Pinnacles National Park: Bear Gulch Cave Hike
We were itching to get out of the house. Work and school and housework had us needing an escape. There was a chance of rain in the late afternoon, so that meant we had all morning to adventure (not that we would have let the rain stop us). So we got ourselves ready, filled our water backpacks and decided to go to Pinnacles National Park. It’s amazing to have a National Park practically in our backyard. Plus, this place has caves you can explore, the kids absolutely love it! We made sure to check the status of the caves before we left, they have bats and seasonal closures, so it’s always a good idea to check. We saw that the upper Bear Gulch cave was closed, so we weren’t sure what to expect or how much we would get to walk through, but there are other trails and things to do so we decided to give it a shot.
We take highway 101 to highway 25 out to Pinnacles. On our way through Hollister (the last big town before you get to Pinnacles) we grabbed some sandwiches for a picnic lunch, this is also a great place to grab gas if you need it. The drive was beautiful on the way in, a not too twisty two lane road through rolling hills that turn into bigger more jagged hills, farm land and pastures.
We drove in through the East Entrance and parked at the Visitor Center. The Center has a little store of things you might have forgotten at home and a souvenir shop with great books about the local wildlife. This is also where you pay the entrance fee of $15 and this pass is good for 7 days, not to shabby. We used our National Parks pass to get in and then we headed up the road, past the Bear Gulch Area to the very end of the road and parked. We ate our sandwiches on a picnic table near the parking area, under the cover of trees and the watchful eyes of near by blue jays. After our lunch we hit the bathrooms that are located next to the parking lot and loaded up our gear.
For this hike, you will need water resistant/slip resistant shoes and a flashlight (not a cell phone flashlight, like a real full on brightest one you can find flashlight)…those things are a must. Check out our tips at the end of this post for links to the products we used! If you go during rainy season and really hate getting wet then a rain jacket and hat might be good too. We had a nice camera and cell phones out the whole time and they didn’t get wet at all. We also brought our hydro backpacks with us to stay hydrated on this unseasonably warm January day.
We took the Moses Spring Trail to the Bear Gulch Trail, the Cave is about half a mile in. The trail to the cave is cut into the side of a hill so keep an eye on your little ones. My 8, 5 and 3 year old all walked this just fine. The way up was gorgeous, in the valley was a winding creek and the hills were green and everything was covered in moss. It was so lush beautiful. Now this is not a flat, carved out tunnel type of cave. This is a nature made cave, a cave formed by giant boulders falling into a valley and creating small passageways to walk through. Also known as a Tallus cave.
The opening to the cave is large and here is where your water proof shoes come into play. There are strategic stepping stones that take some skill to walk across or you can stomp through the 4 or so inches of water like my boys did. Watch your head! The ceiling gets low in a few places and it being so dark makes it a challenge to see…I don’t say this from experience of anything (I totally ran into a giant boulder)…use that flashlight! Then there are stairs to walk up, and a waterfall right next to you. It is spectacular to think about that water carving it’s way through the boulders. There are a few flights of stairs and a couple landing areas, I suggest stopping to shine your light around at these places. Then if the upper cave is closed you have to exit out a tiny opening in the rocks. A child sized opening with a grate perched over water. The boys walked through with no problem. I squeezed and crawled through, my hubby hunkered through on hands and knees.
When we emerged we found our selves surrounded by large rock formations. We climbed up a rock and to the right. (look for a metal banister that curves up and around to the right and follow it) From there we followed the sign posts to the reservoir. The path turns to the right and kind of goes next to, but above the cave you just walked through. Then you go through another cave, well cave-ish is a better term I think. It’s rocky, a bit slippery and just enough tricky to be exciting and fun. We ducked under some rocks, walked across a rock bridge and then up some pretty narrow and steep stairs…but there is a guard rail so it’s all good. Once at the top of the stairs you can see the reservoir. The reservoir is small and full of stagnant water but the sun was hitting it just right to be really pretty, you can see some iconic Pinnacles from up there too. We hung out for a bit, threw rocks in the lake and climbed around.
Instead of heading back the way we came we decided to do ‘the loop’, the kids love loop trails for some reason, like it’s too boring to see the trail again, or something. There is sign post to help guide you back down to your car, if it says Rim Trail or Bear Gulch area that’s what you want. We took the trail making stops along the way to crawl through a little cave and to walk out to a rock climbing area that over looks a huge valley. The views from up there are amazing. It was mostly down hill or flat as we walked back to our car. The trail is rocky but compacted, nothing my three year old couldn’t handle and he insisted on jumping off of every rock he could see. The way back has a slightly different feel to it, less green and lush and more high dessert-y (that’s the scientific term). Big rocks, the size of houses line the trails with the Pinnacles off in the distance. This place is never one to disappoint with the views.
We love this hike! My kids are still talking about it and how awesome it was. There is just something about a cave that brought out the explorer in all of us. It’s adventurous and using a flashlight to find our way just added to that explorer vibe. This hike makes you feel so small, down in a canyon, surrounded by big rocks, crouching under and around boulders the size of buildings, it’s such an amazing feeling! After our hike we drove down to Peaks View parking lot and took a few pictures in front of the National Park sign and then watched the sun disappear behind the Pinnacles. It was a glorious day. One that we will be repeating as often as possible I’m sure. Especially because we have yet to explore the upper part of the cave, which for the life of me I can’t figure out where it would be or where it would go, so I am waiting patiently until it opens and thence are going to go see it! There is also another cave in this park, the hike to it is a bit farther but I’m hoping we can do that one soon too. Anyway, here are a few tips for this hike.
Always wear layers, Pinnacles temperature can swing wildly. The cave is cool (this), but the hike gets warm (this).
Check the NPS.gov website before going to see if the cave trail is open.
Bring a bright flashlight.
Wear waterproof/slip resistant shoes
Bring a camera, this place is pretty!
Bring water, these are our packs and these are the Similar to the kids packs.
Thanks for reading and remember…
Get up, get out and go adventuring!