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Is California’s Condor Trail the next great thru-hike?

National Geographic 3/3/2022 Miles Griffis
California’s Condor Trail winds through seven wilderness areas, including Los Padres National Forest’s Ventana Wilderness (seen here), in Monterey County, California. © Photograph by Ed Callaert, Alamy Stock Photo California’s Condor Trail winds through seven wilderness areas, including Los Padres National Forest’s Ventana Wilderness (seen here), in Monterey County, California.

The rugged chaparral of California’s Sespe Wilderness lay hidden under the camouflage of mahogany and sage hues. Nearly a week into her thru-hike on the Condor Trail, Brittany Nielsen surveyed this scraggly landscape. She had already faced a downpour, severe flooding, and hypothermia. Now, she leaned against her pack in the spring sun, scanning the thickets and hoping the trail would emerge like a scrub jay.

“I learned a lesson about being calm while being lost on the trail,” Nielsen says. Earlier, behind on miles and low on her food supply, she had searched for the path in a frenzy, only to find herself exhausted. The trail on the side of Sespe Creek was fiercely overgrown in sections and required strong orienteering skills to navigate.

“When I opened my eyes I was looking at the sky,” Nielsen says, “And up 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 drifted out of sight, Nielsen dropped her gaze into the chaparral where, directly in front of her, she discovered a small rock cairn that marked the trail.

Lake Piru in Ventura County marks the southern end of the Condor Trail. © Photograph by LFBlackburn, Getty Images, iStockphoto Lake Piru in Ventura County marks the southern end of the Condor Trail.

Over the course of her 37 days on the hike, Nielsen would lose and gain the trail numerous times as she fought through menacing brush and screamed expletives that no one could hear in the most remote pockets of Los Padres National Forest. She would travel through seven wilderness areas, along the shores of central California, past colonies of elephant seals, and across the ancestral lands of the Chumash, Salinan, Esselen, Tataviam, and Costanoan peoples.

Sespe Creek, in Sespe Wilderness, is the last undammed river in Southern California. © Photograph by Richard Sheak, Getty Images/iStockphoto Sespe Creek, in Sespe Wilderness, is the last undammed river in Southern California.

Unlike California’s well-established John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails, the Condor Trail is a thru-hiking “route,” meaning its course exists—as a continuous thread of trails and roads and cross-country travel—but that it lacks proper signage and maintenance. While these popular thru-hiking routes receive hundreds of hikers a year, Nielsen took on the Condor Trail alone in 2015. When she finished on June 18th, she was the first thru-hiker to complete it.

“You can’t do the Condor Trail with an ego,” Nielsen says, describing how it has thwarted accomplished hikers and trail runners. “It is an exercise in mental strength. You need to have an open mind and be ready to be humbled—and lost.”

A tagged California condor takes flight. While still critically endangered, condors are steadily making a comeback. © Photograph by Ken Canning, Getty Images A tagged California condor takes flight. While still critically endangered, condors are steadily making a comeback.

A path through the brush

After decades of planning by local hiking enthusiasts and cartographers, the elusive trail now has its own official guidebook. Published last summer by author Brian Sarvis, Condor Trail Guide: Hiker’s Guide to the 400 Mile Condor Trail Through Los Padres National Forest In California outlines 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’ guide gives essential information on water sources, navigation, and detailed maps put together with the help of cartographer Bryan Conant.

“Brittany Nielsen inspired us all and proved that the route could be done as a thru-hike,” says Sarvis, a retired superintendent from Santa Barbara, California, who spent the past six years putting together the guide and eventually thru-hiking the trail twice—once in both directions. “The advantage of the Condor Trail is its solitude and the immersion in the natural world. It is not a trail to set out and try to complete in record time.”

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Having hiked cross-country routes (treks without defined trails) across California’s Sierra Nevada, Sarvis became interested in the trail that was in his own backyard. He estimates about a half of the Condor Trail is on defined trails or roads, while a quarter is on overgrown trails. The last quarter is mostly cross-country routes—some of which host thick stands of poison oak. With months spent on the trail thru-hiking, section hiking, or day hiking over to compile his guide, Sarvis says he learned how quickly unmaintained trails can disappear, whether caused by wildfires, landslides, flooding, or overgrowth.

Sarvis recommends thru-hiking the trail in winter or spring when rains provide ample water sources that dry up come summer. However, he cautions that heavy rain can make for dangerous water crossings and days of travel with wet feet. He walked the trail both times in the months of March or April, taking 34 days for each trek.

“I love following the wildflowers up from Lake Piru all the way up into the Ventana Wilderness,” he says, describing the fields of poppies and lupine that ignite across the landscape like firecrackers. “You get a whole month’s worth of wildflowers on this hike if you go in the early spring.”

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Sarvis’ guide is a monumental achievement in the Condor Trail’s decades long history that began in 1996, when hiker and software engineer Alan Coles first began working out the route, later extending the trail’s breadth with friend Chris Danch. Together, the two hoped to form a route that showcased the highlights of their beloved Los Padres National Forest from the towering peaks of the Sespe Wilderness to the dense redwood stands of Big Sur—all home to the state’s iconic endangered species, the California condor.

In the late 1990s, Bryan Conant, of the Los Padres Forest Association, helped give the trail a second life, devoting his free time to mapping the entire route and forming a website for the trail, which he still runs today as the trail’s most active steward. Every year, Conant helps provide information to thru-hikers attempting the trail, including Nielsen, who says Conant was instrumental in getting her to the finish line. Conant believes Sarvis’ new guide will make the trail far more achievable for future hikers. Since Nielsen thru-hiked the trail in 2015, Conant says 12 others have done the same.

Conserving the trail’s namesake

Wildlife biologist Kara Fadden of the Ventana Wildlife Society of Monterey, California, recommends that hikers on the trail look for California condors drifting in the sky or in redwoods or alcoves carved into rock high above the ground—locations where they often nest or perch. Occasionally, condors can be spotted on the ground, feeding on carrion (animal carcasses) including deer, wild pigs, and coyotes, as well as sea 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, only 27 condors remained in the world. Their numbers had dwindled over the decades because of poaching, DDT and lead poisoning, power line electrocution and collision, and habitat destruction. Emergency captive breeding efforts helped the birds make a comeback, though the species is still listed as critically endangered; some 300 wild condors now fly in the United States and Mexico (and nearly 200 are living in captivity.)

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Fadden says around 180 condors live in the wild in central and southern California, with six more set 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 in Redwood National Park, a part of their native range in northern California that once ran from British Columbia all the way down to Baja California. There is evidence that thousands of years ago the condors’ habitat stretched all the way to the East Coast.

The consumption of trash and microtrash is a threat to condors. “Always pack in and pack out,” Fadden says, speaking about the importance of Leave No Trace principles in the backcountry. But one of the biggest current threats for the species is the use of lead bullets by hunters to take animals. If ammunition fragments are ingested while scavenging carrion, it can lead to fatal lead poisoning.

Humans can coexist 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.”

By doing so, Fadden hopes more hikers in the future will spot the condors and find inspiration in their remarkable resilience.

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