Podcast Episodes

The Lost Horse Mine

Even before the California Gold Rush of 1849, prospectors were finding gold in Southern California. As the rewards from the mines in the Sierras began to wither, miners headed toward the deserts, where hot summers, scarce water, limited wood sources, and the difficulty and high cost of transporting equipment and provisions created a challenging mining environment. But a few hardy adventurers endured, and about 300 mines were developed in what is now Joshua Tree National Park.

Few of these mines produced much, but one certainly did — the Lost Horse Mine.


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You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

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Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode.

Joshua Tree National Park – National Park Service Website

Lost Horse Mine Trail – Modern Hiker


Transcript

Even before the California Gold Rush of 1849, prospectors were finding gold in southern California. As the rewards from the mines in the Sierras began to wither, miners headed toward the deserts, where hot summers, scarce water, limited wood sources, and the difficulty and high cost of transporting equipment and provisions created a challenging mining environment. But a few hardy adventurers endured, and about 300 mines were developed in what is now Joshua Tree National Park.

Few of these mines produced much, but one certainly did.

Here’s Abigail Trabue

Johnny Lang and his father drove their herd of cattle into the Lost Horse Valley in 1890, having been forced to move west after his brother and six other cowboys were gunned down in New Mexico. One night, while camped in the Valley, the Langs horses disappeared. The next morning Johnny tracked them to the camp of a group of unsavory cattle rustlers, the McHaney brothers, at their oasis encampment.

The oasis that now makes its home as an entrance to Joshua Tree National Park was first settled by the Serrano people, who called it Mara, meaning “the place of little springs and much grass.” Legend holds they came to the oasis because a medicine man told them it was a good place to live and that they would have many male offspring. The medicine man instructed them to plant a palm tree each time a boy was born. In the first year, the Serrano planted 29 palm trees at the oasis. The palms eventually provided the Serrano with the materials for food, clothing, cooking implements, and housing. They were able to successfully cultivate the oasis with corn, beans, pumpkins, and squash, utilizing the life-giving waters that rise along a mountain fault.

The McHaney brothers arrived at the oasis that is now known as twenty-nine palms to hide their stolen cattle trade. They hid cattle that had been poached from other ranchers in isolated rocky coves nearby.

Johnny Lang met up with a man named “Dutch” Frank who had also been intimidated by the McHaneys. Frank had discovered gold – and he was certain that it was a very profitable claim, but he was afraid to begin developing it because of the threat of the McHaneys taking it over. Jim McHaney and another gang member had already forced, at gunpoint, a man named of Frank James to sign over his claim to the Desert Queen Mine, and after he signed, they shot and killed him.

Lang was willing to take the risk of running afoul of the McHaneys for the chance at riches. He and his father bought the rights to Frank’s mine for $1000 and called it Lost Horse. To protect the claim, and protect himself from being outright killed by the McHaney Gang, Lang took on three partners. After filing their claim, they set up a two-stamp mill and began to process gold – lots of it.

A stamp mill consists of a set of heavy steel stamps, loosely held vertically in a frame, in which they can slide up and down. Miners would bring up ore from the mine, and then the stamps would be lifted and dropped onto it, crushing the rock to reveal mineral inside. Mills were categorized by how many stamps they had. Lang’s two-stamp mill had a pair.

The claim was profitable, but Lang and his partners needed a larger financed operation to fully extract the abundance of riches, so they sold their claim to a wealthy rancher from Montana, J.D. Ryan. Ryan found a steam-powered, ten-stamp mill near the Colorado River and had it dismantled and hauled to the mine site. To provide the required steam for the mill, he ran a two-inch pipeline 3.5 miles from the wells at his ranch to an earth and stone reservoir near the mill. Steam engines fueled by trees from nearby mountains were used to push the water up the 750-foot elevation gain where it was then boiled to power the stamp mill. Heating the water at both the ranch and the mill required a lot of wood, and the results of the timbering can still be seen today in the sparsely vegetated hillsides at both sites.

The booming of the ten 850-pound stamps could be heard echoing across the valley 24 hours a day as the ore was crushed. Water added to the crushed rock made a slurry, which washed over copper plates covered with a thin film of mercury. The gold particles clung to the mercury and the debris washed away.

The amalgam of mercury and gold was smelted to separate the two metals. The mercury could be reused and the gold was formed into bricks. These bricks were carried to Banning every week, concealed in a 16-horse freight wagon. The 130-mile trip to deliver the gold and return with supplies took five days.

Johnny Lang stayed with the mine, working for Ryan to supervise the night shift at the mine. The day shift was regularly producing an amalgam the size of a baseball while Lang’s night shift was producing something closer to the size of a golf ball. It took a private detective to determine that when Johnny removed the amalgam from the copper plates, he kept half for himself. Ryan gave Lang a choice: sell out or go to jail. Lang sold, then moved into a nearby canyon where he continued to prospect.

The Lost Horse Mine continued producing until 1905, when the miners hit a fault line, crumbling the rock and forever losing the ore-bearing vein. The mine was leased to others who continued to look for gold over periods of time, but often laid dormant until 1931. During the great depression, gold prices were skyrocketing, so miners went back to Lost Horse to try and recover more gold from unprocessed chunks of material laying around the site with a new process that involved cyanide. They were able to produce a few hundred more ounces of gold.

During one of the mine’s periods of abandonment, Lang returned and set up residence in the cookhouse. Much of the gold he had stolen was still hidden at the mill site, and he had returned to retrieve his stash. He was able to recover some of it and sell it off, but in the winter of 1925, he caught ill. Unable to walk out for help, Lang died of exposure along Keys View Road. His body wasn’t discovered for another two months.

The Lost Horse Mine delivered more than 10,000 ounces of gold and 16,000 ounces of silver — worth approximately $5 million today — between 1894 and 1931.

With the creation of Joshua Tree National Monument just a few years later in 1936, Lost Horse Mine came under the protection of the National Park Service. Over time, the wooden portions of the cabins and the headframe of the mill, which supported the massive stamps, collapsed.

In the later 20th century, the 500-foot mine shaft, with horizontal tunnels at each 100-foot level, began to collapse. The combination of unstable mine workings and earthquakes created a sink hole near the mill that eventually threatened the entire structure. Even the cable netting and concrete caps that were installed to protect visitors were consumed by the ever-expanding hole.

In 1996 a new technique for capping mineshafts was tried. An expanding polyurethane foam was injected into the hole to provide a stabilizing plug. The plug was then covered with fill material to protect it from UV damage.

Even with the toll that time has taken upon the mine, Lost Horse is still considered one of the best-preserved mills of its kind.

