Pinnacles National Park in California offers a wealth of wonders

The sun sets over the high peaks of The sun sets over the high peaks of Pinnacles National Park in central California. (Jan. 9, 2010) Photo Credit: Gavin Emmons

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If you're seeking a spiritual experience, this is a place where you're likely to find one.

Eerie jagged spires, Stonehenge-like monoliths, implausibly round boulders and otherworldly caves are just a sampling of the colossal formations at America's newest national park, celebrating its first birthday this month. And it's one of the few places to glimpse the endangered California condor, a spectacular bird that resembles a robed Supreme Court justice sporting a nearly 10-foot wingspan.

"This place is full of 'national park' moments," says Gavin Emmons, a park wildlife biologist who has lived in Pinnacles National Monument for several years. These abundant moments explain why the place received "National Park" designation in January 2013.

The park is hidden south of San Francisco, in the Gabilan Mountains of central California's Coast Ranges, an hour from the Pacific Ocean just east of the Salinas Valley.

23 million years ago

Few places on earth shelter such a symphony of geological features, fauna and flora. The park's dramatic landscapes resulted from a volcanic eruption 23 million years ago, assisted by tectonic plate action. Plate movement along the San Andreas fault split the Neenach Volcano in the Los Angeles area, thrusting half of it 195 miles north. Earthquake faulting, lava and erosion sculpted the fantasyland pinnacles, and caves formed when large fallen rock, called talus, wedged into the tops of narrow gorges, creating roofed passages.

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Lured by mild Mediterranean weather that lasts through spring, a lack of crowds and elevations ranging from 824 to 3,304 feet, I've come to explore this 26,000-acre wonderland. Snow? It barely dusts the highest peaks, such as North Chalone.

Thirteen well-maintained hiking trails, rated easy to difficult, weave past clues to the land's violent past. On the west side, gray marble outcroppings resulted from the shifting earth's heat and pressure. Bands of ivory-colored rhyolite mark where lava flowed through fissures in the granite. Rock fragments embedded in lava and ash give breccia rock faces, such as towering Machete Ridge, a pinkish cast. On the east side, sand washes grooved rock faces, and sandstone cliffs hover above the original location of the San Andreas fault.

"Dusk and dawn are particularly beautiful, especially for colorful light on the rocks, and for greater chances to see condors, prairie falcons and other wildlife," says Emmons, who likes winter hiking for the temperatures and solitude and spring for the flowing streams and blooming wildflowers.

Rescued from extinction

California condors have been rescued from the brink of extinction by captive breeding efforts. "Condor numbers have rebounded from 22 in the late 1980s to around 400 birds worldwide today," says Emmons. As a park biologist, he helps manage the central California flock of about 60 free-flying condors, including 34 released and hatched at Pinnacles. Averaging 20 pounds, they're among the world's largest birds. Soaring on rising currents of warm air called thermals, they travel miles without flapping their wings, sometimes reaching speeds of 55 mph and heights of 15,000 feet.

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We spot a condor soaring over Machete Ridge, an astonishing and much hoped-for sight. But the assumed highlight of my visit turns out to be just a teaser.

The next morning, as dawn's rays halo the peaks, I begin a hike with friends, bird-watching guide Tim Amaral and Rochelle Fischer, who's with the conservation nonprofit Pinnacles Partnership. As we tramp up Juniper Canyon Trail to the High Peaks, two noble black-feathered, pink-headed birds appear on a cliff. They're doing the same thing we are: gazing at surreal monoliths, deep canyons and pinnacle-studded slopes.

"If you 'think' you've seen a condor, you haven't," Amaral says. "When you see a condor, you know it." We know it.

As we focus our cameras and scopes, our avian idols fan their huge wings in a sun salutation that reveals dazzling white underwing markings. Even their tracking ID tags are visible. It's hard to look away and resume hiking, but soon we're rewarded: Rounding a mountainside offers a fresh angle on the condors, which engage in a quick round of jitterbug moves.

Surprises on the switchback trail

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Ascending slopes on the switchback-kinked trail, surprises welcome us to each altitude: sky-blue Western scrub-jays, acorn woodpeckers, canyon wrens and other birds feeding upon the winter berries of manzanita shrubs, dazzling clusters of trumpet-shaped California fuchsia, mystical forests of moss-draped trees and rocks upholstered with tapestries of jewel-colored lichens.

It's always ink-black in the caves, requiring flashlights to traverse the dips and rises of the rocky paths. An enormous, perfectly round boulder marks one entrance to the west side's Balconies Cave. The east side's Bear Gulch Cave provides critical habitat to a colony of Townsend's big-eared bats (petite aside from those pointy ears). Sometimes, the caves are closed when there's high water or to protect the bats. As with the condor sightings, our timing's right for exploring the cave passages.

Evening plans have us leaving before dark, so I'll miss the moonlight hiking that Fischer describes as transcendent. But that's OK. The sweep of vistas, sunbathing condors and other "national park moments" more than qualify as a spiritual experience.

Pinnacles National Park, Highway 146, Paicines, is just east of central California's Salinas Valley.

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If you go

WHAT TO DO Pack plenty of water and, for cave trails, flashlights. Park passes (valid seven days): $5 per motorized vehicle; hikers and bicyclists pay $3 per person. The west entrance is open from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. The east entrance is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 831-389-4486, nps.gov/pinn

WHERE TO STAY

-Pinnacles National Park Campground, east entrance. Tent sites $23; RV sites with electricity $36. 877-444-6777, nps.gov/pinn/planyourvisit/camp.htm

-Inn at the Pinnacles, 32025 Stonewall Canyon Rd., Soledad. Two miles from the park. Rooms from $225. 831-678-2400, innatthepinnacles.com

-Valley Harvest Inn, 1155 Front St., Soledad. Clean, comfy child- and pet-friendly motel in central Salinas Valley, 15 minutes from the park. From $59. 831-678-3833, valleyharvestinn.com

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