.

I made my way between these Nature's statues, quietly naming them, allowing my imagination to spin plots with their characters.
Rock Creatures
Higher up the air was cooler and the soil more moist. I saw the Bird's Foot fern again, green and lush in the shadier spots.
Bird's Foot Fern (Pellaea mucronata)
The little alluvial flats and slopes up between the rocks were full of  wildflowers. There were lots of Chinese Houses there.
Purple Chinese Houses (Collinsia heterophylla)
And in between them: large stalks of larkspur.
Larkspur (Delphinium sp.)
The common tree up on the Pinnacles slopes is the gray pine. A beautiful species in which; like oaks, every individual shows personality. In my April visit I saw many baby pines sprouting all around the park. The next generation is here :-)
A sprout of Gray Pine (Pinus Sabiniata) 
Turning the corner I saw all the way down to the Chaparral parking area: the trailhead for the Balconies when entering from the west side of the park. The one time I had hiked to the High Peaks was from that side, 17 years ago.
Way up high: the view northwest from the High Peaks
Up on the mountain the trail snakes very tightly between the rock pillars. Occasionally the view opened up a little, and when that happened I got a good appreciation of how high I really was.
Bush Poppy (Dendromecon rigida) at the High Peaks
Whatever little soil accumulates in rock cracks, it is enough for the gray pine. But sometimes it just isn't enough to hold it upright.
Hugging the rock: Gray Pine (Pinus Sabiniata)
The High Peaks is a loop trail. I connected with the loop from the north and decided to hike only the higher (eastern) side of the loop and descend on the other (south) side.
And so I had more altitude to gain.
High Peaks: A view to the southwest
And the trail had become considerably more challenging. 

I progressed slowly through a series of rock-curved stairs and terrifyingly narrow trails hanging over sheer cliffs with only a single-bar rail to hold on too at some parts. The trail took me up the highest pinnacles and in between the most striking pillars of rock. I touched each and every one of them, and wondered if there's any social status for the 'Rock Hugger' I had become.
Up the High Peaks: view to the east
Almost without noticing, I was slowly losing altitude. So engrossed I was by the beauty of the Pinnacles heights that it took me some time to realize I was already descending.

And all at a good time too, because the sun was already going west.
A 'window' with a view of the magical world beyond. 
As I got my spinning mind to calm down I once again focused on the wildflowers.
And on the critters that pollinate them.
Holly-leaved Cherry (Prunus ilicifolia), with a bee
It was, in fact, the first year I had visited the Pinnacles during springtime, and many of the wildflowers I saw were completely new to me.
March Zigadene (Toxicoscordion fontanum)
So even though the trail down was nice and easy, I descended it slowly and photographed a lot.
Grass Blazingstar (Mentzelia gracilenta)
The color wasn't limited to wildflowers only. The rocks themselves bloomed with colorful lichen growth.

Down and down I hiked, heading southeast towards Bear gulch. I left the High Peaks Loop and its south end and then the slope steepened considerably.
Yellow Whispering Bells (Emmenanthe penduliflora)
Blues and yellows changed to pinks and purples. A few snapdragon bushes on the trailside, and fellow members of the California Native Plants Society had learned me that this plant tends to grow in recently burnt or otherwise disturbed areas. I don't recall seeing any fire scars in that area, however.
Chaparral Snapdragon (Antirrhinum multiflorum)
Far below me stood a tight group of rock pillars. On the following week when I returned to the Pinnacles with my hiking group, it turned out to be the perfect spot for a rest stop.

Down, down, down. The trail meandering around the mountain curves, between rock formations, and in one case: right through the rock.
A curved tunnel where the trail goes.   
Changing shaded slopes to open scree and chaparral, different plants were now blooming by the trail.
Onion (Allium sp.)
And rock formations that didn't look like much from high up were now revealing their true nature, when looked at from below.

A few bushes with purple branch tips grabbed my attention. On close inspection I saw that the purple tips were covered with dense, woolly threads. On first impression it looked to me just like some kind of fancy fungus infestation. But it was way too regular to be that. This is how the budding inflorescence of the woolly bluecurls bush look like. And a fitting name it has!
Woolly Bluecurls (Trichostema lanatum)
I kept going down, descending towards Bear Gulch Reservoir.  I was getting tired and looked forward to having a rest stop near the water.

But the shadows are growing longer. I knew I wouldn't be able to rest there for long. I pushed on forward.
A busy chipmunk crossed the trail a few time, keeping a cautious distance from me.

The vegetation on south-facing slope, if not exposed rock, was mostly chaparral. The bushes were blooming furiously. And so were the herbaceous plants.
Chaparral Clarkia (Clarkia affinis)
At last I was near Bear Gulch Reservoir. This reservoir was built in 1934 to provide water to Civilian Conservation Corps who had a nearby encampment in the years 1933-1942. 
Bear Gulch Reservoir
It was getting late, so despite my fatigue I took the shortest rest stop ever and quickly moved on. A week later, however, when I returned to the reservoir with my hiking group, we took the time to enjoy the place. A little garter snake fascinated by our presence glided over on the water and regarded us for a long time without any apparent concern.  
Garter Snake
On my solo hike though, I went right down the stairs and into the Bear Gulch Cave. I already posted here about that cave so I won't add more photos here. Besides, I had the camera safely tucked under my shirt at the time: the cave's ceiling was dripping water. It was literally raining inside the cave.
I am posting one photo from my passage through the cave, and that is of a rock pigeon couple, checking out a potential nesting site.
Rock Pigeons
Through with the cave, I increased my pace and darted down the path all the way back to the parking lot, where I finally allowed myself to take a long breath and get acquainted with the local Steller's Jays.
Steller's Jay

I returned to the campsite with enough daylight to walk around a look at birds :-)

Many thanks to members of the California Native Plants society for their help in identifying plants and enhancing my knowledge of them!