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Two distinct desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado, come together in Joshua Tree National Park. A fascinating variety of plants and animals make their homes in a land sculpted by strong winds and occasional torrents of rain. Dark night skies, a rich cultural history, and surreal geologic features add to the wonder of this vast wilderness in southern California.

There are few facilities within the Joshua Tree’s approximately 800,000 acres, making Joshua Tree a true desert wilderness. About 2.8 million visitors come to the park each year to enjoy hiking, camping, photography, rock climbing, and soaking in the serene desert scenery.

The busy season runs from October through May, as the summer is incredibly hot. Campgrounds usually fill on weekends through most of the busy season, and in the spring, they’re full all week long. During the quieter summer months, all campsites are first-come, first-served.

There is no water available in the park. Bring at least one gallon per person, per day, especially if you will be hiking or climbing. There’s also little to no shade in most places. Protect your skin from the elements and your body from dehydration. Sunglasses, long-sleeved shirts and pants, and a wide-brimmed hat are a must in the desert.

The Lost Horse Mine is a popular hiking destination. The trailhead is located off Keys View Road, and the trail, which is a four-mile round-trip, follows the road developed by the miners to haul ore and supplies. Mine shafts are dangerous, and historic structures are easily damaged. While the Lost Horse site has been stabilized, it is still not safe to walk on.

This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

Podcast Episodes

Rangers Make the Difference

July 31st of each year is set aside by the International Ranger Foundation as World Ranger Day to honor park rangers around the globe who are on the front line in the fight to protect our natural heritage. It’s also an opportunity to pay tribute to rangers who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

To honor this past Tuesday’s World Ranger Day, on this episode of America’s National Parks, we highlight three stories of National Park Service rangers who have gone above and beyond the call of duty.


Listen

Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Download this episode (right click and save)


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.


Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

The Dutch Creek Incident — National Wildfire Coordinating Group

Notable Women in Yosemite’s History — National Park Service Article

Ozark National Scenic Riverways Rangers Honored with Valor Award — National Park Service Article


Transcript

The America’s National Parks Podcast is sponsored by L.L.Bean.

L.L.Bean believes the more time you spend outside together, the better. That’s why they design products that make it easier to take longer walks, have deeper talks, and never worry about the weather. Discover clothing, outerwear, footwear and gear made for every type of adventure, with the outside built right in. Because on the inside, we’re all outsiders. Be an outsider with L.L.Bean.

—–
July 31st of each year is set aside by the International Ranger Foundation as World Ranger Day to honor park rangers around the globe who are on the front line in the fight to protect our natural heritage. It’s also an opportunity to pay tribute to rangers who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

To honor this past Tuesday’s World Ranger Day, on this episode of America’s National Parks we’re going to highlight three stories of National Park Service rangers who have gone above and beyond the call of duty.

Fighting forest fires is one of the most dangerous occupations there are. With the wildfires raging across the country, we begin with the story of a Wildland Firefighter whose tragedy led to massive changes in wildfire fighting protocol.

Here’s Abigail Trabue
——
Andrew Palmer was 6-foot-5 and 240-pounds, with a winning smile. He was hired to be a firefighter by Olympic National Park just four days after he graduated high school at age 18, ten years ago this June.

Twelve days later he had completed his basic training, and was assigned to an engine crew. On July 22, less than a month after he joined the National Park Service, Andy’s eager four-person team was dispatched to assist in fighting the Eagle Fire that was raging in northern California’s Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

The team headed out at 9pm, and after four hours of driving, they stopped at a motel to catch some sleep. Six hours later, they were back on the road. On the way, the tailpipe of their new truck fell off. They reported the problem but kept going. The check engine light came on, but they still carried on.

They arrived at the fire’s Command Post near Junction City, California at 6 p.m. The team’s captain left to get the truck repaired for two days while Andy and the rest of the group were sent to the fire line to begin cutting trees, with the specific instructions not to cut trees over 24 inches thick, because they were not certified to do so.

The captain was on his way back to the crew, having procured a loner truck, and just as he was stopping for lunch, a heartwrenching call came over his radio.

“Man Down Man Down. We need help. Medical emergency. Dozer pad. Broken leg. Bleeding. Drop Point 72 and dozer line. Call 911, we need help.”

The team had cut a Ponderosa pine 37” in diameter. Downslope from that tree was a 54” diameter sugar pine that had an uphill lean and a large fire scar on the uphill side. The Ponderosa pine fell toward the sugar pine, and its impact caused a 120-foot span of the sugar pine to split off. When it hit the ground, another portion of the trunk, about 8 feet long, broke off, crashing right into Andy.

A request for a helicopter evacuation went out quickly, but the smoky conditions were too risky for an air rescue. A team of ground paramedics reached Andy 55 minutes later, with a vacuum splint and a trauma bag, but they found that his injuries were much worse than were described in the original radio call for help. Along with the broken leg, he had a fractured shoulder, and was bleeding heavily.

Air evacuation was essential. A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter was called in but was told to stand down because a Forest Service helicopter was closer. But the Forest Service unit did not have a hoist and would need a clear landing zone, something the tree-packed mountain slope didn’t offer. The Coast Guard unit was recalled, losing valuable time. Paramedics debated whether it was even wise to even move Andy without further on-site treatment when they decided to clear a zone for the helicopter to hoist him out. The process took twenty minutes while the helicopter waited. Two hours and 47 minutes after being struck by a massive log, Andy was hoisted into the aircraft. He was pronounced dead Thirty-nine minutes later, before he even reached a hospital.

Andrew Palmer’s death, which became known as the Dutch Creek Incident, was a wake up call for the wildland firefighting community. Contingencies for medical emergencies were clearly lacking. An inquiry followed from the interagency Serious Accident Investigation Team. The crew captain was the only member of the team who would agree to an interview.

The investigators pointed to a host of problems that contributed to Andy’s death, including: inadequate supervision with the captain away; failure of the second in command to exercise proper supervisory control by allowing the team to cut down trees above their level of certification and an eagerness by the young crew to obtain a line assignment, among other factors.

The Dutch Creek Protocols were issued by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group in Andy’s honor. His story is part of the “6 Minutes for Safety” program used by thousands of firefighters around the world each day. Every year, on the anniversary of Andy’s death, firefighters train in medical emergency response.

The year after Andy died 100,000 pink stickers were sent to firefighters to insert into their Incident Response Pocket Guide, outlining the communication protocol in the event of a medical emergency.

Today, firefighters on the line ask three questions: What are we going to do if someone gets hurt? How will we get them out of here? and How long will it take to get them to a hospital?

