PAICINES, California — I didn’t know anything about Pinnacles National Park, except that it probably had pinnacles, when I visited the park during a trip to California last month.

So I certainly didn’t suspect that my impromptu, 50-mile detour to the park, inspired by a highway sign, would give me a glimpse of a wildlife miracle, one I would have thought impossible just a few years ago.

California condors were on the brink of extinction within recent memory. In 1982, only 23 members of the species, the largest land birds in North America, survived, all in captivity. Had someone told me then that I’d ever see a California condor in the wild, I would have scoffed and pegged them as an environmental optimist.

But since that time, a remarkable condor-recovery program has greatly increased the number of birds.

Admittedly, I’m a bit behind in my condor news. So when I stopped at the Pinnacles Visitors Center and a ranger showed me on a park map where condors had been seen in recent days, my response was, "Wait. What? Condors? California condors? In the wild?"

California condors, I learned, have been released into the wild since 1992.

Since then, the California condor population has grown to about 450 birds, including about 275 living in the wild. And Pinnacles is one of only five release sites in California, Arizona and Mexico. The park is now home to 27 free-flying adult condors.

The Pinnacles condors frequently leave the park and fly with the 35 birds found at Big Sur, another release site. So seeing the birds is not guaranteed, and I didn’t really think that I’d spot a condor, even setting out on my hike up the auspiciously named Condor Gulch Trail.

Pinnacles, about 140 miles south of the San Francisco Bay area, was one of the first national monuments placed on the protected list by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908. It was upgraded to national park status in 2013 and still has limited facilities for a national park.

The visitors center is a small outpost that serves double duty as a camp store for the park campgrounds.

The main entrance and visitors center is on the east side of the 26,000-acre park, with another entrance on the west. And although visitors can hike between the western and eastern sides, they can’t drive through. Driving around the park from one entrance to the other can take as long as two hours.

Hiking the park’s system of scenic trails, many of them steep and rugged, is the main activity. Experienced rock climbers can also tackle some of the park’s cliffs and walls.

Pinnacles was named for the jagged peaks that stand in sharp contrast to the curvaceous hills of the surrounding Coast Ranges.

The park is located near the San Andreas Fault, where the North American plate and Pacific plate scrape together. The pinnacles were born about 195 miles south as a volcanic formation and were slowly carried north, over millions of years, by the movement of the Pacific plate.

(The plate carried only about two-thirds of the volcanic rock formation north. The rest, known as the Neenach Formation, can still be seen just northeast of Los Angeles.)

At the park’s Bear Gulch area, visitors will find a parking lot, restrooms, drinking water and a small nature center. From there, hikers can take Condor Gulch Trail up toward 2,720-foot Hawkins Peak and High Peaks Trail or follow Bear Gulch Cave Trail through some short, interesting caves — a huge contrast to the wide-open panoramas and high perches awaiting on the other trails.

I enjoyed the hike through the caves and past the dripping Moses Spring, a tiny oasis in a sere and dry landscape.

But the real treat was still waiting, circling on wind currents above Condor Gulch.

Condor Gulch Trail is a moderately difficult path that takes hikers to a magnificent overlook with a panoramic view. Beyond the overlook, the trail becomes even steeper and more strenuous as it connects to High Peaks Trail and the heart of the Pinnacles rock formations. Hiking the 5.3-mile loop takes three to five hours, so carry plenty of water.

I made it to the overlook, about 1.5 miles in, without seeing any kind of bird. 

But then, on the steep climb toward High Peaks, I spied a flash of dark wings above me.

What was it?

Pinnacles is also home to turkey vultures, one of my favorite birds but a species I can see all the time at home.

The smaller turkey vultures look similar to California condors, especially from a distance. Condors hold their wings flat when soaring, vultures hold their wings in a V-shape and tend to wobble more in flight.

One easy way to distinguish the birds as they fly overhead is by the pattern of the underwing area. Adult condors have striking white patches under the front edge of their black wings. Vultures have light, silvery areas at the trailing edge of their underwings.

When I trained my camera on the bird flying far overhead and clearly made out the condor-patterned wings, I had a bit of trouble believing what I was seeing.

I was finally happy that I had lugged my heavy, high-powered camera lens up the mountain. Although I could have seen as much or more with lighter binoculars, they would not have captured the evidence of the astounding sight.

And I could not have bragged (some might say gloated) quite as much as when I brought home the pictures to share with my family and friends.

— Steve Stephens can be reached at sstephens@dispatch.com or on Twitter @SteveStephens.

If You Go

PINNACLES NATIONAL PARK

Located about 150 south of San Francisco, and about 50 inland miles from Monterrey, this 26,000-acre national park is one of only five sites where rare California condors are released and live in the wild.

The park offers many miles of scenic, sometimes rugged, hiking trails; a campground and basic facilities.

LEARNING MORE

For more information about Pinnacles National Park, call the park office at 831-389-4485 or visit www.nps.gov/pinn.