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California’s symphony of geology

San Francisco, - If you’re seeking a spiritual experience, this is the 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. And it’s one of the few places to glimpse the endangered California condor, the spectacular bird that resembles a robed Supreme Court justice sporting a vast wingspan.

“This place is full of ‘national park’ moments,” says Gavin Emmons, a wildlife biologist who has lived in Pinnacles National Monument for years. These abundant moments explain why the place received national park designation a year ago. The park is south of San Francisco, in the Gabilan Mountains of California’s Coast Ranges.

Mist-ringed mountains, rolling hills, shady woodlands, cratered valleys, blossom-edge creeks, hidden waterfalls – the landscape resembles a catalogue of natural wonders populated by diverse plants and animals such as bobcats, bats, bees, red-legged frogs, white-throated swifts and prairie falcons.

Few places on Earth shelter such a symphony of geological features and 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 Los Angeles, thrusting half of it 314km 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.

This geology and tectonic-plates origin story earned Pinnacles national park status. Advocates included Salinas-based Republican Sam Farr and film-maker Ken Burns. Lured by mild Mediterranean weather, a lack of crowds and elevations ranging from 250 to 1010 metres, I’ve come to explore this 10 500ha wonderland. The park’s west entrance is closer to the Pacific coast, while the east entrance abuts a campground. 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-coloured 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 concrete cast.

On the east side, sand washes groove rock faces, and sandstone cliffs hover above the original location of the San Andreas fault.

“Dusk and dawn are particularly beautiful, especially for colourful light on the rocks, and for greater chances to see condors, prairie falcons and other wildlife,” says Gavin, who likes winter hiking for the temperatures and solitude and spring for the streams and wildflowers.

He also likes rope-climbing the park’s 900-odd routes, from sport climbs at the Discovery Wall to the west side’s multi-pitch routes at Machete Ridge.

California condors have been rescued from the brink of extinction by captive breeding efforts.

As a park biologist, Gavin helps manage the central California flock of around 60 free-flying condors, including 34 released and hatched at Pinnacles. They’re among the world’s largest birds. Soaring on thermals, they travel kilometres without flapping their wings, sometimes reaching speeds of 88km/h and heights of 4 570m.

Like other birds of prey, condors get poisoned by ingesting animals shot with lead ammunition. Measures designed to help save them include hunter education and a new statewide lead-ammo ban.

The next morning, as dawn’s rays halo the west side peaks, I begin a hike with friends, birdwatching 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,” Tim says. “When you see a condor, you know it.” We know it. As we quell our shaken selves to 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 we’re rewarded: Rounding a mountainside offers a fresh angle on the condors, who engage in a quick round of jitterbug moves.

Ascending slopes on the switchback-kinked trail, we encounter a cinematographer’s delight of real-life stage sets: volcano-sculpted spires, dizzying cliffs, bizarre formations, precariously balanced SUV-size boulders, mosaics of chaparral and desert, mountains with velvety surfaces facing slopes of worn-down stone.

Then there’s massive Machete Ridge, named for the sharply angled wall beloved by daredevil climbers. Some remarkable features that at first glance seem nature-made were crafted by man: In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built stairways of stone ledges and, instead of ladders, blasted footholds into vertical rockfaces using dynamite. Rest assured, the iron handrails are solidly bolted and checked regularly by park rangers.

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-coloured lichens.

In January, early-blooming wildflowers include purple shooting stars, white milkmaids and magenta Indian warriors. Then come sunny-yellow bush poppies, multi-hued monkey flowers and baby blue-eyes. Spring brings fresh hues with redspot clarkia, lemony Johnny-jump-ups, violet-blue lupine and mariposa lilies with white bell-shaped petals smudged with gold, pink and maroon.

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 Rochelle describes as transcendent. But the sweep of vistas, sunbathing condors and other “national park moments” more than qualify as a spiritual experience. – Robin Soslow, The Washington Post

WHERE TO STAY

East entrance nps.gov/pinn/planyourvisit/camp.htm. Pets allowed in campground but not on trails. Tent sites $23 (R245); RV sites with electricity $36.

32025 Stonewall Canyon Rd, Soledad. innatthepinnacles.com Two miles from park. Rooms from $225.

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

WHERE TO EAT

800 San Benito St, Hollister

runningrooster.com

Wood-fired thin-crust pizzas; craft beer. Lunch and dinner from $8.

1822 N Main St, Salinas

ilikeikesplace.com. Sandwiches stuffed with fresh ingredients. Lunch and dinner from $7.

WHAT TO DO

Pinnacles National Park

Highway 146, Paicines

www.nps.gov/pinn

Just east of central California’s Salinas Valley. Pack plenty of water and, for cave trails, flashlights. Park passes (valid seven days): $5 per motorised vehicle; hiker/bicyclist $3 a person.

The west entrance is open every day 7.30am to 8pm.

The east entrance is open daily 24 hours a day.

INFORMATION

destinationsalinas.com

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