Pig Fence Peak P500
Condor Peak P300

Tue, Jan 28, 2014
Pig Fence Peak
Condor Peak
Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPX Profile

I had hoped to make another foray into the Southern Sierra to close out the very dry month of January, but family life intervened and I was coerced into attending a Junior Parents' College Night at my son's highschool. Rather than sulk, stay home and catch up on needed chores around the house, I decided to drive down to Pinnacles National Park to explore some new areas of the park. More a sport climber's mecca, there aren't many summits in the park, only 14 by my count and I had already been to ten of them. Two unvisited ones were on the east side of the park in the foothills adjacent to the San Andreas Fault. Though there are no maintained trails leading to either of them, the satellite view showed old ranch roads and firebreaks that looked like they could be used to reach them. I had these marked on my GPS and armed with only this for navigation, I drove out early on a Tuesday morning.

I reached the Visitor Center on the east side in under two hours, arriving just after 8a. Unfortunately the center isn't open until 9:30a on weekdays (according to a sign on the door, though the NPS website says 9a - ymmv), so I simply left my Golden Eagle Pass on my dash where I parked it at the Peaks View Area about a mile west of the Visitor Center. I followed the main trail back towards the campground and Visitor Center a short distance to a junction, crossed the gate found near here, walked across the main road and started up the north side into the brush. I had thought some minor bushwhacking here would get me to the start of the firebreak in a third of a mile, but it proved much harder. I made only half the distance before giving up. Several ticks that hitched rides played a part in this. I went back down to the highway, returned to the trail and started east, looking for another way up. I was about to head up to some instrumentation that I could see about 50 yards above the road just as a Park Service employee stopped, set out some cones, and went up to check on the instruments. I continued east. It took only a few minutes to find another likely starting place and less than ten minutes to find the break I was looking for with very little ensuing bushwhacking.

It might seem odd that a firebreak does not reach down to the road and this had me puzzled as well until I reached it. It turns out what looks like a firebreak on the satellite view is really a fenceline built by the Park Service to keep pigs out. It's very well constructed and has a tight mesh at the bottom to thwart pigs, barbed-wire higher up to keep out cattle and discourage people. About four feet on either of the fence has been cleared, probably initially to help the construction, but also later to facilitate maintenance. The location is very close to the old eastern boundary of the park and the ridge makes a convenient place for the fence, probably acting as a firebreak as well. This fence was key to reaching what I've dubbed "Pig Fence Peak" since it is more than three miles from the pavement. Without it, the chaparral would be far too daunting to make this a reasonable outing. I found that both sides of the fence could be hiked without the need to cross from one side to the other at various places as one often finds with old fencelines. There was only one spot I found where I needed to cross the fence because the ground had given way near a steep slope. The north-south trending ridge offers fine views to the west to the more interesting features of the park, with Mt. Defiance and Little Pinnacles at the southern end, the High Peaks in the middle, and the Balconies towards the north. It was almost 10:15a by the time I had reached the highpoint along the ridge at 2,236ft.

I had originally planned to take the same way back but had noted what looked like another fence/firebreak on the next ridge to the east. This did not show at all on the satellite view I had seen, evidently because it is a newer fence, probably built after the eastern boundary was extended some years ago. This newer fence had an established use trail on the east side of the fence, just outside the park. Judging from the droppings, it looks like it is irregularly used by the local rancher(s) on horseback. Though not as scenic as the western ridgeline (which blocks the views to High Peaks and the Balconies), one can view the Diablo Range to better advantage and the San Andreas Rift Zone along which SR25 travels. About halfway along this ridgeline the fence changes from south-trending to eastwards, dropping me down on SR146 very close to the junction with SR25.