The capability of NPS helicopters to extract an injured firefighter by short-haul is now an important consideration in any fire management plan.

On July 25, 2018, 2 tones sounded over firefighter radios “Stand by for a net message,” the voice said, followed by: “Today, July 25, marks the ten-year anniversary of the tragic events on the Eagle Fire. A fellow firefighter has left us…and we continue on…as friends, co-workers and comrades. We are bound by a common thread as we share in this great loss. Today, let unity bring us together in a special way. Reflect on the moments in life when hope and appreciation serve as guides and change us for tomorrow. Now, please join together to respectfully observe a moment of silence in honor of Andrew Palmer, wildland firefighter from the Olympic National Park.”

“Thank you for joining us in this special moment. Resume normal communication.”

—–

We now turn back the clock almost exactly 100 years. It was the summer of 1918, toward the end of World War I. Able-bodied men were fighting overseas, and women were tapped to work all sorts of jobs traditionally held by men at the time, including police officers and factory workers. In California, Yosemite National Park, which had just been transferred to the new National Park Service, needed rangers.

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Clare Marie Hodges first came to Yosemite when she was 14 years old on a four-day horseback ride. She fell in love with the valley and came back in 1916 to work at the nearby Yosemite Valley School. She learned the park by heart, and dreamed of being a ranger. Towards the end of the Great War, Hodges learned the park service was short of workers and thought she may have a chance. So she went to see Washington B. Lewis, superintendent of Yosemite National Park, to apply for a job.

“Probably you’ll laugh at me,” she said. “But I want to be a ranger.”

Lewis, either ahead of his time, or just so desperate for workers replied: “I beat you to it, young lady. It’s been on my mind for some time to put a woman on one of these patrols.” He hired her as a seasonal ranger, and just like that, Hodges became the first woman to be a fully-commissioned ranger in the National Park Service.

Hodges spent that first summer on mounted patrol, riding through the night to take entrance receipts to the park headquarters, along with patrolling both the valley and some of the more remote areas of the park.

She had the same duties as her male counterparts, the one difference being that she didn’t carry a gun. It’s not that she wasn’t allowed to, in fact, the other rangers told her she should, in order to ward off animals and attackers, but she decided against it. She wore the uniform Stetson hat but rode in a split skirt. Occasionally the people she encountered were confused. They didn’t understand why a woman had a ranger’s badge.

After the war ended, so did Hodges’ temporary service as a ranger. She married and stayed in the Yosemite area, ranching and guiding church groups through the park. Though her time with the NPS was short, she helped open doors for women whose role in the parks had been limited. National Park Service Director William Penn Mott, Jr., later praised Hodges for refusing to accept conventions and possessing the determination to take on a male-dominated profession.

Women began to be more involved in the park service after the war, but most were relegated to jobs like secretarial work and waitressing, wearing pillbox hats and dresses modeled after flight attendant’s uniforms until the 1970s. It would be thirty years after Hodges before another woman would be appointed a fully-commissioned park ranger. Today, only about a third of National Park employees are women.

—-

On July 4, four National Park Service Rangers from Ozark National Scenic Riverways were honored at the Department of the Interior headquarters in Washington, D.C. with Valor Awards for their heroic efforts during a historic flood that impacted much of southern Missouri in April 2017. The Valor Award is the highest honor the department awards and is presented to employees for demonstrating unusual courage involving a high degree of personal risk in the face of danger while attempting to save the life of another.

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Over a period of just two days — April 29 and 30, 2017 — the areas in and around Ozark National Scenic Riverways in southeastern Missouri received more than 15 inches of rainfall. Massive flooding set in on the park’s Jacks Fork and Current rivers. The Current River crested at 39 feet near the park headquarters in Van Buren, a full 10 feet higher than the previous recorded high water mark that was set in 1904.

At 5:30 P.M. on April 29, the Carter County Sheriff requested assistance from National Park Service Rangers to perform swift-water rescues of area residents, trapped in their homes with rising and fast-moving flood waters quickly approaching or already upon them. Park Rangers Joshua Gibbs, Lindel Gregory, Patrick Jackson, and Daniel Newberry jumped into action.

The Rangers were all specially trained in swift-water rescue techniques, and regularly performed one a week during the summer months. On this night, they would successfully conduct 30, exposing themselves to extremely high-risk conditions. They ferried from house to house checking for stranded residents using Park Service boats as the floodwaters rapidly rose. They maneuvered under low-hanging powerlines only a few feet above the rushing water, and through fumes from leaking underwater propane tanks.

They then left the boats to wade in waist-deep waters, among the live electricity and propane and raging river, to retrieve people from their flooded homes, secure them on the rescue boats, and guide them to safety.

The conditions were enough to scare even those who had grown up on the rivers, and the Rangers could see it in the eyes of the residents. Three of the rangers grew up in the area, having graduated from nearby Van Buren High School nearby. They were cut off from their own families during the flood.

“Lives were saved because these four rangers risked their own lives to help Missourians in need,” Senator Claire McCaskill said. “No one hopes for disasters like the historic floods we saw last year, but I’m grateful that we have such brave and selfless first responders in our communities—and I proudly join all Missourians in commending them for their bravery.”

After reviewing rainfall data, the National Weather Service says parts of the area experienced a 1,000-year flood event. The heroic actions of these four rangers saved the lives of 30 stranded men, women, and children as entire houses were swept away.

—–

The toll of devastation from the Carr Fire, one of the most brutal fires in California history rose earlier this week to more than 1,000 homes destroyed and almost 200 damaged. More than 4,000 firefighters are battling the blaze, not far from where Andrew Palmer lost his life. Two have died.

Rangers work so many different types of jobs in the National Park Service, but they’re all there to protect our country’s history and treasured natural preserves. The next time you encounter a National Park Service Ranger, make sure to thank them for their service.

And from Abigail and I to any rangers listening, our deepest gratitude goes out to you for your commitment to protect our lands and history.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

Podcast Episodes

Alcatraz and the Civil War

In the late 1840s, the U.S. government seized control of California from the Republic of Mexico and immediately went to work on protecting the new land. Located in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, an island called Alcatraz was identified as a place of exceptional military utility. Nearly surrounded on all sides, it was ideally positioned to protect the entrance to the bay.

You may know Alcatraz as the so-called inescapable prison which housed Al Capone and George “Machine-Gun” Kelly, and then was immortalized in the film Escape from Alcatraz, but its history began long before.

On this episode, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s Alcatraz Island, and its role during the civil war.


Listen

Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Download this episode (right click and save)


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.


Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Golden Gate National Recreation Area – NPS Website

Ferry Tickets to Alcatraz Island – Alcatraz Cruises


Transcript

In the late 1840s, the U.S. government seized control of California from the Republic of Mexico, a consequence of the Mexican-American war, and immediately went to work on protecting the new land. Located in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, an island called Alcatraz was identified as a place of exceptional military utility. It’s position, nearly surrounded on all sides, would make it easily defensible and ideally positioned to protect the entrance to the bay.

You may know Alcatraz as the so-called inescapable prison which housed Al Capone and George “Machine-Gun” Kelly, and then was immortalized in the film Escape from Alcatraz, but its history began long before.

On this episode, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s Alcatraz Island, and its role during the civil war.

Here’s Abigail Trabue.

—-

Construction of America’s third generation of sea forts during the mid-1800s involved cutting the site down to sea level and then building a multi-tiered embattlement of thick stone and brick. The characteristics of Alcatraz Island’s geology made such a fort impossible, but its natural height was already a great start towards fortification. Instead of cutting the rock and soil down to sea level, the Army Corp of Engineers included Alcatraz’ rugged stone into its design.

Construction commenced in 1853. Laborers created steep walls around the island by blasting rock and laying stone. The army encircled the island with 111 cannons to attack incoming ships, along with smaller guns to protect the sides of the island itself. Any ship entering the bay would have to pass within one mile of Alcatraz’s impressive battery.

A lighthouse was built — the first on the Pacific coast. And near it, a guarded barracks called the Citadel, with rifle-slit windows, living quarters, kitchens, dining halls, and storage for supplies and ammunition. Entrance was gained by crossing a drawbridge over a deep moat. It was to be the final defense if the island was invaded, and was designed to hold up to two hundred soldiers securely facing up to a four-month-long siege.

Once occupied, the Army used the basement cell to detain soldiers who had perpetrated crimes. The island’s escape-resistant location in the middle of the Bay prompted other army bases to send their worst enlisted prisoners to the custody of the Island. By the time the Civil War broke out, the US government named Fort Alcatraz as the official prison for the entirety of the Pacific region. In fact, it was the only completed military fortification west of the Mississippi. The Union also used the island as a training ground for soldiers headed for the western frontier, but it wouldn’t be used for just the military much longer.

The discovery of gold little more than a decade prior made San Fransisco a wealthy town and launched it into the public consciousness. Rumors began to swirl about Southern sympathizers plotting to take San Francisco and its treasure from the Union. The government began to use the Alcatraz guardhouse to jail private citizens accused of treason, alongside soldiers. Treason included anyone who advocated pro-Confederate sentiments. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, allowing people to be imprisoned without trial in a court of law. Some plotted and worked for the Confederacy, some simply refused to pledge an oath to the union. Local politicians and citizens were arrested and jailed on Alcatraz based on perceived notions of their loyalty, without ever facing a judge or jury. Alcatraz became a national symbol as allegiances were put into question, pitting friends and family against one another.

And it wasn’t just private citizens who were under scrutiny. Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston, born in Kentucky and raised in Texas, served in three different armies: the Texas Army, the United States Army and the Confederate States Army. Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States, considered him the finest officer in the country. Johnston remained with the Union when the war broke out, however, and was appointed Commander of the Department of the Pacific in California, including Fort Alcatraz.

Notwithstanding his military prowess, his southern roots and association with Jefferson Davis weakened the public’s faith in his commitment to defending San Fransisco from southern attack. Many citizens spread rumors that local Confederates had approached him to seek his help in attacking the city.

Johnston fulfilled his post honorably, but the Army feared he was still vulnerable to potential Southern influence, so they relieved him of his post, at which point he returned to the South and joined the Confederate Army, dying at the battle of Shiloh.

In March of 1863, the Union government discovered that a group of Confederate sympathizers planned to arm a schooner and use it to capture a steamship to blockade the harbor and lay attack to the fortifications at San Fransisco. The plans were thwarted when the ship captain bragged about the plan in a pub. The U.S. Navy seized the ship, arrested the crew and towed it to Alcatraz, where they found cannons, ammunition, supplies, and fifteen men hiding in the stow, one of whom, a prominent local businessman, had papers signed by Jefferson Davis offering him an officer’s commission in the Confederate Navy as a reward.

The ringleaders were arrested and confined in the Alcatraz guardhouse basement. A quick trial was held, resulting in a conviction for treason, until they were granted a pardon from President Lincoln. The incident only spurred additional distrust between locals who thought Confederates were plotting all around them.

Later that same year a legitimate warship entered the San Francisco Bay. There was no wind, so its flag hung limp, and men in rowboats were towing it. The ship did not head toward the San Francisco docks, as ships did every day. Instead, it headed towards the army arsenal and navy shipyard at Angel Island.

Captain William A. Winder, Post Commander at Alcatraz, had a blank charge fired from a cannon as a warning signal for the ship to stop, but the men in rowboats pressed on. Winder then ordered an empty shell fired toward the bow of the ship, and which point it responded with gunfire of its own, which was thankfully recognized as a 21-gun salute. When the smoke cleared, the British flag was visible over the ship, and Winder responded with a return salute.

The ship carried the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s Pacific Squadron, who told Winder that he was displeased by this reception. Winder defended his actions, saying the ship’s direction was so unusual, he deemed it his duty to bring it in. The U.S. Commander of the Department of the Pacific agree and replied that Brits had ignored the procedures for entering a foreign port in wartime. Local residents were thrilled by Winder’s actions, as it was known that Great Britain favored the Confederacy.

Winder, like Johnston, also had Confederate ties. His father was, in fact, a Confederate officer, in charge of prisoner-of-war camps for Union Soldiers, which were notorious for their starvation rations and unhealthy conditions. One local newspaper asserted that he “was feeding the rebel prisoners held there on the fat of the land and off of silver plates.” So when Winder allowed photographers to make 50 different images of the island for sale, the War Department questioned his motives, and ordered the prints and negatives to be confiscated in the name of national security. Winder was transferred to a small post on the mainland.

On April 9, 1865, the guns at Alcatraz sounded to mark the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. The Civil War was over. The city of San Fransisco erupted in celebration. Less than a week later, the shocking news that President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated swept the city, which now plunged into anarchy as Confederate sympathizers celebrated and pro-Union mobs attacked anyone thought to be a confederate. The military sent soldiers from Alcatraz into the city to maintain order. They began arresting people who celebrated Lincoln’s death throughout California, imprisoning them at Alcatraz.

Alcatraz’s final act of the Civil War period was to sound the guns in remembrance of President Lincoln.

