As the crowds thinned and we found ourselves alone then the wildlife appeared. We could just sit in our rig or by our rig and see lots of birds. I selected our site based on being close to the Condor viewing area. We had tried to view the Condors in Grand Canyon a few weeks ago but no such luck. The California Condors were released in this area in 2003 and we were lucky enough to see them. We arrived at Pinnacles, set up the rig, and sat outside and lo and behold we immediately spotted 3 Condors flying overhead. They were flying with some Vultures but they are quite easy to differentiate when they are flying together.
The area also has lots of other birds. We didn’t see many the first 24 hours probably due to the sheer volume of people and vehicles but when everyone left, wow, the place became a birder’s paradise. It made us watch “The Big Year” one night.
We spotted California Quail, Red Tailed Hawk, Red Shouldered Hawk, Acorn Woodpecker, Red Shafted Western Northern Flicker, Dark Eyed Junco Oregon, Varied Thrush, Western Scrub Jay, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Golden-Crowned Sparrow, Turkey Vultures, and yes, the infamous California Condors.
The area is also swarming with ground squirrels. They leave you alone, thank goodness as no one is obviously feeding them, so they don’t pester you. But they are everywhere and there are holes in the ground everywhere. They like to show off for you and will pop up and run around and chase each other and look at you and talk to you.
The area can also have flocks of wild turkeys running around. Norm said he heard some gobbling one night and then the next morning, lo and behold, a big flock of turkeys came into view near the campground.
There are two talus caves in the area that house different species of bats. Talus Caves are caves that are formed by boulders forming a roof over a canyon. The two caves are part of the trails and you can hike through them. I use the term hike casually as you actually have to do some rock scrambling, crawling, climbing, and whatever, in the dark and in the wet. And did I mention this is located right on the San Andreas Fault? Yes, the Bear Gulch Caves and the Balconies Caves are two caves that should not be overlooked. The bats are actually hanging out (no pun intended) in a separate area of the caves that is blocked off to humans. The Townsend’s big eared bats have a maternal colony in the Bear Gulch Cave and solitary bats roost in the Balconies Cave. The caves are a blast to hike and crawl through and are highly recommended if you are in this area. If you only have time to do one then we would recommend the Balconies Cave as it is much more challenging hence more fun! They both have John and Pam’s name, from OhThePlacesTheyGo, written all over them!!! Pictures and details below.
Bear Gulch Cave Hike
The Bench Trail starts from the campground where we hiked to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area and then started on the Bear Gulch Trail which lead us to the Bear Gulch Cave. The Bear Gulch Day Use Area has a Nature Center and restrooms and a nice picnic area. The parking lot can close on busy weekends due to sheer volume of tourists but they do offer a shuttle bus from the Visitors Center should you not want to hike the 2.3 miles.
After a few hours of hiking from the campground we arrived at the entrance to the cave. A headlamp would be recommended for this cave hike as opposed to a flashlight but whichever you use a light is required. There’s a bit of climbing and rocking scrambling and if you are holding a walking stick, a camera, and holding a flashlight it can be a bit cumbersome. It isn’t pitch dark but dark enough that you can’t see where to put your feet or your hands while climbing. We packed our hat and sunglasses in our backpack prior to entering the cave to make it a bit easier. I am tall and my backpack is big so that meant I had to get on my hands and knees and crawl in places. Short people with no backpack may be able to just squat and walk like a penguin. Whatever works!! We did walk through a bit of water but only a few inches here and there. Some rocks were dry, some were damp, and some were wet but the rocks offer some good gripping areas for both your hands and your feet as you climb. It was fun!!!
As a side note we entered from the north end (from the Bear Gulch Trail) which meant we were climbing up as we went through the cave. We think this is much easier than descending but people were going the opposite direction. To each their own. After exiting the cave we climbed up some steps carved out of rock which was quite narrow but has a short hand rail. After climbing the steps we arrived at the Bear Gulch Reservoir.
After lunch and a short break we continued on to Rim Trail which headed back down to meet up with the Bear Gulch Trail again. The Rim Trail offered fabulous views and was quite a nice trail. There are several areas where we stopped and observed rock climbers.
We loved this hike and we loved the cave!
Balconies Cave Hike
For this hike we started at the Old Pinnacles Trailhead and hiked along the river wash with great views of the Balconies.
After awhile we arrived at the Balconies Cave and in we went. I won’t say who was needing help the most but a quick push on the bottom helped one person scale a big rock and get up into the narrow crack. WOW! That was just one of the many difficult scaling that had to be done. And did I mention there might have been a bit of loud noise during all this…coming from one of us?
After exiting then it was on down the Balconies Cliff Trail, a beautiful hike!
Condor Gulch Hike
We began the Condor Gulch Trail from the Bear Gulch Day Use area and headed straight up the mountain.
After about a mile we arrived at the Condor Overlook where we stopped and admired the scenery and spotted a California Condor flying overhead. That was great fun.
From there we continued hiking up to the High Peaks Trail which gave us terrfiic views of the valleys below and High Peaks.
We found a great little spot to sit in the shade (as it was quite hot in the sun), we ate lunch, and had a fabulous view of High Peaks. From there we watched a California Condor soaring above the peaks, flying and flying, and finally perching right on the top of the peak. We had great views while she/he sat there checking things out.
Another great hike with terrific views and great Condor sightings!