After being stopped at the East Entrance to Pinnacles National Park due to lack of parking spaces past this point and debating whether to walk or ride a shuttle from here, we finally made it to the hiking area. Everything, including the Bear Gulch Cave hike and a descent along the Rim Trail, filled our day with beautiful sights and mysterious – spooky, as Dylan called them – talus caves from now on.
The Ultimate Guide to Hiking the Bear Gulch Cave and Rim Trails in Pinnacles National Park
As we rode that park shuttle, I tried to figure out how I felt about Pinnacles National Park. Described as not-worthy your time by some people, it received an equal amount of avid supporters, especially among locals.
One thing you must agree, Pinnacles National Park looks a world apart from green hillocks you encounter on the way to the area. Surrounded by lush rolling hills, the region with pointed red rocks somehow reminded me of Zion National Park. Yet unlike Utah’s giant cliffs that become even more profound as you dive deeper into the park, the views of the rock formations in Pinnacles National Park hardly change.
Shrubs cluster denser to each other as you proceed farther into the park. And the peaks… well, they never cease to allure you. The most remarkable sights that got my undivided attention at once, however, were condors gliding above those jagged pillars.
Thus, when we finally jumped on the Bear Gulch Cave Trail, I wasn’t surprised to find something I could never imagine. The area boasted a neat row of picnic tables. A grill station nestled a little bit to the side. Still close, but far enough to keep the smoke from picnickers at the tables.
This shaded path felt like a walk in a large city park, not a much-anticipated hike along the Bear Gulch Cave Trail. (The Rim Trail wasn’t even on our itinerary at that time. We decided to hike it only hours later.) But the greatest adventure awaited us when we least expected it. Soon the Bear Gulch Cave Trail showed us its true nature.
HOW TO HIKE THE BEAR GULCH CAVE AND RIM TRAILS TO BEAR GULCH RESERVOIR IN PINNACLES NATIONAL PARK
Hike Bear Gulch Cave Trail in Pinnacles National Park
Bear Gulch Cave Trail Facts
- Distance: 1.5-mile, round-trip trail
- Elevation Gain: Approximately 270 feet
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Time: 1-2 hours
Hike from Bear Gulch Cave Trailhead to Bear Gulch Cave
I wasn’t exaggerating when I said that the first stretch of the Bear Gulch Cave Trail reminds of a hike or rather a walk in a local park or forest. Shaded by a dense tree canopy above, the picnic tables along the path divert your attention from the talus cave. The hike to the mysterious Bear Gulch Cave is easy at this point.
A trail gains a little bit of elevation when you pass through the picnic area and across a paved road leading to another parking lot. Along come the first mini trail junction and a signage that clarifies that the trail you are on is the Moses Spring Trail. It connects to the Bear Gulch Cave Trail in 0.5 mile. You need to hike only 0.2 mile to get to the Rim Trail from here.
More trees spread their lush canopy above your head. The signature pinnacles that you observed from the road while driving to the Bear Gulch Cave trailhead come into full view. Towering over an abyss to your right, they are the main attractions of this section of the trail.
If you encountered a small crowd at the Bear Gulch Cave Trailhead before starting the hike, you are on your own at this point. Either you’ve walked faster than the rest of the hikers, leaving the thinning crowd behind, or, if you hike the Bear Gulch Cave Trail with a kid like we did, you still trail behind.
The last chance to encounter a small group of hikers appears at another trail junction. Stay on the left fork. The steeper right fork connects you to the Rim Trail via the Moses Spring Trail.
The complete or partial solitude you enjoyed up to this point, however, is about to end. In about 200 feet you stumble upon a narrow Bear Gulch Cave entrance.
Hike through Bear Gulch Cave
The green trees disappear at once. Instead tall sheer walls of the cave surround you on both sides. But you are not alone. All those hikers that you saw on the trail meet once again. Due to complete darkness and narrow passages, even the fastest walkers slow down. Needless to say, the cave feels overcrowded.
It all depends on the time of your visit, of course. Nowhere as crowded as other national parks in California, the small size of Pinnacles normally allures far fewer nature lovers. But even on an early Friday afternoon, when we hiked the Bear Gulch Cave and Rim Trails, it looked packed.
I can’t dismiss the fact that the popularity of the Bear Gulch Cave Trail is the culprit of this misfortune. Other hiking paths, including the Rim Trail, couldn’t ask for more solitude and tranquility.
But let’s get back into the Bear Gulch Cave. The trail dives into the lower section of the dark cavern, dragging all the hikers along. A series of bridges, boardwalks, and staircases aim at simplifying this part of the Bear Gulch Cave Trail.
At some point, the narrow path squeezes between the two cold walls. The distance is so narrow that only one person can pass through. Some people may even need to walk sideways here. In some other places, a barricade grows from the ceiling, forces the hikers to duck or kneel.
A tiny creek runs through the canyon, slightly drowning out voices of the hikers in front and behind you.
The hike through this section of the Bear Gulch Cave Trail progresses at a snail’s pace. Everybody must adjust to the speed of the hikers in front. Often the whole caravan comes to a full stop to let people hiking from the opposite direction pass by.
