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In Superlative Hikes, we search out the biggest, wettest, and beariest trails in America.
The days are getting shorter, and before you know it, fake spiderwebs and their plastic inhabitants will start sprouting up everywhere. But why bother with the imitation when the real thing is so much cooler? Fall is tarantula mating season, when the usually-elusive spiders get bold as they go looking for love. In some places, like southeastern Colorado, the action starts in September, but t Pinnacles National Park, October is tarantula season. This gives hikers their best chance of the year at spotting one—and makes Pinnacles, for a few weeks, the most be-spidered hike around.
Your best bet for spider-spotting is the Condor Gulch to High Peaks loop, which winds through some of the rockiest—i.e. full of convenient tarantula-sized crevices—and most scenic sections of the park. You’re most likely to spot tarantulas on the ground, moving over stone, grass, or the trail itself, but they also occasionally climb vertical surfaces, so keep an eye on the cliffs. The spiders are always in the park, but mating season is the only time when they don’t care about being spotted, so go wind through the red-brown spires, gaze out at the surrounding mountains, and photograph every tarantula in sight before the season ends.
A Hunter on Eight Legs
Rather than spinning webs, the tarantulas of Pinnacles National Park usually spend the day in small burrows, emerging to hunt at night. They eat mostly eat insects and other arthropods, though some bigger spiders might occasionally prey on lizards and small rodents as well. Instead of chewing on their prey, these spiders inject it with their digestive juices, mash it up, then drink it. After a large meal they might not need to eat again for months. Though they look imposing, tarantulas rarely attack humans, and their bite is only equivalent to a bee sting. The female tarantula can live up to 20 years in the wild (males die within a year of mating, and usually live only 10 years)
Sometimes the hunter becomes the hunted: The tarantula hawk—which is actually a 2-inch-long wasp (2 inches long)—is definitely the most alarming of tarantula predators. When a female tarantula hawk is ready to lay eggs, she finds and paralyzes a tarantula, lays her eggs in it, then bricks it up inside its burrow, “Cask of Amontillado”-style. . When the larvae hatch, they eat the unfortunate spider from the inside out. .
Start from the Bear Gulch Day Area. Head south towards Bear Gulch Reservoir, then turn right at the first junction .2 mile from the trailhead. Turn onto the Rim Trail at the next junction, then take a left on the High Peaks Trail .4 mile after that. From here the path begins to climb into the park’s namesake spires, gaining 850 feet over 1.5 miles. Turn right at the Scout Peak junction, then head into a narrow stretch of trail carved straight from the rock. Keep an eye out above for the 9.5-foot wingspan of the California condor; this park was one of their main reintroduction areas from the captive breeding program. Stay right at the junction with Tunnel Trail, then turn right onto Condor Gulch Trail and descend 1.7 miles back to the parking lot.