Last week I had planned to hike up to the Dana Plateau on the border of Yosemite, one of my most cherished places in the Sierra Nevada. The rock filled plateau resembles a Martian landscape and presents an ancient geologic wonderland—the high alpine basin remained untouched by the last few glaciations, and as a result offers a rare glimpse of a landscape 25 million years old.
Yet for all the beauty created by the giganticness of the sweeping plateau and its surrounding imposing granite peaks, my favorite sight amidst this landscape is a small furry creature less than eight inches long who scrambles among the rock piles largely unnoticed: the pika.
Observant hikers can encounter the American pika (ochotona princeps) in rocky terrain at elevations of 8,000 to 13,000 in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada, California, and New Mexico. The Dana Plateau, with a landscape dominated by talus, provides the ideal habitat for these small lagomorphs, also fondly referred to as rock rabbits, boulder bunnies, or whistling hares.
Although I observe these critters frequently on my hikes, on this excursion I encountered a very friendly pika that joined me for a picnic. Before making the final push to the plateau, I munched on my Alternative Baking Company vegan chocolate chip cookie (my preferred yummy hiking food) and soon after was joined by a very cute lunch companion.
A pika scurried on the rocks across from me with a stalk of grass and proceeded to nibble on his meal. Not shy in the least, he remained with me for an hour, dashing back and forth to gather a nice alpine salad of columbine and lupine stalks. I remained transfixed the entire time and even gave up the original goal of my hike to stay with my new companion. At the end of our picnic, he abruptly dashed over some rocks, gave his characteristic chirp, and disappeared.
Here is a short video of my picnic companion:
For me, watching the rabbit-like pika scurry over talus fields is as essential to the beauty and character of the high alpine landscape as the requisite towering peaks. Sadly, the cheerful chirping of the pika may soon disappear from the high country as the effects of climate change have already reduced their numbers. Rising temperatures have diminished the small islands of habitat for the cold-loving pikas (who can perish from overheating) and if temperatures continue to increase, even the highest elevations may no longer provide a home for the animal and the species may be threatened to the point of extinction.
As much as I cherish the magnificent granite peaks and spectacular views of the Dana Plateau, something will be irrevocably lost from the intrinsic character of the land and from the delight of my experience if one of the smallest inhabitants of its landscape disappears and if when hiking through the talus fields I no longer hear the sunny chirping of the pika.
For more adorable photos of my picnic with a pika, visit the National Wildlife Federation’s California Facebook page.