Post #81: Miles to go before we peak

February 25, 2021

The moon was bright and the campground was eerily lit at midnight as owls hooted to each other. It was a cold night, just above freezing, but the campground was quiet and we slept well and warmly. 

In the canyon, the sun didn’t reach us until nearly 8:30 but once it did it was as if someone flipped a switch from cold to comfortable. We had a leisurely breakfast and dawdled, waiting for the morning to get warmer before we headed out to our planned loop hike that would take us up the intriguingly-named “Steep and Narrow Trail.”

Susan found the first rays of sun where she warmed up with her coffee

A three-mile drive deposited us deeper into Pinnacles National Park at the Moses Springs trailhead parking lot. From there, we hiked along a creek, through a short tunnel carved out of the rock and then higher up through low scrubland. 

Along the way, we discovered water trickling from rocks, like a natural fountain. 

Charles ascending the trail
Heading around the cliff
To this awesome view

The trail left the creek and began climbing. It wound up and over a cliff, beneath a giant overhang. 

From there, we found ourselves entering into a dark, cave-like section of the trail, where enormous boulders hung somewhat precariously above. Remembering that Pinnacles is located right on top of the San Andreas fault, we hoped it was in a calm mood. 

The first of many steep staircases
An unexpected waterfall

We climbed out of the rocky area by ascending steep steps hewn into the rock walls. As we emerged from the cave-like section into the light, we discovered a small waterfall.

Bear Gulch Reservoir
Red-legged frog. Photo credit: nps.gov

Eventually we found ourselves staring at Bear Gulch reservoir, a small lake surrounded by a rocky shoreline with some pinnacles on the hillside. At one time, the lake was full of California Red-legged frogs until some dolt released catfish into the lake so he could fish there, killing all the endangered frogs. Thirty-five years ago, the lake was drained and all the catfish were removed before a program to reintroduce the frogs began. Now the lake reverberates again with the frogs’ croaking.

The sun warmed us by mid-morning
One of several lizards along the way. We'd been told to watch out for tarantulas but didn't see any

From the reservoir, the trail went steeply upward. We’d begun the trail when it was barely 50 degrees out, but we knew we’d be removing layers as we went. Soon, it was over 60 degrees and sunny. The forecast strong winds mercifully never showed up, the sky was cloudless and there were few hikers in the park.

Just in case you like to throw rocks randomly

We didn’t see any rock climbers, but apparently the park is a favorite for them and we saw numerous side trails labeled with carabiners. More curious, however, was the sign we saw at the top of the ridge above Bear Gulch directed at potentially misbehaving hikers, reminding them not to throw rocks on the climbers below. We can only imagine why the sign had to be put up.

One of many short trails designated for rock climbers
Looking for rock climbers and not finding any. Notice that Susan does NOT have any rocks in her hands
The area below where there might be human targets
Looking into the park's namesake jagged pinnacles
Distant view of "Balconies Cliffs"

The trail led ever higher up to the towering spires that Pinnacles is known for. The center of the park contains a geologist’s dream with volcanic spires, cliffs, and peaks that over the eons have moved along the San Andreas fault. Much of the elevation at the canyon bottoms is low, around 1,100 feet, but the spires rise to over 3,000 feet and the trail we were on led us right into the middle of them.

Most of the steps had been carved many years before by the CCC
At least this one has a handrail
We have a fondness for hiles like this that seem more like adult playgrounds

More stairs carved into the rock (some steeper parts with handrails) taxed our legs as we ascended. The numerous staircases along the Steep and Narrow Trail were carved into the stone by the Civilian Conservation Corp beginning in 1933 and continuing until 1942. 

The red arrow points to the droppings, the green to the vulture

At one point, we stopped for a breather and I remarked on lots of bird droppings along a ledge not far from us surmising that perhaps condors lived up here. Suddenly Susan said she saw a large bird just above where I was looking, so I got out the binoculars. Sure enough, a large ugly bird with a pink neck stared at us until eventually flying off.

We snapped a picture through the binoculars and estimated the raptor's wingspan to be four to five feet, which, sadly, meant it was more likely a turkey vulture

After more steep climbing, we came across a young woman sitting on a boulder overlooking the valley below. She had a large antenna and some gear I knew was used for wildlife tracking and I asked her if she was researching condors. She was and we chatted a while about where we might find some (none were in range of her 30-mile tracking device so she thought most must be feeding on a large carcass somewhere at low elevation). She also confirmed our photo was indeed a turkey vulture, not a condor.

Spectacular views from near the peak
Balconies Cliffs, pinnacles, and the coastal range

We continued to wind up and down through more pinnacles, with views as far away as the coastal range.

Tripod selfie during our light lunch break
Heading back down the other side
C'mon down!

After a quick lunch of turkey jerky and granola bars, we began the steep descent. Eventually, the trail down left the rocky outcroppings and wound down through pines and then scrubland.

Toward the end of the trail, we noticed a tree that had been pecked mercilessly by a well-named Acorn Woodpecker. The busy bird had stored acorns inside many of the hundreds of holes. 

Finally, we reached the valley floor back near where we’d parked. The Steep and Narrow loop trail was six pretty tough miles, but the weather was perfect for hiking and the trail was more fun than we’d expected.

Lots of birds but, sadly, no condors

Back at camp, we had a quick dinner before taking a walk under the nearly full moon to the condor telescopes the park had set up near the entrance. Once there, we realized the scopes were directed at the ridge just above our campsite. So we returned and scanned the area with our binoculars for the elusive California condors, without luck. Maybe tomorrow. As the sky darkened, the air cooled quickly and we were pretty sure we’d sleep well.

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