On Wings of Condors (SNS)

Salinas, CA – Salinas Municipal Airport (SNS)

Without having to travel all the way down to the Andes, a good option to gather an eyeful of Condor is the Pinnacles National Monument, in our own backyard. The wx gods graced us with not just perfect flying and hiking wx, but a huge, wet, juicy winter that has prompted the flower gods into a frenzy of color. Wow… what a day to be alive!

Sat, the 27th of March, woke up to crystal skies scoured clean by rains earlier in the week. The wx briefer couldn’t find anything to complain about. It had to be the shortest briefing in a long time. Valerie and Mike, in their new LSA, a Dova Skylark, were on their first fly out with the Marin 99s. Kitty and Keppler, Sarah and Gerry and Pat, Don and I cruised down to Salinas for spectacular Bay area flying. Saturday morning is a good time to tour the area. There’s not so many commercial flights cutting across and Class Bravo is glad to see you.

Even though the ride down was like satin, Salinas had some gusty, cross-winds out on their welcome mat. It’s a good thing to practice the slip and crab to landing for those ‘just in case’ moments. We had arranged to rent two, small cars for the crews. But Central Coast Aviation rolled out the red carpet for us and had a big, shiny Jeep and a comfy, new truck waiting for us. The vehicles even came with bottles of water and fresh cookies!

From SWS airport it’s just a 20 mile drive south through the verdant and lush Salinas Valley to the town of Soledad. From here you take Hwy 146 east for 12 miles to the west entrance of the park. The soils along the historic ‘Camino Real’ are incredibly rich and loamy. Thousands of acres are hard at work providing our green needs. Harvest teams moved along the rows, picking early before the day heated up. Many thanks for their labors!

As you climb east out of the Salinas Valley, a series of benches rise off the floor of the Salinas plain with glorious views of vineyards and distant coastal mountains. The vines, recently pruned and sprouting their first foray into 2010, give us those delightful Central Coast wines that have come to rival the 600 pound gorilla to the north. Already the day is a beaut and smiles abound.

The West entrance of Pinnacles National Monument is tucked up into the folds of bizarre and elegant rock formations. Two million years ago, this area was a large volcano 195 miles to the south. The volcano imploded and the terrain caught a ride north on the Pacific Plate. Years of wind and water scouring the rock have smoothed the edges to spherical walls. The park is popular with rock climbers, hikers, bird watchers and wild flower enthusiasts.

We chose an easy trail that traveled clockwise around the formations, following a creek that ducked underground for .6 miles. Be sure to take a flashlight because it’s a great cave experience. Wild flowers carpeted meadows along the creek, tempting us to jettison the hike and go for a lay in the meadow. Our picnic at creek edge gave us the time to savor the song of stream and wild lands.

With lunch packed up it was time to shift into low gear and climb the High Peaks Trail up and over to where we began. Gerry set a ferocious pace up into the domain of the raptors. Not quite hot, but plenty warm, we hiked 2000’ up, out of riparian and into the rocky spires. Views explode in all directions; no wonder the birds love it here. I claimed the rear of the congo line because there were so many pictures to take and memories to save.

Every bit of altitude gain, a new color or type of wild flower would escort the trail, lustily chortling their finery to the world. They say ‘timing and location’; I think we had it all. At the apex of the High Peaks trail you can spy condor nests, Cliff Swallows and the graceful soaring of Turkey Vultures and Condors. Just 20 years ago, California Condors were so close to extinction only 3 mating pairs were alive. This is a sight worth fighting for. The trail down folded in on itself so many times you could look down and see 5 layers of traverse. Nice to be on the down hill after that climb. Our knees were barking with the quick decline. I think we all were glad to get back to the car and off our feet.

The flight home, along the coast, was an experience people pay big money for. The evening sun cast a golden light over shore and hillside, lending a rosy glow to an extraordinary day. The Golden Gate cradled the light in its span, framing the City by the bay. Back at home base the ‘straight in’ hour was upon us. With no one in the pattern doing circuits, the arrivals were not wasting any time getting on the ground. All approaches went smoothly. It was lots of fun comparing notes, at the fuel pump, where people had been playing that day. What a life, what a blessing! Great friends, great fun, great flying.
.. Cindy

KSNS Salinas Municipal Airport, Salinas, California, USA
Elevation: 85 ft. / 25.9 m (surveyed)
Variation: 16E (1980)
From city: 3 miles SE of SALINAS, CA

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