Thursday, April 11, 2013

Pinnacles National Park

In April, we decided to take a trip close to home.  The destinations were Pinnacles National Park and Carrizo Plain National Monument.  We headed to Pinnacles for some different scenery and with the hope to see condors. Hoping to see the San Joaquin Kit Fox was our reason for heading to Carrizo Plain.

The drive to Pinnacles from the Sacramento Area is a relatively pretty drive, but I ended up driving right past our planned lunch stop (Pacheco State Park).  So, we ended up pulling off the road at Casa De Fruta and having lunch while their peacocks serenaded us.  There is a huge fruit stand there, with lots of shops, a train ride and more.  It was quite the happening place in the the middle of nowhere.

Once at the western entrance to Pinnacles we decided to stretch our legs after the long drive by hitting the trails.  However, there was a ranger doing traffic control on the road to the parking lot which made it painfully obvious that all the popular trails were really crowded.  “Ah, we can wait to do them tomorrow” we thought.  So, instead we headed up the Wilderness Trail.  This trail provides a good vantage point of the rock formations and was very uncrowded.  

View of the Pinnacles:
Pinnacles National Park

Western Fence Lizard:
Western Fence Lizard Displaying

 View from Wilderness Trail:
Wilderness Trail, Pinnacles National Park

We elected to stay at a Bed and Breakfast right at the doorstep to the park and this was a good choice.  The Inn at the Pinnacles is quite pretty and the owners are wonderful.  They definitely deserve the high ratings and good reviews on Tripadvisor.  With 160 acres of open land and vineyards, the critter watching around the Inn is likely quite good, but after checking in and having a light dinner we decided to head back into the park instead to see what would be out around dusk.

Before leaving we did see our first snake of the trip.  This juvenile Gopher Snake was cruising along the gravel parking area at the Inn.

Juvenile Gopher Snake

The trip out after dinner was a bit of a bust since we didn’t see much.  We even cruised the long road between Soledad and the park after dark but all we saw were a couple Great Horned Owls and a Common Poorwill.  No mammals at all.  We did have some good light for more shots of the Pinnacles before the sun went down:

Entrance Road, Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park

That night we went to bed with the plan to hit the park sharply at 7:30AM (which is when they open) to do the more popular trails in good light.   That plan died quickly around midnight as the wind picked up…and picked up…and picked up some more.  In fact, we got very little sleep that night due to ferocious winds that were gusting up to 50 MPH and banging things around.  Unfortunately, the winds were not much better in the morning and after some discussion we decided to skip the hikes at the Pinnacles since they are all high up in the cliff areas and we didn’t think they would be very enjoyable in the high winds.

After a VERY nice breakfast at the Inn, we took a last walk around the grounds hoping to spot something.  But, nothing sane was out in this wind.   So, we packed up and headed south to Atascadero which was our gateway to Carrizo Plain in hopes of less wind there.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Carrizo Plain National Monument

Atascadero is about 1 1/2 hours from Carrizo Plain. For non-campers it really has the closest decent lodging options for the northern end of the park.  As it turned out, that 1 1/2 hour drive is really pretty and there are chances of spotting critters along the way.  

As we neared Carrizo Plain for the first time, my initial thoughts were that this wasn’t quite what I expected.  I expected more of a prairie habitat but the northern part of the park is basically a desert habitat.  While we knew the odds of seeing any wildflowers this year were slim due to the lack of rain, we didn’t expect such a dry and harsh environment.  In fact, my wife's knickname for the place is "Carrizo... really Plain". Of course, the fact that the howling winds hadn’t dissipated at all didn’t help with the first impression.  Our first drive along the main road in the park did turn up a few photo ops.

Carrizo Plain:
Carrizo Plain Entrance

 California Ground Squirrel:
California Ground Squirrel

 Ferruginous Hawk:
Ferruginous Hawk

The wind ended up driving us out of the park early since we grew tired of dodging the army of tumbleweeds attacking us (check out the video below).  The bad conditions even made us re-think a night drive.  So, instead we went to sleep early hoping that the wind would be better the next day.

