Pinnacles National Park features towering spires and sculptured rocks  and a Californian condor with tracking tags.
Pinnacles National Park features towering spires and sculptured rocks  and a Californian condor with tracking tags.
Bats inhabit the Pinnacles park, whose caves provide safe havens.
Bats inhabit the Pinnacles park, whose caves provide safe havens.

After several years of visiting family in San Francisco, I thought I had been to most of the tourist attractions in the area. I’m still amazed, though, that not only had I not visited the Pinnacles National Park, an easy drive away, but I hadn’t even heard of it. Yet it is unique in so many ways.

Pinnacles, the site of a volcano that erupted 23 million years ago, is still moving at 3 to 6cm each year. It is an area of disintegrated mountains, towering spires, jagged ridges and sculptured rocks resembling a modernistic art gallery with every “exhibit” the equivalent of an old master. Yet, surprisingly, there is a great variety of multi-coloured flowers covering the lower hillsides.

It’s also home to the Californian condor, one of the world’s rarest birds, and endangered Townsends big-eared bats. It also has the highest diversity of bee species anywhere in the world.

If that isn’t enough, Bear Gulch on the east side of Pinnacles and Chaparral on the west are the best and most accessible places to see the unique Talus Caves. The caves are the result of the exploding boulders blocking narrow canyons and creating ceilings, rooms and passages.

The park monitors 33 condors, the largest flying land birds in the Western Hemisphere. Bald headed and broad winged, they are one of the world’s rarest and longest living birds with a life span of up to 60 years. All have different personalities, likes and dislikes. They live in large groups with a well developed social structure and have a variety of vocalisations even though they have no larynx.

Each one is individually monitored with a “condor-cam” allowing biologists to record their weight by checking the transmitters on their 3m wing span. It also monitors their flight patterns. Condors can travel 250km a day in search of carrion which is scarce in the area.

Fortunately they can go for days without eating but, when they do, they gorge themselves. They can easily rip through the thick hides of animals larger than themselves.

Condor 306, the oldest in the park, was hatched in April 2003. It is assertive in a group, has competitive behaviour patterns and, until recently, spent a fair amount of time alone since it was released in 2004.

Now it is beginning to spend time with Condor 317, a well integrated and relatively dominant member of the flock. Condor 310, also released in 2004, is another one one of the oldest condors in the park and a loner, tending to feed only when the others have finished. But, to everyone’s surprise, it has now successfully nested in the wild with 219 and their baby 574.

Condor 330, one of the largest, fights back when confronted and likes spending time alone. 340, still a juvenile, shows tendencies of being the most aggressive of them all.

There were no mortalities last year and in October four captive bred juveniles were released, integrated well and feed happily alongside the other condors at the “bait station”. This is regarded as a major step towards their ultimate survival.

Another feature of the park is that it has 400 different kinds of bees, the greatest number of bee species per unit area than any other place ever studied. Some of them even lay their eggs in the nests of other species and it is regarded as no less than a miracle that so many of them co-exist because their appearance and life styles are so different.

They are also unlike each other in appearance. Some are metallic orange, blue or green and often have multi coloured stripes, some live in hives, some nest in rocks, stems or wood and most of them are solitary and active at different times for only a small part of the year, which means that there are always some to be seen.

Pinnacles is also a sheltered home for yet another species in jeopardy, bats.

The upper half of Bear Gulch Cave closes from mid May to mid July for the “pupping” season when it becomes the largest “maternity colony” between San Francisco and Mexico to allow a colony of Townsends big eared bats to raise their young.

As well as its geological formations and contributions to the condor, bee and bat populations, Pinnacles is also famous for its climbing routes along Machete Ridge which range from easy to difficult. It is ideal for camping, rock climbing and photography though summer temperatures can rise well over 30ºC.

Pinnacles National Park, one of the two federal wilderness areas near San Francisco Bay, is south of Monterey and close to Highway 101. The entrance, surrounded by large tracts of nondescript farm land, is 50km from Hollister. - Sunday Tribune