Now about 11:15a, I turned my attention to the second peak of the day which was simply unnamed Peak 2,011ft when I started. I walked about a mile westwards on SR146 towards the visitor center, noting what looked like fences and private ranchlands across the road to the south. I had thought all the land on both sides were part of the park, but found this to be otherwise later. The official park map actually shows a section of private property within the park here, though depicted in the same green color as the park rather than the white for other surrounding private property. I'd guess they have some arrangement with the current owners to make this part of the park at some point in the future (maybe when they die). Still, the area immediately south of the road is shown as part of the park, but the public does not seem particularly welcome. I thus struggled some in trying to determine where I could legally hike without returning to the Visitor Center to ask, which was somewhat out of my way. After crossing a meadow in Bear Valley, I decided to straddle a fenceline which looked to be part of the park boundary, but was in fact another pig fence inside the park, this one on the south of the highway and Bear Valley, looking to keep pigs off the hill immediately to the south comprising Peaks 1,977ft and 2,011ft, the latter being my destination. I followed a well-used ranch road just outside this fence leading around the east side of the peaks where I knew an old road could be found leading up to them. Just before this junction, I came across an obvious private property boundary and the end of the pig fence. I crossed briefly onto the Regan Ranch property, almost immediately starting up an old, unused road rising to the south. I saw a small herd of 4-5 pigs run off upon my approach. Not far from the crest the road deteriorates but still has a useable track, though mostly by animals, not people. With only mild brush to contend with, I followed the crest south towards Peak 2,011ft, coming across a dilapidated wooden boundary fence. Later I determined from maps that this is likely the current park boundary. There was nothing coming up from the private property to keep pigs out if that was the intent of the more elaborate fence I'd found down in Bear Valley. I picked up a few more ticks in here, but they were only a minor inconvenience and just before the summit I landed on a good dirt road inside the park boundary. I followed this up about 100yds, only 20yds from the summit where I was confronted by an electric fence. I found this quite odd.

The fence looked to be a pig fence that had been electrified. I studied it some, and though it didn't look new, it looked like it was still in service. A solar-powered box at a gate gave off a low hum of activity. The puzzle pieces were beginning to fit together. A few minutes earlier, when I had reached the crest I saw several turkey vultures flying overhead and I paused to photograph one of them. I thought nothing more of this until I saw a dozen more birds rise from the summit just inside the gate as I approached. I suddenly realized these weren't turkey vultures, but California condors and the fence was protecting a feeding location where they probably deposit dead cows, pigs or other mammals for the condors to feed on. I turned back down the road and decided the best course of action would be to get away from the electric fence and leave the condors to their feeding. I watched to the east where the dozen that had taken flight were circling about, probably waiting for me to leave. I noticed they all had tags on the leading edge of their right wings, which must be used to identify individuals.

As I headed down the good road through Grass Valley I noticed what looked like buildings up by Peak 1,977ft. I had originally planned to return via the ridgeline going over this other summit but was glad I didn't. The buildings turned out to be as I suspected, used for the raising and release of the condors into the wild. One that I photographed with a zoom appears to be an aviary, with meshed fencing to begin introducing the immature birds to the outside environment. A government truck was parked halfway down the canyon just below a side road leading to the buildings. I guessed perhaps the park employees walk remaining distance to keep the condors from becoming habituated to vehicles. Ten minutes further down the road I was confronted by a park ranger driving another truck up the road to find me. He was very kind in the confrontation, not getting on me at all for being in an unauthorized part of the park. He had been alerted by biologists working above to my presence and had been sent to investigate. He was very interested in how I had come to be there, knowing that the obvious entry from the west was well signed and impossible to ignore. I didn't have a map on me, but I showed him my route on the GPS and described how I had come to find the electric fence. He seemed happy that I had guessed I was in restricted space and making my way out of it, and left me without taking ID or issuing a citation. He then got back in his truck and continued up the road to speak with the biologists.

It was not long after this encounter that I came across the gated fence with the plurality of Area Closed signs. None of them mention Condor Sanctuary, just "closed ... because of emergency conditions." In fact none of the signs I encountered anywhere gave the reason for closure as due to the condors, but I suppose the Park Service figured that would only make the place more of a magnet for those trying to see these elusive, endangered birds. I left feeling guilty and sorry that I had intruded on this area. With so few birds (27 are currently being maintained by the Pinnacles staff and 13 have died - they don't have a great survival record) they certainly deserve some space to themselves.

I returned to the junction near where I had started hours earlier and was soon back to the TH at the Peaks View Area. They had a display plaque relating to hiking in the area which included some information about the condors. It was here that I learned that the birds are all tagged on the wings and the coloration on the underside that distinguishes them from turkey vultures and other large birds. Please do not visit this peak without permission from the Park Service - their future survival may very well depend on people giving them space for a fighting chance.

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