The conditions were better the next morning.  We left Atascadero by 7AM and really enjoyed the drive to Carrizo Plain.  In fact, we spotted 4 deer (the only ones of the trip), 2 roadrunners, and a coyote on the drive in.   We also had better luck in Carrizo and managed some good wildlife sightings throughout the day.

San Joaquin Antelope Squirrel:
San Joaquin Antelope Squirrel

Shelby Rocks:
Shelby Rocks, Carrizo Plain

Gopher Snake:
Gopher Snake

Common Side-blotched Lizard:
 Common Side-blotched Lizard

View from Soda Lake Lookout:
Soda Lake, Carrizo Plain

We headed back to Atascadero for an early dinner with plans to drive all the way back to Carrizo in the evening with hopes of spotting some nocturnal wildlife.  The San Joaquin Kit fox was our main target after dark but we also wanted to see the Giant Kangaroo Rat.

The desert Cottontails were out in force at sunset around the visitor center:
Desert Cottontail

We also spotted a Giant Kangaroo Rat after dark at the visitor center but the darn thing wouldn't stop darting in and out of the old farm equipment and I couldn't get a decent photo of it.  Frustrating!  I had read that these rats would tend to stay still when caught in the beam of a flashlight.  Not this one!  Just when I had enough light on it to focus and press the shutter, the darn thing would hop a foot to the right..."damn".  Then, I would line it up again and it would hop a foot to the left..."damn".  This went on about 5 times before it hopped under the farm equipment and wouldn't come out..."double damn!".

We had received tips that the area around the Visitor Center was a good place to spot the Kit fox so we waited in the dark for a while hoping to spot something but after an hour or so of hanging out with only the Kangaroo Rat spotted (but not photographed), we decided to cruise the roads for a while.

Our luck on the roads was no better.  We did manage to see one more Giant Kangaroo Rat and I barely managed to get its butt in focus before it hopped away:

Giant Kangaroo Rat

The drive back was quite eventful.  I have never encountered so many rodents running across the road before.  We must have had close to 20 run across the road in front of our car.  Luckily, I think I managed to avoid all of them.  They were all likely Pocket Mouse of some sort with a Kangaroo Rat or too as well.  It kept me from falling asleep at the wheel.

The weather the next day was really nice.  Sunny and not very windy at all.  We ended up spending an hour or so around the visitor center watching the Antelope Squirrels run around.  They are great fun to watch.

San Joaquin Antelope Squirrel

San Joaquin Antelope Squirrel Grazing

We also took a few hikes and did our best to look for snakes and other reptiles.   We came up empty in the snake department but did see quite a few lizards and the ground squirrels were running around everywhere.

We drove Soda Lake road all the way south to Maricopa.  The south end of Carrizo Plain did actually have some green and even a few flowers.  It is more like what we expected the whole place to be.  But, there was no wildlife out at all and the green was few and far between.  Our route home was through Taft and then north on I5.  It was far from a pretty or even pleasant drive so we hustled north as fast as we could.  Any plans to visit the eastern entrance of Pinnacles were quickly dismissed as the hour grew later and the need to get home grew stronger.

Overall, we felt is was an OK trip.  The wind obvious played a huge factor in the lack of wildlife sightings but the dry conditions sure didn't help either.  We do plan on returning to Pinnacles and Carrizo in the future.  But, that will probably wait until we are in a position to take a spontaneous trip when we get reports of good conditions.  We have seen pictures of the wildflowers around both parks and they can be spectacular.  We would like to see that someday.

Here's a compilation video from the trip that gives a good idea of just how windy it was:

Mammals Photographed (new in Bold):
- San Joaquin Antelope Squirrel
- Giant Kangaroo Rat
- California Ground Squirrel
- Black-tailed Deer
- Desert Cottontail
- Pronghorn
- Coyote
- Black-tailed Jackrabbit

New Birds Photographed:
- Horned Lark
- California Towhee
- Ferruginous Hawk
- Swainson's Hawk
- California Thrasher
- Common Poorwill

New Reptiles Photographed:
- Common Side-blotched Lizard
- Gopher Snake