The last stop on our recent CA adventure was the Pinnacles National Park, just southeast of San Jose. Aside from its natural beauty, two interesting things about this park are the massive and eroded spires of an extinct volcano (i.e., the pinnacles) and the California Condors that can often be seen on the High Ridge trail of the park in the winter. On this day, however, I had to settle for views of just the volcanic spires because the Condors had already left the park to breed elsewhere.
The Pinnacles are the eroded remnants of an extinct volcano that has been sheared in half by the movement of the San Andreas fault. Its other half is located 150 miles to the south, in the desert of southern California, while the part we hiked in now resides within the coast range bordering the Salinas Valley. The area is composed primarily of exposed lava flows, paler volcanic rocks called rhyolite, and a type of conglomerate rock that looks like you threw rock chunks into cement and then stood the mass up on end to weather.
The caves here provide roosting and nesting spots for at least 13 different species of bats. In addition, the 26,000 acres of the park are home not only to the Condors, but attract the largest density of breeding Prairie Falcons in the U.S. A study done in 1990 found that the Pinnacles have the highest density of bees (per unit area) of anywhere in the world (for which there is similar data). Quite a unique and interesting place!
There is more to see along the coast of Montaña de Oro state park than just the park’s generous 8000 acres. The utility company (PG&E) maintains land on Point Buchon that abuts the park to the south. It is open to only a limited number of hikers daily, but has some of the most dramatic scenery and abundant wildflowers in this area.
The last time I visited the central California coast in the spring flower season was more than 50 years ago when I was a college student. But I never witnessed a mega-bloom spring flower season like the one going on here this past month. A dozen or more “atmospheric rivers” of rainfall this past winter have apparently promoted the germination of seeds accumulated over many years. The result is a vibrant carpet of color in grassy fields, roadsides, deserts, seasides, and foothills everywhere in California. Here are some highlights of our hike last weekend in Montaña de Oro state park, located just south of Morro Bay on the central California coast.
We’re on a short excursion to CA to celebrate a birthday and hopefully experience the amazing super-mega-wildflower bloom that is taking place there this spring. But first, a trip to the beach where we found some shorebirds probing the sand for invertebrates.
The final campsite of the trip was at Lost Dutchman State Park in the easternmost suburbs of Phoenix and a very popular spot for both locals and visitors in the Phoenix area. We didn’t really have time to hike very far into the Superstition Mountains, although there are a myriad of hiking trails right from the campsite. But we did get to enjoy an incredible sunset — something Arizona is famous for.
How did these mountains get the name Superstition?
Apache Indians living in this area believed that a prominent hole between the tall spires in these mountains led directly to hell, because hot, dusty winds were known to emerge from the gap in the rocks. Their name for the mountains led early settlers to refer to the mountainous area as “superstitious”, and later the whole wilderness area of 250 square miles was then given the same name.
We made brief visits to the Paton Center for Hummingbirds in Patagonia and the Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson while camping at Catalina State Park to enjoy some of the spring delights of southern Arizona.
Desert wildfowers were plentiful, especially along the roadside where we saw dense swaths of orange Globe Mallow, yellow Bitterbush, pink Parry’s penstemon, and short purple lupines.
At our spacious campsite in Catalina State Park, we had room to spread out and time to take a walk before sunset. Quite a few birds were singing and displaying right at our campsite.
We drove over to Chiricahua National Monument from our campsite at Kartchner Caverns state park near Benson, AZ, to show elder daughter and granddaughter the amazing rock formations there. We had visited the monument for the first time two months ago but took only a very brief hike into Echo Canyon because a huge snowstorm was headed there in early afternoon. So this time we hiked a loop trail down into the canyon which put us at the exposed base of many of the hoodoos, looking up at them instead of down.
On this visit, we hiked a loop trail that took us down several hundred feet to the base of the “hoodoos” for an up-close and personal look at the amazing weathering process that has created these structures.