——-

In 1876, the Centennial of the United States was to be celebrated in the bay with a show of military might. Cavalry and infantry units performed on the mainland, followed by a choreographed battle over the bay. The Army forts, including Alcatraz, and navy warships were to shoot at a flag on Lime Point and at an old schooner loaded with explosives. As the battle wore on, embarrassment settled in as the Alcatraz cannon were not accurate enough to hit the boat. Under cover of smoke, an officer was sent in a small boat to light the fuses on the schooner. The explosion was anticlimactic to say the least.

It was becoming more and more clear that Alcatraz’s ideal purpose was to be an inescapable prison. The island continued to be developed by the military. In 1893, a hospital was added, and a new upper prison was built in 1904. In 1908, the citadel collapsed. The military constucted a new prison a few years later, which was then modernized in 1933 to become the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, housing some of America’s most dangerous criminals for the next 30 years.

Alcatraz Island is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It’s open year-round, closing only for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Various locations on the island are closed off to the general public certain times of the year, due to the nesting of a variety of seabirds.

A ferry, located at Piers 31-33 will take you to the island. You’ll need to make your reservation in advance because the ferries sell out about a week in advance.

Golden Gate is also home to several other important sites to explore, including the Muir Woods National Monument, and of course, the Golden Gate Bridge.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to hit the subscribe button, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group for national park lovers. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is part of the RV Miles Network of web resources for United States travelers. If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast.

You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com, and all over social media.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is a production of Lotus Theatricals, LLC.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

 

Podcast Episodes

Muir, Roosevelt, and Yosemite: A Camping Trip That Changed…

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt ditched his secret service detail to go camping in the woods of Yosemite with celebrated naturalist John Muir. Through his writings, Muir taught the importance of experiencing and protecting our natural world. That camping trip changed the face of conservation in the United States. Together, sleeping on the forest floor below the sequoias, they laid the foundation for the next century of federal land preservation.

On this episode of America’s National Parks, Yosemite, John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, and a man who was along for the ride, in their own words.


Listen

Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Download this episode (right click and save)


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.


Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Yosemite National Park – National Park Service Website

Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias Set to Re-Open June 15 – RV Miles Article

Digital John Muir Exhibit – The Sierra Club

Roosevelt, Muir, and the Camping Trip – Library of Congress

America’s National Parks, Ken Burns – PBS John Muir Page

Roosevelt and Muir – Undiscovered Yosemite

Hiking in Teddy Roosevelt’s Footsteps in Yosemite – Perceptive Travel

John Muir Biography – The Sierra Club

 


Transcript

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt ditched his secret service detail to go camping in the woods of Yosemite with celebrated naturalist John Muir. Through his writings, Muir taught the importance of experiencing and protecting our natural world. That camping trip changed the face of conservation in the United States. Together, sleeping on the forest floor below the sequoias, they laid the foundation for the next century of federal land preservation.

On this episode of America’s National Parks, Yosemite, John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, and a man who was along for the ride, in their own words.

First, here’s Abigail Trabue, with John Muir’s portrait of the land he loved the most.

_____

“Of all the mountain ranges I have climbed, I like the Sierra Nevada the best. Though extremely rugged, with its main features on the grandest scale in height and depth, it is nevertheless easy of access and hospitable; and its marvelous beauty, displayed in striking and alluring forms, wooes the admiring wanderer on and on, higher and higher, charmed and enchanted. Benevolent, solemn, fateful, pervaded with divine light, every landscape glows like a countenance hallowed in eternal repose; and every one of its living creatures, clad in flesh and leaves, and every crystal of its rocks, whether on the surface shining in the sun or buries miles deep in what we call darkness, is throbbing and pulsing with the heartbeats of God. All the world lies warm in one heart, yet the Sierra seems to get more light than other mountains. The weather is mostly sunshine embellished with magnificent storms, and nearly everything shines from base to summit,—the rocks, streams, lakes, glaciers, irised falls, and the forests of silver fir and silver pine. And how bright is the shining after summer showers and dewy nights, and after frosty nights in spring and autumn, when the morning sunbeams are pouring through the crystals on the bushes and grass, and in winter through the snow-laden trees!

Of this glorious range the Yosemite National Park is a central section, thirty-six miles in length and forty-eight miles in breadth. The famous Yosemite Valley lies in the heart of it, and it includes the head waters of two of the most songful streams in the world; innumerable lakes and waterfalls and smooth silky lawns; the noblest forests, the loftiest granite domes, the deepest ice-sculptured canyons, the brightest crystalline pavements, and snowy mountains soaring into the sky twelve and thirteen thousand feet, arrayed in open ranks and spiry pinnacled groups partially separated by tremendous cañyons and amphitheatres; gardens on their sunny brows avalanches thundering down their long white slopes, cataracts roaring gray and foaming in the crooked rugged gorges. and glaciers in their shadowy recesses working in silence, slowly completing their sculpture; new-born lakes at their feet, blue and green, free or encumbered with drifting icebergs like miniature Arctic Oceans, shining, sparkling, calm as stars.

Nowhere will you see the majestic operations of nature more clearly revealed beside the frailest, most gentle and peaceful things. Nearly all the park is a profound solitude. Yet it is full of charming company, full of God’s thoughts, a place of peace and safety amid the most exalted grandeur and eager enthusiastic action, a new song, a place of beginnings abounding in first lessons on life, mountain-building, eternal, invincible, unbreakable order; with sermons in stones, storms, trees, flowers, and animals brimful of humanity. During the last glacial period, just past, the former features of the range were rubbed off as a chalk sketch from a blackboard, and a new beginning was made. Hence the wonderful clearness and freshness of the rocky pages.”

__________

In 1868, Muir walked through the waist-high wildflowers of the San Joaquin Valley into the high country for the first time. He wrote: “It seemed to me the Sierra should be called not the Nevada, or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light…the most divinely beautiful of all the mountain chains I have ever seen.”

He made his home there, and explored. He found living glaciers and conceived his theory that the Yosemite Valley was carved by them. In 1874, a series of articles entitled “Studies in the Sierra” launched his career as a writer. He eventually re-joined civilization and began traveling our great landscapes – from Alaska to Australia, South America, Africa, Europe, China, and Japan.

President Roosevelt was touring the country, and some of our prized wilderness including Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, when he wrote to Muir asking him to accompany him in Yosemite. The Yosemite Valley at the time had been returned from federal management to state management, and it was a wild west of ramshackle hotels and tours. Ranchers and developers were destroying the land for their own interest. The natural resources were virtually a free-for-all with no money or will to enforce laws in place to protect the area.

