Thursday, October 29, 2015

California's Pinnacles National Park

California's Pinnacles National Park was first set aside as Pinnacles Forest Reserve way back in 1906 to preserve the beautiful and unusual rock formations for which it is named, and two years later in 1908 it became a national monument. The park is located between Highway 101 and Interstate 5 about 75 miles south of San Jose in the southern portion of the Gabilan Mountains, one of a series of parallel northwest-trending ridges and valleys that make up the Central Coast Range. Originally only 2,060 acres in size, Pinnacles was gradually enlarged in bits and pieces and now protects about 26,000 acres. In January of 2013, President Barack Obama signed legislation passed by Congress that upgraded it to national park status.

The park represents bad timing to me. I drove all the way from my home in Chicago to the west coast both in 2011 and 2012 for the express purpose of visiting all of the marvelous national parks of the west coast. Then a mere four months after returning home, Pinnacles was upgraded to national park status. I had just driven near the park two years running! Had the upgrade occurred just a few months earlier, Pinnacles would have been my 52nd park visited of the 59 in our country. Bad timing! (Click to enlarge the official park map.)

Pinnacles are rocky spires that remain from an ancient volcanic field. Millions of years worth of volcanic activity, tectonic plate movement, and erosional forces have created the rugged landscape we see today. Three million years ago, multiple volcanoes erupted, flowed, and slid to form what is now Pinnacles National Park, creating this unique and enchanting landscape. Travelers journey through chaparral, oak woodlands, and canyon bottoms, and hikers enter rare talus caves and emerge to towering rock spires teeming with Peregrine falcons, Golden eagles, and California condors.

A few million years of powerful explosions, lava flows, and landslides created the 30 mile wide volcanic field that forms the foundation of Pinnacles National Park. This field of fire was then split down the center by the San Andreas Fault and the west side traveled 195 miles north at a rate of three to six centimeters each year, all the while being worn away by water, weathering, and chemical erosion. Hence this picturesque and peaceful landscape enjoyed by today's hikers and climbers was created eons ago by violent and dynamic geological events.

That same fault action and earthquakes created the talus caves that are another of Pinnacles' attractions. Deep, narrow gorges or shear fractures were transformed into caves when huge boulders toppled from above, wedging in the fractures before reaching the ground. These boulders became the ceilings of the talus caves that now entice not only people, but also several kinds of bats.

Visitors can explore two systems of talus caves which are formed by massive boulders wedged in ravines and widened by water and erosion. Rocks the size of houses will hang over your head as you make your way through a cool, dark environment that provides a home for Townsend big-eared bats and red-legged frogs, as well as other creatures.

Pinnacles is primarily a hiking park. If you are short on time or have difficulty walking on uneven terrain for even short distances, you may opt to visit the west side of Pinnacles where you can get an easy view of the Pinnacles' High Peaks from the Chaparral Ranger Station parking area. The two cave trails are not your typical nicely paved trails. Rather, they meander in between giant volcanic rocks, and huge boulders block you as you try to make your way in pitch darkness where flashlights are required. In some places you need to get down on all fours to be able to pass under some rocks.

There’s no more impressive trail building in the national parks than the work of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps where workers carved rock steps like those cut by Ancestral Puebloans and installed steel railings for the faint of heart.

Today, these rocks give many species of plants and animals a place to call home, including the endangered California condor. Pinnacles is one of four sites where captive-bred condors are raised and then released to live in the wild, and many of these birds live out their lives flying between Pinnacles and the Big Sur coast. California condor numbers are now on the rise after reaching a low of only 22 birds in the early 1980s. Thirty-plus years of captive breeding, careful monitoring, and exhaustive preservation efforts have brought that number to over 400 birds, 200 of which fly free in California, Arizona, and Utah. On any given day, more than 60 birds may be flying in and around the park.

The topography of Pinnacles is not all spire and crag. Elevations range from 824 feet along South Chalone Creek to 3,304 feet atop North Chalone Peak, and much of the park consists of rolling hills. Pinnacles has a Mediterranean climate of hot, dry summers and cool winters with moderate rainfall. Although the park is only 40 miles from the Pacific Ocean, the Santa Lucia Mountains to the west strongly modify the ocean influence before it reaches inland to Pinnacles. Consequently, while on the coast summer temperatures might be a fairly steady 60 degrees Fahrenheit, at Pinnacles the temperature can swing from 50 degrees at night to 100 degrees in the day. Similarly, due to the absence of the ocean’s warming effect, winter temperatures at Pinnacles often drop below freezing while coastal temperatures remain moderate. Average rainfall is 16 inches per year, falling mostly from January through March. Snow occurs in small amounts at higher elevations almost every year between mid-December and January.

While condors and magnificent rock spires are certainly what draws many visitors to Pinnacles, they are by certainly not all there is to see at the park.  If you prefer to stay in the sun, you can hike the 32 miles of trails which are decorated during the spring months with California poppies, bush lupine, mariposa lilies, and a variety of other wildflowers. These flowers are pollinated by the park's 400 species of bees, a higher density of species per area than any other known place in the world. You may also see bobcats, coyotes, black-tailed deer, lizards, snakes, tarantulas, and perhaps even a mountain lion. Below is a map of the available hiking trails (click to enlarge.)

Anthropologists believe Pinnacles was intermittently occupied by groups of Native Americans for over 10,000 years based on evidence in the form of arrowheads and bedrock mortars discovered within the park, and only a small percentage of the park has been archeologically surveyed. Today, the descendants of the Chalon and Mutsun Tribes are reconnecting with their traditional territories, reviving cultural traditions, and working to re-gain federal recognition, and the park has a growing and mutually beneficial partnership with these two tribes. Pinnacles staff and tribal members are working to cooperatively manage culturally significant resources, to enrich the park's understanding and interpretation of Native American history, and to value the deep relationship between native people and their historic territory. 

The Spanish had a dramatic impact on the Native Americans who inhabited the area. They traveled into California from Mexico and eventually established 21 religious missions between 1769 and 1823, stretching from San Diego to Sonoma. The mission closest to Pinnacles was built in Soledad in 1791. Willingly or not, many of the Chalon and Mutsun people became baptized mission workers, though their way of life was devastated. A combination of diseases brought by the Spaniards and harsh changes to their way of life killed many Chalon and Mutsun people and damaged their cultures. In 1770 the Indian population in California, which was already dropping from the effects of European diseases, was estimated at 300,000. By the mid-1800s, it was cut in half. 

In 1891, Schuyler Hain, a homesteader from Michigan, arrived in the Pinnacles area, and during the next twenty years he became known as the "Father of Pinnacles" as he led tours up through Bear Valley and into the caves. Hain spoke to groups and wrote articles urging preservation of the area and acted as unofficial caretaker for many years. His efforts proved fruitful with the establishment of Pinnacles first as a 2000 acre national reserve, and then two years later in 1908 as a national monument created by President Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps established a camp in what is now the Old Pinnacles trailhead area. From 1933 to 1942, during cooler winter months, the CCC accomplished many projects. The dirt road up to Bear Gulch was widened, paved and completed in 1934. The CCC improved many of the trails that had been established by the early homesteaders, including the exciting steep and narrow trail that winds through the High Peaks. They constructed the dam that forms the Bear Gulch reservoir and improved the trail into the caves, adding concrete steps and guard rails. Beginning in 1936 the CCC boys guided visitors through the caves using lanterns. 

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