If you’re visiting Pinnacles National Park in California, the first thing you’ll read about is the Bear Gulch Cave Trail. It’s a popular hike and one of the top things to do in the park. Happiest Outdoors contributor Rasika and her husband hiked this trail in October 2021 and found it to be an unforgettable experience.
Rasika says “This was our first time hiking through a cave. While it was exciting, it was also intimidating! The hike to and from the cave was also fun; we loved seeing these captivating rock formations that were formed due to volcanic eruptions and erosions from water and wind over time. If you’re visiting California, Pinnacles National Park is a must-do on your itinerary as it shows you how nature changes over the years.”
Read on for Rasika’s full Bear Gulch Cave Trail guide. It includes:
- Trail information you’ll need to know for hiking the Bear Gulch Cave Trail
- The best time to hike through the Bear Gulch Cave Trail
- How to get to Pinnacles National Park and the Bear Gulch Cave trailhead
- What makes the Bear Gulch Cave Trail so special; is it worth hiking?
- Hiking directions for the Bear Gulch Cave Trail
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Bear Gulch Cave Trail Basics
This trail takes you through the Bear Gulch Cave and finishes at the Bear Gulch Reservoir. The Bear Gulch Cave is one of the two talus caves in Pinnacles National Park. When huge boulders fall into a canyon or a mountain slope, the space underneath is a talus cave.
This isn’t your average hike; hiking through this cave requires your full attention as you will be moving through some narrow passages with low ceilings. Even though some of the areas are narrow, it is a two-way hike so be prepared to see hikers coming back and make way when necessary. Follow the arrows to stay on the correct route.
Make sure that you’re packing the 10 essentials when hiking this trail: flashlights, water bottles, and a first aid kit in case you hit your head/feet on one of the rocks. (They should all be on your California packing list anyway!)
Is the Bear Gulch Cave Trail Worth Hiking?
So, with all these precautions, is it really worth hiking the Bear Gulch Cave Trail? That’s what we thought when we were preparing for the hike. But yes, it was worth it!
If you’ve ever wanted to visit a bat cave, this is it. Townsend’s big-eared bats reside in this cave. Plus, there are 16 species of bats in the Bear Gulch Cave. The trail takes you through an immersive cave experience and you get into survival mode.
After you exit the cave, you hike up to a scenic view of the Bear Gulch Reservoir, the second-best attraction in the park after the Bear Gulch Cave.
Bear Gulch Cave Trail Information
Distance: 1.5 miles (2.4 km) round trip (2.2 miles/3.5 km total including the connector trail from the parking lot to the Bear Gulch Cave Trail)
Elevation Gain: 240 feet (73 meters)
Time: 2-3 hours
Season: Bear Gulch Cave is closed between mid-May and mid-July due to the bats’ pupping season.
Toilets: Available at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area parking lot
Pets: No pets are allowed on the trails. Pets are allowed on-leash in the parking lots, picnic areas, and the Pinnacles Campground.
Fee/Passes: $30 7-day vehicle entrance fee; free if you have the $80 America the Beautiful Pass or the $55 Pinnacles National Park Annual Pass. There are also National Park Service Fee Free days when you don’t have to pay a fee to enter the park.
Rules: Stay on established trails. Bicycles are prohibited on all trails. Drones aren’t allowed. It is not allowed to feed, approach, or hunt wildlife in the park.
Best Times to Hike to Bear Gulch Cave Trail
The best time to hike the Bear Gulch Cave Trail is during spring or fall. This is because the entire cave will be open during the last weeks of March and October. They may open up earlier but that’s based on the presence of bats.
The lower section of the cave is open from April to May, July to September, and November to February.
The entire cave is closed between mid-May through mid-July when the maternal colony of bats raises their babies. Make sure to check the status of the caves on the National Parks Service site before planning a hike on the Bear Gulch Cave Trail.
Apart from the seasonality of the Bear Gulch Cave, spring and fall are great times to see the colorful scenery around the park. Visit during spring to see the vibrant wildflowers blooming or visit during the fall to admire the fall foliage. Our fall trip was gorgeous with orange leaves all around and the air being chill enough to feel comfortable to spend our whole day at the park.
While you can still visit the lower sections of the cave during the winter and spring, winter lacks that colorful scenery and summers can be as hot as 100 Fahrenheit (or more!).
If you plan to visit during the summer, please note that it can get very hot and very dry in the park. Make sure you are ready and have the required materials to hike under that heat.
How To Get To Bear Gulch Cave Trail
Even though Pinnacles National Park is a relatively small park compared to other U.S. National Parks, the park has 2 sections: the East side and the West side. But they don’t connect via road. They only connect through a hiking trail. The Bear Gulch Cave Trail is located on the east side of the park.
If you’re traveling from the San Francisco/San Jose/Oakland area, you will need to take US-101 North, then CA-25 through Hollister to get to the east entrance. If you’re traveling from the Los Angeles area, take I-5 and CA-25 through Bitterwater.
Make sure you get gas before entering the park. You can fuel up in Hollister; that’s 33 miles away from the Bear Gulch Day Use Area parking lot. The nearest parking lot is the Bear Gulch Day Use Area parking lot. Click here for Google maps directions.
However, if it is crowded (weekends and holidays), you might be directed to park near the Pinnacles Visitor Center. However, if you continue to drive and look around, you might find an open spot in/near the parking lot. That’s what we did.
While the park does get crowded, the trail only takes a few hours, so you will eventually find a parking spot as hikers return to their cars.
Bear Gulch Cave Trail Hiking Directions
Once you’ve parked at the Bear Gulch parking lot, make sure to use the restrooms before starting the trail as it can take 2-3 hours to get back. The Bear Gulch Cave Trail doesn’t start at the parking lot. You will have to hike the Moses Spring Trail first to access the Bear Gulch Cave Trailhead.
You’ll hike around 0.5 miles until you reach the Moses Spring trailhead. Turn left to start the trail (the trail on the right is the Rim Trail.) On this trail, you’ll walk under a few mini caves. We also saw a couple of rock climbers climbing nearby peaks. The trail takes you through incredible pinnacle formations towering among the trees.
You will know when you’re near the cave entrance since you can smell and feel the dampness in the cave. It’ll also feel chillier, and you’ll see rocks covered with moss. Make sure to have your flashlight on.
The cave starts out wide and after some time, the cave walls narrow in. You’ll see white arrows that show you how to hike through the cave. There are puddles in the cave so take your time in crossing them. You will have to bend through some areas and near-crawl in others. Once you exit the cave, you’ll come across a long flight of stairs. Take the stairs to a dramatic view of the Bear Gulch Reservoir, a lake surrounded by pinnacles.
After taking a break at the Bear Gulch Reservoir, you have two options on how to hike back to the parking lot. Either you can turn around and hike back through the cave or you can take the Rim Trail that goes around the cave.
If you want to do the cave hike again and/or are running short on time, hike back on the Bear Gulch Cave Trail.
If you want to explore more of the park (Rim Trail has some gorgeous mountain views!) and/or have some extra time, take the Rim Trail. You will have to hike up then hike down this trail but the views make it worth it. The Rim Trail then connects to the High Peaks Trail that has a few switchbacks. The High Peaks Trail then connects to the Moses Spring Trail and then it’s the same hike back to the parking lot.
I hope this guide helps you plan for your hike to Bear Gulch Cave Trail. If you’re visiting Pinnacles National Park for the day, I recommend hiking this trail then staying back in/near the park to stargaze at night. You’d be surprised at just how beautiful Pinnacles National Park can be at nighttime as well! -Rasika, Bae Area and Beyond
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