Roosevelt noted in the letter, “I do not want anyone with me but you, and I want to drop politics absolutely for four days and just be out in the open with you.” Muir, however, knew it was all politics, and this was the chance for him to gain for Yosemite the support of the most powerful person in the country. It wasn’t hard.

There’s really only one account of the famous camping trip Roosevelt and Muir took, by Charlie Leidig, one of the few civilian rangers to accompany Roosevelt during his 1903 visit. Here is Leidig’s recorded account:

_____

They broke camp at Mariposa Grove and were on horses by 6:30 a.m. The president directed Leidig to “outskirt and keep away from civilization.” Leidig led the party down the Lightning Trail. They crossed the South Fork at Greeley’s and hit the Empire Meadows Trail. They especially avoided approaching the Wawona Hotel for fear the President would be brought in contact with members of his own official party which had remained for the night at Wawona. They had a cold lunch on the ridge east of Empire Meadows. There was lots of snow as they crossed towards Sentinel Dome; they took turns breaking trail through deep snow. In the Bridalveil Meadows the party plowed through 5 ft. of snow. The President mired down and Charley had to get a log to get him out. It was snowing hard and the wind was blowing.

On May 4, the party went down to Glacier Point for pictures that had been prearranged. As they left Glacier Point, the President rode in front dressed in civilian attire. The rangers wore blue overalls, chaps and spurs. They went into Little Yosemite Valley for lunch. Here they encountered a considerable crowd of valley visitors, since it had been widely advertised in the papers that the President was visiting the park.

There was considerable disagreement in the matter of plans for the Presidential visit. The President wanted a roughing trip and through Muir such a trip had been worked out. On the other hand, Mr. John Stevens, Guardian of the Valley under State administration, and certain of the commissioners, especially Jack Wilson from San Francisco, had made plans for a large celebration. The Chris Jorgensen studio home had been set aside for the President’s official use. A cook had been engaged from one of the best hotels in San Francisco to serve a banquet. The commissioner had arranged a considerable display of fireworks, which John Degnan claims amounted to some $1800 worth.

So there was considerable party awaiting the President at the top of Nevada Falls and Little Yosemite. The President requested that all the people be kept at a distance in order that he could carry out his desire for a “roughing trip,” so everybody was kept at a respectful distance.

When the party reached Camp Curry at 2 P.M., they found a big crowd of women in front of the camp. They had formed a line across the road in an attempt to stop the President. They all wanted to shake hands with him. Charlie Leidig states he was riding second in line with a Winchester rifle and six-shooter. His horse was a high spirited animal. The President said, “I am very much annoyed, couldn’t you do something?” Leidig replied, “follow me.” He gave spurs to his horse and as he reared, women fell apart and the President’s party went through the gap. The President waved his hat to the group in the road.

Accompanied by five or six members of his party, the President walked back across the Sentinel Bridge to his horse. Muir had accompanied the President to the Jorgensen studio. The original party of five mounted their horses and started down the valley to pick a campsite near Bridalveil Falls where Muir had suggested they spend the last night in camp. They went down the south side of the river followed by a big string of people on horseback, in buggies, surries, and others on foot. Leidig stated there must have been between 300 or 500, or possibly 1000 of them in the crowd, filling the meadows. As they reached their camping places on a grassy slope just south of the present road through Bridalveil Meadows, the President said to Leidig, “These people annoy me. Can you get rid of them?” Charlie said he walked out and told the crowd that the president was very tired and asked them to leave. They went — some of them even on tiptoe, so as not to annoy their President.

When Charlie returned to the campsite the President said, “Charlie I am hungry as Hell. Cook any damn thing you wish. How long will it take?”

Charlie told him it would take about 30 minutes, so the President lay on his bed of blankets and went to sleep and snored so loud that Leidig could hear him even above the crackling of the campfire.

After dinner, Muir and the President went out into the meadow until way after dark. When they returned they sat around the campfire where the President told them of his lion hunting trips.

People came again in the morning. Crowds could be seen all through the brush. Leidig kept them away. The stage came down containing the President’s official party. After breakfast, the President and Muir got into the stage and as they left the President called Leidig and Leonard to him and said, “Boys, I am leaving you. Good-bye, and God Bless you.”

__________

There’s one other account, that of Roosevelt himself. Part he wrote for a periodical, and then re-worded for his memoirs.

__________

Our greatest nature lover and nature writer, the man who has done most in securing for the American people the incalculable benefit of appreciation of wild nature in his own land, is John Burroughs. Second only to John Burroughs, and in some respects ahead even of John Burroughs, was John Muir. Ordinarily, the man who loves the woods and mountains, the trees, the flowers, and the wild things, has in him some indefinable quality of charm, which appeals even to those sons of civilization who care for little outside of paved streets and brick walls. John Muir was a fine illustration of this rule. He was by birth a Scotchman – a tall and spare man, with the poise and ease natural to him who has lived much alone under conditions of labor and hazard. He was a dauntless soul, and also one brimming over with friendliness and kindliness.

He was emphatically a good citizen. Not only are his books delightful, not only is he the author to whom all men turn when they think of the Sierras and northern glaciers, and the giant trees of the California slope, but he was also – what few nature lovers are – a man able to influence contemporary thought and action on the subjects to which he had devoted his life. He was a great factor in influencing the thought of California and the thought of the entire country so as to secure the preservation of those great natural phenomena – wonderful canyons, giant trees, slopes of flower-spangled hillsides – which make California a veritable Garden of the Lord.

It was my good fortune to know John Muir. He had written me, even before I met him personally, expressing his regret that when Emerson came to see the Yosemite, his (Emerson’s) friends would not allow him to accept John Muir’s invitation to spend two or three days camping with him, so as to see the giant grandeur of the place under surroundings more congenial than those of a hotel piazza or a seat on a coach. I had answered him that if ever I got in his neighborhood I should claim from him the treatment that he had wished to accord Emerson. Later, when as President I visited the Yosemite, John Muir fulfilled the promise he had at that time made to me. He met me with a couple of pack mules, as well as with riding mules for himself and myself, and a first-class packer and cook, and I spent a delightful three days and two nights with him.

The first night we camped in a grove of giant sequoias. It was clear weather, and we lay in the open, the enormous cinnamon-colored trunks rising about us like the columns of a vaster and more beautiful cathedral than was ever conceived by any human architect. One incident surprised me not a little. Some thrushes – I think they were Western hermit-thrushes – were singing beautifully in the solemn evening stillness. I asked some question concerning them of John Muir, and to my surprise found that he had not been listening to them and knew nothing about them. Once or twice I had been off with John Burroughs, and had found that, although he was so much older than I was, his ear and his eye were infinitely better as regards the sights and sounds of wildlife, or at least of the smaller wildlife, and I was accustomed unhesitatingly to refer to him regarding any bird note that puzzled me. But John Muir, I found, was not interested in the small things of nature unless they were unusually conspicuous. Mountains, cliffs, trees, appealed to him tremendously, but birds did not unless they possessed some very peculiar and interesting. In the same way, he knew nothing of the wood mice; but the more conspicuous beasts, such as bear and deer, for example, he could tell much about.