Hike from Bear Gulch Cave to Bear Gulch Reservoir
The canyon releases its “hostages” almost as unexpectedly as it swallows them. On the other end of the cave, the hiking speed picks up once again. Those who led the hikers through the Bear Gulch Cave are way ahead now.
The visitors that are just exiting the canyon are met with a few trails running in different directions. Feel free to explore. Pick any trail you like and see what views and peculiar rock formations it can bestows on you.
Yet if you’re determined to reach Bear Gulch Reservoir after the unforgettable walk through the cave, hike farther up along the trail to the reservoir. This section of the Bear Gulch Cave Trail is exposed to the sun. Temperatures can be really high even in early spring.
On the bright side, Bear Gulch Reservoir is a stone’s throw away from here. But not until you puff through the narrow steps of a steep staircase.
Surrounded by the ragged rock formations, the reservoir is one of the highlights of Pinnacles National Park. The waterbody is a side effect of a dam completed in 1935. Today Bear Gulch Reservoir and the adjacent dam allure humans and animals alike. So be extra careful since lizards, red legged frogs, and garter snakes thrive near the cooler water.
Hike Rim Trail in Pinnacles National Park
Rim Trail: From Bear Gulch Reservoir to Bear Gulch Cave Trailhead
- Distance: Approximately 1 mile
- Difficulty: Easy
- Time: 20-30 minutes
Hike to Bear Gulch Cave Trailhead along the Rim Trail
You have several options to get back to the Bear Gulch Cave Trailhead from Bear Gulch Reservoir.
- First, you can return the same way you came from aka through the Bear Gulch Cave.
- Second, you can continue on along the High Peaks Trail. It’s a long, strenuous, 7.7-mile loop hike.
- Third, avoid the traffic at the Bear Gulch Cave and return to the parking lot by hiking along the virtually empty Rim Trail.
Your Bear Gulch Cave hike is the easiest if you chose the third option, except for the scorching sun mercilessly baking every part of your exposed skin. If you hike the Rim Trail before hiding in the Bear Gulch Cave, prepare for a more strenuous adventure. The trail steepens at a steady pace until almost it hits Bear Gulch Reservoir.
But it’s none of your concern at this point. Once you conquer an insignificant ascent after bidding farewell to Bear Gulch Reservoir, the Rim Trail goes only down. A few switchbacks loom approximately halfway through this section of your Bear Gulch Cave and Rim Trails hike. With them come more trees and oh, so welcoming shade.
The Rim Trail connects to the Moses Spring Trail at the trail junction you passed earlier. Stay on this trail until you reach the Bear Gulch Cave parking lot.
The Best Time to Hike Bear Gulch Cave and Rim Trails
While the Rim Trail is open all year round, the Bear Gulch Cave Trail sticks to a seasonal schedule. Home to endangered bats, the dark cavern makes sure its inhabitants don’t get disturbed during their hibernation.
Pinnacles’ rangers share the same interest and close the Bear Gulch Cave Trail from mid-May through mid-July. During warm springs, the both upper and lower sections of the talus cave can be closed before mid-May.
With that said, you have even fewer chances to hike through the upper section of the canyon. This area is open only a few weeks a year.
Things to Know before Hiking Bear Gulch Cave and Rim Trails in Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles National Park entrance fee is $30. You can use annual national park pass such as the America the Beautiful pass to access the area and hike the Bear Gulch Cave and Rim Trails. The latter costs $80, saving you tons of money if you like to visit multiple national parks and monuments throughout a year.
Limited Parking Spaces/Park Shuttle
Parking is limited inside Pinnacles National Park. Even on weekdays, the parking spaces can fill up quickly. One of the options to get to the park and the hiking trails after the rangers block the East Entrance is by arriving early. The early bird catches the worm, after all.
Furthermore, you can park behind the Pinnacles Visitor Center and hike to the Bear Gulch Cave area. It’s a moderate trail that starches for 2.3 miles one way.
If that’s not an option, jump on a free park shuttle. The bus normally operates on weekends, from 8:00 a.m until 6:30 p.m. (east side only). I don’t know exactly what happened on the day of our visit, but we were able to ride it on a Friday.
Cell Phone Service
Download an offline map or use a hard copy map since there is no cell phone service in Pinnacles National Park.
Hiking Bear Gulch Cave and Rim Trails with Pets
No pets are allowed on the trails, including the Bear Gulch Cave and Rim hikes. Dogs on leash may be present in campground and picnic areas as well as parking lots.
Bring with you a large bottle of water on a hike along the Bear Gulch Cave and Rim Trails. Some sections of the area are exposed to the sun and the temperatures can reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit even in winter.
Pack a Flashlight
We failed miserably in this department. Luckily, our fellow hikers were more prepared for walking inside the Bear Gulch Cave. Guiding lights from their headlamps not only made our passage through the dark canyon safe, bur ensured enough light to capture the hike in photos and videos.
Wear Non-slip Shoes
The trail and steps inside the Bear Gulch Cave can be wet and slippery.
Bring Hiking Staffs
Some of the sections of the Bear Gulch Cave and Rim Trails are practically flat. Many others are not. Even experienced hikers find it beneficial to bring along a pair of hiking staffs. If it’s not your cup of tea, you can do just fine without them.