Is California’s Condor Trail the next great hike to do?
The rugged chaparral of California’s Sespe Wilderness was hidden beneath the camouflage of mahogany and sage hues. Nearly a week into her Condor Trail hike, Brittany Nielsen has been surveying this rugged landscape. She had previously faced downpour, severe flooding and hypothermia. Now she leaned against her pack in the spring sunshine, peering into the thicket and hoping the trail would emerge like a jay from the scrub.
“I learned a lesson about being calm while being lost on the trail,” Nielsen says. Earlier, miles behind and out of food, she had frantically searched for the way, only to find herself exhausted. The trail on the side of Sespe Creek was badly overgrown in sections and required strong wayfinding skills to navigate.
“When I opened my eyes I was looking up at the sky,” Nielsen says, “and above me – I couldn’t believe it – there was a condor.” She noted the telltale band of white feathers in the shape of a scalene triangle that decorated the bird’s nine-foot wingspan. When the condor disappeared, Nielsen looked down at the chaparral where, directly in front of her, she discovered a small rock cairn that marked the trail.
During her 37 day trek, Nielsen would lose and gain the trail multiple times as she fought through menacing brush and shouted expletives no one could hear in the remotest pockets of the Los National Forest. padres. She would travel through seven wilderness areas, along the shores of central California, past colonies of elephant seals and through the ancestral lands of the Chumash, Salinan, Esselen, Tataviam and Costanoan peoples.
Unlike the well-established John Muir and Pacific Crest trails in California, the Condor Trail is a hiking “route”, which means that its course exists – as a continuous thread of trails and roads and travels across the country – but lacks proper signage and maintenance. While these popular hiking routes see hundreds of hikers a year, Nielsen took the Condor Trail alone in 2015. When she finished on June 18, she was the first hiker to complete it.
“You can’t do the Condor Trail with an ego,” says Nielsen, describing how he thwarted accomplished hikers and trail runners. “It’s an exercise in mental toughness. You must have an open mind and be willing to be humble and lost.
A path through the brush
After decades of planning by local hiking enthusiasts and mapmakers, the elusive trail now has its own official guide. Published last summer by author Brian Sarvis, Condor Trail Guide: Hiker’s Guide to the 400-Mile Condor Trail Through California’s Los Padres National Forest describes the hike from its starting point in Lake Piru in Ventura County to its terminus at Bottchers Gap in Monterey County. Along the way, Sarvis’ guidebook provides essential information on water sources, navigation, and detailed maps crafted with the help of cartographer Bryan Conant.
“Brittany Nielsen inspired us all and proved that the route could be hiked,” says Sarvis, a retired superintendent from Santa Barbara, Calif., who has spent the past six years preparing the guide and ultimately walk the trail. twice, once in both directions. “The advantage of the Condor Trail is its solitude and immersion in the natural world. It’s not a track to follow and try to complete in record time.
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After hiking cross-country routes (hikes without defined trails) through California’s Sierra Nevada, Sarvis became interested in the trail that lay in his own backyard. He estimates that about half of the Condor Trail is on defined paths or roads, while a quarter is on overgrown paths. The last quarter is mostly cross-country routes, some of which are home to thick stands of poison oak. With months spent on the trail through hike, section hike or day hike to compile his guide, Sarvis says he’s learned how quickly unmaintained trails can disappear, whether caused by forest fires, landslides, floods or overgrowth.
Sarvis recommends hiking the trail in the winter or spring when the rains provide plenty of water sources that dry up in the summer. However, he warns that heavy rain can make water crossings dangerous and days of traveling with wet feet. He hiked the trail both times in March or April, taking 34 days for each hike.
“I love following the wildflowers from Lake Piru to the Ventana Wilderness,” he says, describing the fields of poppies and lupins that blaze across the landscape like firecrackers. “You get a whole month of wildflowers on this hike if you go in early spring.”
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Sarvis’ guide is a monumental achievement in the decades-long history of the Condor Trail which began in 1996, when hiker and software engineer Alan Coles began work on the route, later extending the width of the trail with his friend Chris Danch. Together, the two hoped to form a route that would showcase the highlights of their beloved Los Padres National Forest, from the towering peaks of the Sespe Wilderness to the dense stands of redwoods of Big Sur, all home to the iconic endangered species. of state extinction, the California condor.
In the late 1990s, Bryan Conant of the Los Padres Forest Association helped breathe new life into the trail, devoting his free time to mapping the entire route and creating a site Web for the trail, which he still leads as the most active trail today. steward. Each year, Conant helps provide information to hikers attempting the trail, including Nielsen, who says Conant was instrumental in getting him to the finish line. Conant thinks Sarvis’ new guide will make the trail much more accessible to future hikers. Since Nielsen hiked the trail in 2015, Conant says 12 others have done the same.
Retaining the trail’s namesake
Wildlife biologist Kara Fadden of the Ventana Wildlife Society in Monterey, Calif., recommends hikers on the trail to look for California condors drifting overhead or in redwoods or rock-cut alcoves above ground. , places where they often nest or roost. Sometimes condors can be spotted on the ground, feeding on carrion (animal carcasses) including deer, wild pigs and coyotes, as well as marine mammals like whales and sea lions.
Condors became extinct in the wild in 1987, when biologists captured the remaining wild birds for a captive breeding program. At the time, there were only 27 condors left in the world. Their numbers have dwindled over the decades due to poaching, DDT and lead poisoning, electrocution and collisions with power lines, and habitat destruction. Emergency captive breeding efforts have helped the birds make a comeback, although the species is still listed as critically endangered; some 300 wild condors now fly in the United States and Mexico (and nearly 200 live in captivity.)
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Fadden says about 180 condors live in the wild in central and southern California, with six more expected to be released later this year by the Ventana Wildlife Society. In the near future, the Yurok Tribe of Northern California plans to reintroduce captive condors to Redwood National Park, part of their native range in Northern California that once extended from British Columbia. to Baja California. There is evidence that thousands of years ago condor habitat extended all the way to the East Coast.
The consumption of garbage and micro-waste is a threat to condors. “Always pack and pack,” says Fadden, speaking of the importance of Leave No Trace principles in the backcountry. But one of the biggest current threats to the species is the use of lead bullets by hunters to capture animals. If ammunition fragments are ingested while recovering carrion, it can lead to fatal lead poisoning.
Humans can co-exist with condors by being good stewards of the land and respecting wildlife. “They’ve shown us over the years that they know how to breed, find wild food, and great nesting habitat,” says Fadden. “Now we just have to support them as they recover.”
In doing so, Fadden hopes more hikers in the future will spot the condors and find inspiration in their remarkable resilience.