Unlike the Grand Canyon, this massive (1200 square mile) deposit of hardened rhyolite tuff from successive volcanic eruptions about 27 million years ago, has been exposed only to freezing and thawing actions on the rock that has resulted in jointed columns, pinnacles, spires, and ungainly and precariously balanced rocks. As a result, there are no “really old” rocks exposed here like those in the Grand Canyon.
What we saw here was a couple hundred feet of exposed columns in a field of rhyolitic tuff that is estimated to be about 1600 feet deep. The volcanic explosions that created this field were predicted to be 1000 times greater than the one from Mt. St. Helens in 1980.
We heard from other hikers that there are even more spectacular views of the formations in this park at the Heart of Rocks loop — I guess we will have to save that for next time. For anyone interested in hiking in this area, here is a good map.
Just to say it’s a grand (meaning big) canyon is not nearly enough exclamation about the size of this amazing abyss in the earth’s surface, north of Flagstaff, AZ. It’s grandiose, or colossal, or humongous, or something like that. Anyway, the first glance at the landscape we will explore is stunning, especially in evening light.
After a cold night of sub-freezing temperature on recently unfrozen ground at Mather campground in the park, we packed up our stuff, parked the car in the backcountry lot, and set off down the Bright Angel Trail. It was chilly and windy on the top of the rim that morning, but we soon ditched the coats a mile or so down the trail.
I should probably have titled the blog post something about Traveling Back in Time, because we would be walking through deposits of ancient seas, from 250 million years ago in the Permian period to about 540 million years ago in the Cambrian period, roughly the time at which the incredible Cambrian explosion of animal body types took place in ancient seas.
The formations derive primarily from deposits of mud, silt, and sand from an ancient inland sea that were laid down over hundreds of millions of years and then uplifted during successive collisions of plates over the course of the past 80 million years to form the Colorado Plateau. Erosion and exposure of the layers of rocks by the Colorado River only began about 5-6 million years ago, occurring rapidly at first as the river whittled away the top layers of more recent, softer sediments, and proceeding more slowly now as the river cuts through the oldest, metamorphic rocks at the very bottom of the canyon.
So, let’s take a walk back through time, from the end of the Permian period, when unknown cataclysms caused the extinction of 95% of animal life on land and in the sea, to the beginning of the Cambrian period when life exploded in ancient seas. Below is a guide to the names of the layers we will walk through as we descend.
After a pleasant night, and pretty good sleep, we got up really early (dawn) to start hiking up again. The exposed sections of the trail would be very hot in mid-morning sun, so we wanted to get a good start on the way up.
Some of us (the older ones) struggled to get to the top in 6 hours — and others arrived earlier, triumphant and happy.
We made a quick trip over spring break to Nevada and Arizona to introduce elder daughter and her daughter to some of the marvelous sights of the southwestern U.S. But this time we were camping, hoping for more intimate looks at the scenery during all times of the day.
Starting off with the dramatic rocks, cliffs, and colors of the Valley of Fire northeast of Las Vegas, we explored some new areas of the park, hiked further into the canyons at sunset, and saw ever more dramatic scenery than on our last visit two months ago. Plus, there were wildflowers blooming to decorate the desert scene.
After three hours of hiking in the hot sun, we were ready for lunch and a rest before venturing out for an evening hike in the slot canyons.
In celebration of what is to come in the not too distant future…a shock of green to help you think “spring!”
In elementary school we learned that to get green color you mixed yellow and blue — and that’s just what birds do. There is no blue pigment in birds’ feathers either, but incoming light scattered off air pockets in the feather structures can be reflected to our eyes and appear blue. By adding this reflected light to the yellow light reflected from underlying (carotenoid) pigments in the feathers, the birds are doing just what we did in mixing our paints. This is illustrated below by a Broad-billed hummingbird as it approaches a feeder.
As they say in Eire-land
“May your blessings outnumber the shamrocks that grow. And may trouble avoid you wherever you go.” –Irish Blessing