All next day we traveled through the forest. Then a snow-storm came on, and at night we camped on the edge of the Yosemite, under the branches of a magnificent silver fir, and very warm and comfortable we were, and a very good dinner we had before we rolled up in our tarpaulins and blankets for the night. The following day we went down into the Yosemite and through the valley, camping in the bottom among the timber.

There was a delightful innocence and good will about the man, and an utter inability to imagine that anyone could either take or give offense. Of this I had an amusing illustration just before we parted. We were saying goodbye when his expression suddenly changed, and he remarked that he had totally forgotten something. He was intending to go to the Old World with a great tree lover and tree expert from the Eastern States who possessed a somewhat crotchety temper. He informed me that his friend had written him, asking him to get from me personal letters to the Russian Czar and the Chinese Emperor; and when I explained to him that I could not give personal letters to foreign potentates, he said: “Oh, well, read the letter yourself, and that will explain just what I want.” Accordingly, he thrust the letter on me. It contained not only the request which he had mentioned, but also a delicious preface, which, with the request, ran somewhat as follows:

“I hear Roosevelt is coming out to see you. He takes a sloppy, unintelligent interest in forests, although he is altogether too much under the influence of that creature Pinchot, and you had better get from him letters to the Czar of Russia and the Emperor of China, so that we may have better opportunity to examine the forests and trees of the Old World.”

Of course I laughed heartily as I read the letter, and said, “John, do you remember exactly the words in which this letter was couched?” Whereupon a look of startled surprise came over his face, and he said: “Good gracious! there was something unpleasant about you in it; wasn’t there? I had forgotten. Give me the letter back.”

So I gave him back the letter, telling him that I appreciated it far more than if it had not contained the phrases he had forgotten, and that while I could not give him and his companion letters to the two rulers in question, I would give him letters to our Ambassadors, which would bring about the same result.

John Muir talked even better than he wrote. HIs greatest influence was always upon those who were brought into personal contact with him. But he wrote well, and while his books have not the peculiar charm that a very, very few other writers on similar subjects have had, they will nevertheless last long. Our generation owes much to John Muir.

_________

JASON: Roosevelt returned to Washington enthusiastic about conserving America’s wild lands. While other’s thought the resources of the West could never be depleted, he now knew better. He pushed Congress to pass laws to protect wilderness. He transferred the management of the forest reserves to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, establishing the U.S. Forest Service. He created national monuments, parks, and wildlife sanctuaries — saving approximately 230 million acres of public land.

The Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias has been closed to the public since July 2015 for a major renovation, which is nearly finished. Located near Yosemite National Park’s southern entrance, the area receives more than 1 million visitors a year and includes roughly 550 giant sequoia trees, some of which are among the largest trees in the world, reaching 285 feet tall and 2,000 years old.

During the rehabilitation phase, crews have torn up asphalt surrounding trees, replaced pit toilets with modern flush toilets, and removed the gift shop and tram rides, which featured a chugging diesel truck pulling wagons full of tourists through the area. The project includes improvements to natural hydrology, a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk, an improved welcome plaza and a new energy efficient tram.

The nearly $40 million project, which was scheduled to conclude in late 2016 but was delayed due to heavy winter conditions, is set to re-open June 15th at 9 AM.

Along with the ancient giant sequoias, Southern California’s Yosemite National Park is known for its waterfalls, deep valleys, grand meadows,=, and much more within its 1,200 square miles of mountainous scenery.

The park is open year-round, but millions of tourists visit in the summer, so if you’re not staying in the park, it’s best to get there early. In the park, you can stay at The Majestic Yosemite Hotel or one of the private lodgings nearby.

Yosemite has 13 campgrounds; some are reservable while others operate on a first-come, first-served basis. From April through October, reservations can be difficult to come by, and the first-come, first-served campgrounds often fill up early each day. 95% of Yosemite National Park is designated as wilderness, making backcountry camping a very popular activity. A permit is required.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to hit the subscribe button, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group for national park lovers. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is part of the RV Miles Network of web resources for United States travelers. If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast.

You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com, and all over social media.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is a production of Lotus Theatricals, LLC.

 


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

Podcast Episodes

California Condors

How do you save a species of bird with a population of 22 living? A controversial plan hatched nearly three decades ago has condors soaring over Pinnacles National Park again. How they did it, and why there is still trouble ahead, on this episode of America’s National Parks.


Listen

Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Download this episode (right click and save)


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.


Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Pinnacles National Park – National Park Service Website

Profiles of the Pinnacles Condors – Pinnacles National Park Website

Condor Viewing Tips – Pinnacles National Park Website

Navajo Bridge – Glen Canyon National Recreation Area Website


Transcript

Thirty-five years ago, we almost lost North America’s largest bird. There were 22 known in existence. A controversial choice was made to save them, that lead to years of grudges between conservationists’. And the fight for its survival is far from over.

On today’s episode of America’s National Parks, the California Condor, and one of their magnificent homes, the rock spires of Pinnacles National Park.

Here’s Abigail Trabue.

_____

The California condor was described by English naturalist George Shaw in 1797 as vultur californianus. They are a uniform black, except large, triangular patches or bands of white on the underside of the wings. They have gray legs and feet, a white bill, brownish-red eyes, and a ruffle of black feathers that stand out around their neck. The skin of their naked, vulturous head and neck can flush red, an emotional signal to others.

Their glorious wingspan ranges from about 8 to 10 feet – the largest of any North American bird. Condors are so large that, gliding with their wings spread stiff, they are often mistaken for a distant airplane.

Condors are scavengers. Feasting on the carcasses of large mammals. Before humans settled North America, when mammoth and other mega-creatures roamed the land, the California Condor thrived across the continent. As those giant mammals died out, the condor’s territory was reduced and their numbers shrank. Five hundred years ago, they still roamed across the American Southwest and West Coast. They live in rocky shrubland, coniferous forests, and oak savannas, often hanging out near cliffs or large trees, which they use as nesting sites. They have been known to travel up to 160 miles in search for food, and can live for up to 60 years.

