Location: Pinnacles National Park
Distance: 6.5 mile loop
Recorded (fitbit) distance: 8.84
Elevation: 1800 feet
Time for us to complete: 6.5 hours
Cost: 7 day pass for non-commercial vehicles: $25
Annual pass: $50 (best deal if you live in the area and think you’ll be able to make it back 2+ times)
Parking: Bear Gulch Day Use Area
Directions: Enter the park on the East side. Once inside the park continue straight and follow signs for the Bear Gulch Day Use area. There are two parking areas. Either one is fine as the trail starts off of one and ends at the other.
- Flashlight (required in the caves)
- Water: The website for the park recommends 1 liter of water per hour on the trail. I took with me 4 liters of water which ended up being perfect for me.
Heat index: HOT. This park is notorious for getting extremely warm. I would recommend only visiting in the early early hours or winter/early spring if you are susceptible to heat like I am.
Here is where you will be introduced to my best friend, Blake. Luckily for us, she discovered this great loop connecting three trails that we were able to conquer on her recent visit. If you wish to recreate this journey you will connect the bear gulch caves to the reservoir to the rim trail to the high peaks trail. Leaving the high peaks trail at the top and circling back down to the parking lot. Full video available for viewing at the bottom.
Follow the signs for the Bear Gulch caves and head out. This first part is only about 0.7 miles. Not long into the hike you’ll see a stopping point that warns you to have a flashlight before continuing. While we were starting we saw about four deer (not including the ones we saw from the car driving in). The caves themselves are pretty amazing, there are a ton of stairs carved into the stone and when we went through we could see standing water on either side of the trail. The website warns that there is a possibility of getting wet when traveling through these depending on the weather before and when you go. We saw a few places where little waterfalls could come down from above but it was dry for us as we trekked through. At the top there are two directions to go; only one was open when we went and thankfully this was also the one we needed. The one that was closed was the “upper caves” and the one we took was the “Moses spring exit.” It is at this point that the cave gets the narrowest and both Blake and I had to crawl on our hands and knees for a small portion.
DISCLAIMER: This caves can also be closed at any time. Check their website to see if they are open. There is a way to continue this full length trail without the caves but it’s definitely more fun if they are open.
The Tricky Part
So at this point, we got lost. There is a sign pointing to the reservoir and we continued that way. Then the trail split. We took the right fork but it appeared to dead end so we turned back around and dead ended at the left fork as well. We backtracked to the cave exit and reread our maps. Then we went back up and took the original right fork that had “dead ended” but in reality was actually leading us back into some more caves. We were thrown off because we didn’t realize there was a second set of caves to traverse through before hitting the reservoir. So for you reader, there are two sets of caves! Also the left fork goes only a few hundred feet and ends at what we believed to be Moses Spring but there was no water at this point in the season.
The Reservoir and Rim Trail
The view of the reservoir after you get up the last set of stairs out of the caves is PHENOMINAL. We stopped here for awhile and never wanted to leave. Finally though we dragged ourselves away and keep going. There’s an easy sign pointing to the rim trail. This trail is pretty level and starts to show you some of those spectacular views. It’s a little over 2 miles if you just did this loop up to here and then returned to the Bear Gulch Day use area.
The High Peaks
Here is where the elevation gain kicks in as well as the heat. We recommend you get started on this part as early as possible. We were trying to start early, but with the long pause at the reservoir and time lost getting turned around in the early stages, the sun was already high when we started this stage. This did not take away from the amazing atmosphere and views this trail provides. Take as many breaks as needed and find shade whenever possible to relax and catch your breath. I took about fifteen breaks on my way up and had only one minor meltdown, thankfully only caught partially on video. For some this is going to be easier than for others. I have a high aversion to heat so I struggled a lot, but I still made it and so can you!
Near the top there is a restroom (which is just a really nice port-a-potty, there is NO WATER up here) and a bench that shows you the most spectacular views. We paused for a length in the shade of the restroom’s building and then walked over to enjoy the view. We had the luck of seeing two California Condors soaring above us and it took our breath away. From here you continue up to the fun steps and narrow trail that probably enticed you to make this trek up to the peaks.
The Fun Stuff
There are a few small staircases and then finally you hit the extra long one. Continue on to a ledge that is narrow and requires either some great balance or extreme trust in the railing. We were discussing how great it was to be coming from this direction because going down these stairways seemed scary and we were happy to be going up…..and then we discovered the staircase we had to go down. I was able to do it without too much trouble, but with my giant clown feet and nerves it took me a lot of time and a few deep breaths. While we are attempting this part of the trail WE WERE PASSED by a group of hikers who were all aged 70+. They put us to shame but just shows that depending on your ability level this hike is still really accessible t o anyone.
Breaking Point and Heading Down
After the stairs we thought that we were done with the elevation gain. We were not. We kept going up and that broke our spirits a little bit. When we finally hit the split in the trail, that led us back to Bear Gulch, I was very close to having my second breakdown of the day. The sign is clear and says “Bear Gulch Area” and it’s only 1.7 more miles to the car from here, and to our relief all downhill. If you miss the split and keep going you head up the Bench trail which is two more miles and who knows after that, I didn’t care to find out. On the trail down there is a Condor Viewing area, but it paled in comparison to the views we already experienced up top and we were exhausted so we just kept going down. At the bottom it drops you right to the first parking lot and thankfully where we had our car parked.
I loved this hike. Yes, I know, it seemed like I really struggled with it, but that also is what made it so much more of an accomplishment for me. I love to push myself and see what I can really handle, it’s rewarding for me to make it to the bottom of something like this and realize that I did it. On top of that this hike had everything: Caves, the Reservoir, views, wildlife, and unique trail structures. If you are ever near Pinnacles or are coming to cross this park off your list of National Parks, this is definitely my recommended trail.
Until the next trail, happy roaming!
For your further enjoyment, here is it all caught on camera (sorta):
3 thoughts on “Trail Talk: Pinnacles National Park – Bear Gulch Caves to the High Peaks”
Your landscape in California is much like we have here in South Australia. Also gets very hot & dry here, which makes hiking difficult unless you are up & out very early in the morning! Love your photos.
Thank you so much!
Getting up early is always so worth it though, nothing can beat those views!
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Thanks very much for this one. I’m looking forward to visiting Pinnacles. We may be headed north from LA in the next year, and I hope it’ll include a swing over to explore the park. Let’s hope the government restores funding so the parks can reopen, for crying out loud.
BTW, we should remind everyone that while the National Parks are mostly closed, there are LOTS of state parks — especially here in California and the west — that often are just about as interesting — if not always so spectacular.
E.G., if I were headed for Monterey with plans for Pinnacles this moment, I’d simply head west and explore Pfeiffer Big Sur!
Happy hiking in 2019, and thanks for visiting Under Western Skies.