As the human development of the west expanded, the territory of these magnificent birds was encroached upon. They would often eat the lead bullets used to kill their meal by a hunter, poisoning them. They flew into power lines, and were poached. By 1982, there were 22 known California Condors in the wild.

The US Fish and Wildlife service set out on a controversial mission to save the Condors from extinction. Over the following four years, all the known living condors were trapped and brought into captivity. Condors no longer roamed the skies of Southern California.

The goal was to breed the captive condors and release their offspring into the wild. They were taken to the Los Angeles and San Diego Zoos where a breeding program began. Some conservationists thought that this was the end of the Condor. That, even if the breeding were successful, the captive-born offspring wouldn’t be the same. Conservationist David Brower said that they would be nothing more than “flying pigs.”

But the efforts pressed on. Condors form long-term pair bonds, producing one egg per nesting attempt and, if everything goes well, a chick every year and a half. Through careful breeding by the zoos and a Conservation Genetics team, sufficient numbers of chicks were produced to allow the first releases of California condors back to the wild in 1992.

Flash forward to today, there are nearly 450 living California Condors, 230 of which are in the wild. All released birds have number tags and radio transmitters so biologists can track their progress in the wild. The captive breeding programs have expanded to other zoos, and nests in the wild are now producing chicks. It’s one of the greatest species recoveries ever made.

It’s not all good news though. The reintroduction has brought challenges. Some of the released condors did have behavior issues. Being in such close contact with humans made them social and comfortable with us. A small gang invaded a home, destroying a satellite dish and ripping up a mattress. In Arizona, a young condor invaded a campsite, where he pulled a loaded gun from a backpack and walked around holding it by the trigger. These behaviors led to new breading protocols, keeping human interactions to a minimum, and the birds released today are more like their captured predecessors.

And danger still lurks around every corner. Condors are still dying. Wildfires have become a huge challenge for them as climate change reshapes the land that fires consume. Collisions with power lines are still common. Adults find bits of undigestable trash and try to feed it to their young. Conservationists go as far as removing trash from the nest and replacing it with bone chips, which the young eat as a source of calcium.

Their eggs are thin, still a product of the DDT that was dumped in the ocean through the early seventies. Marine mammal carcasses still have derivatives of the chemical, which the condors then eat.

And it’s very clear that lead poisoning is still their leading cause of death. 85 condors died between 1992 and 2009, 35 due to lead toxicosis. A portion of the population is trapped and treated for lead poisoning every year, and many conservationists say the species will not ever be self-sustaining until the lead problem is addressed.

Carcasses are left at provisioning stations for the birds to feed on, but ironically, the birds that are the most independent are the ones most likely to encounter a lead bullet, particularly during deer hunting season.

Without human intervention, the California condor would once again face extinction. Over 5 million dollars is spent annually on the effort, and the funding is on shaky ground. Most of it comes from private sources such as zoos and wildlife funds. Less than a million comes from the federal government.

Central California’s Pinnacles National Park joined the California Condor Recovery Program as a release and management site in 2003. The park currently hosts 86 wild condors, with biologists managing and monitoring the population. Juvenile condors are transferred to Pinnacles from the captive breeding facilities at the age of about a year and a half. They are placed into a flight pen with an adult mentor bird and allowed to acclimate to their new environment for at least two months. This is one of the ways biologists instill safe behavior and keep the birds from interacting with humans. They’re outfitted with their transmitters and ID tags, and leave the pen one at a time. Park biologists closely monitor the condors as they take their first wild flights, ensuring they find appropriate roost and feeding sites.

Condor staff and volunteers can often be seen tracking along the trails within surrounding areas, communicating with other biologists as they watch the entire California population. They are can recover deceased condors from the field and submit them for analysis, so that they can determine the cause of death and monitor the threats facing the condors. The birds are trapped twice a year when transmitters are repaired and blood is tested for lead.

In the late fall, park biologists work to identify potential breeding pairs for the following spring. They are monitored for breeding displays and are observed to determine breeding territories. Once a nest is identified, biologists do monthly health checks on the chick until it is four months old, at which point it gets its own transmitter and tag.

Lead has already been removed from waterfowl ammunition in the US, and some California and Oregon legislation is in place to reduce its availability for hunting big game, but there are no restrictions in the other states condors roam. If efforts to eliminate lead bullets succeed, the condors could one day be removed from the endangered species list. It’s a realistic goal, but one that will require legislative action before the 5 million dollar per year funding for condor recovery dries up.

_____

A few million years of explosions, lava flows, and landslides created the 30-mile wide volcanic field that was then split down the middle by the San Andreas Fault, followed by water, wind, and chemical erosion, forming what we know today as Pinnacles National Park, 70 miles southeast of San Jose.

The serene rock formations are visited by 250 thousand visitors hikers, climbers and nature lovers each year. Overhead, Rocks the size of houses, tower above as you make your way through cool, dark caves formed by massive boulders wedged in ravines, providing a home for Townsend big-eared bats and red-legged frogs. 32 miles of trails are decorated during the spring with a variety of wildflowers, pollinated by more species of bees than any other known place in the world. Bobcats, coyotes, black-tailed deer, lizards, snakes, tarantulas, and mountain lion all call Pinnacles their home, as well as, of course, the California Condor.

There are 27 free-flying condors managed by Pinnacles National Park. They have joined with the 35 condors that soar over Big Sur, forming one central California flock. Since they don’t migrate, they can be observed in the park year round, but are still a rare site. With a little luck and some patience, you might spot one.

One of the most common viewing areas is the High Peaks in the early morning or early evening. The High Peaks can be reached from either entrance to the park, but the hike is strenuous. Another location that the condors spend time around is the ridge just southeast of the campground. Two spotting scopes have been placed in the Campground that may help you get a closer look.

Pinnacles is most popular in the cooler months, especially the spring when the grasses are green and a variety of wildflowers can be seen along any trail. Fall and winter are also excellent times to visit.

The campground is located on the eastern side of the park and is open year-round. It offers family and group tent sites, as well as RV sites with electric hookups. Flush toilets and drinking water are provided, and showers are available for a fee. A general store with basic foods and camping supplies is located on-site. A swimming pool is located within the campground and is open from April through September.

Condors are spotted from time to time in other national parks, like Zion and the Grand Canyon. A great place to spot one is on the historic Navajo Bridge, which crosses the Colorado River at Marble Canyon, at the south end of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. They like to hang out on the girders that support the bridge. It’s where I saw my first wild condor, the one that inspired this episode.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and Narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to hit the subscribe button, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group for national park lovers. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is part of the RV Miles Network of web resources for United States travelers. If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast.

You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com, and all over social media.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is a production of Lotus Theatricals, LLC.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.





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