Hiking Bear Gulch Cave Trail to Bear Gulch Reservoir in Pinnacles 2023
Planning to hike the Bear Gulch Cave Trail in Pinnacles National Park?
The Bear Gulch Cave Trail is one of the most popular hiking trails in Pinnacles National Park in central California. I think it is one of the best hikes in the San Francisco Bay Area!
This trail has it all, a scenic walk through a lush canyon on Moses Spring Trail, exploring Talus Caves at Bear Gulch Cave, admiring the views at the beautiful Bear Gulch reservoir, and epic views of Pinnacles from the Rim trail.
I am a Northern California local and recently visited Pinnacles National Park with my family in Spring. I am surprised it took me so long to visit Pinnacles National Park, which is just two hours away from home. This National Park is hidden in plain sight! It makes a great weekend trip from San Francisco!
The first trail we did in Pinnacles National Park was the Bear Gulch Cave Trail – the entire Moses Spring to Rim Trail loop. I cannot believe how beautiful the trail was in Spring!
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Where is the Bear Gulch Cave Trail?
The Bear Gulch Trail is in Pinnacles National Park, California. Pinnacles National Park is a beautiful and unique park located in central California, USA.
The park is known for its towering rock formations, hiking trails, and wildlife. The unique thing about Pinnacles National Park is that it has a west entrance and an east entrance which are not connected by road.
The Bear Gulch Cave is one of the two Talus Caves located in Pinnacles, and the Bear Gulch Cave Trail can be accessed from the east entrance of the park. The other Talus Cave is the Balconies Cave and is at the west entrance of the park.
How to get to Bear Gulch Cave Trail?
Pinnacles National Park is around a two-hour drive from San Francisco Bay Area and around a 5-hour drive from Los Angeles and Southern California.
Pinnacles National Park can be easily done as a day trip from San Francisco Bay Area. If planning to visit from Southern California, a visit to Pinnacles National Park can be combined with other Central California places like Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo.
You will need to drive to the east entrance of Pinnacles National Park to get to Bear Gulch Cave Trail. The east entrance can be accessed via CA-25 to CA-146 W in San Benito County.
During Spring, CA-146 is an incredibly scenic drive through rolling green hills and farms. We even saw plenty of horses along the way!
The trailhead for the Bear Gulch Cave Trail is located at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area, inside the park’s east entrance.
Parking for Bear Gulch Cave Trail
The closest parking lot to the Bear Gulch Cave Trail is the Moses Spring parking lot. This parking lot hardly has around ten spots for cars. We reached at 8:30 AM on a Sunday in Spring, and this parking lot was already full!
The next best option is to park at the Bear Gulch Day Use Area, which is a slightly bigger parking lot with restrooms and picnic tables. This is where we parked. It is only a short 5-minute walk to the Moses Spring trailhead.
If you arrive later in the day, chances are the Bear Gulch Day Use Area might also be full. In that case, you can park at the next closest parking lot, which is the Peaks View Parking Area. Further away is the Pinnacles Visitor Center.
If you have parked at further parking lots like the Pinnacles Visitor Center, you can use the park shuttle, which operates on weekends and holidays, to transport visitors to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area.
Hiking the Bear Gulch Cave Trail in Pinnacles National Park
To hike the family-friendly Bear Gulch Cave Trail, you will need to start at either the Moses Spring trailhead or the Bear Gulch Day Use Area. If you park at Bear Gulch Day Use Area, it’s just a short 5-minute walk to the Moses Spring trailhead.
The Bear Gulch Cave hike has 4 different sections:
- First, you will hike the Moses Spring Trail to reach the Bear Gulch Cave.
- Second, you will hike through the Bear Gulch Cave.
- After passing through the cave, you will reach the Bear Gulch Reservoir.
- Finally, you complete the loop via the Rim Trail (an alternative is to come back through the Bear Gulch cave again)
Start at Moses Spring Trail to Bear Gulch Cave
The Moses Spring trailhead is clearly marked near the Moses Spring parking lot. From the start of the trailhead, the Bear Gulch Cave Trail is around 0.5 miles away, and the Bear Gulch Reservoir is around 0.9 miles away.
The Moses Spring trail is a beautiful walk along a dirt path in a forest. As we went in Spring, it was green and beautiful. There were bright green moss-covered rocks everywhere.
Just a few steps into the trail, we came across the rocky mountains with pinnacle-shaped rocks. The tan mountains were a splendid contrast against the green forest backdrop!
A little further into the Moses Spring trail, you will reach a fork with the left path going to the Bear Gulch Cave trail and the right path leading to the Rim Trail and High Peaks Trail.
Take the left path at this fork to go to the Bear Gulch Cave. If you make the complete Rim Trail loop, you will return via the right path towards the end.
This initial trail also has some interesting boulders on the side of the trail. There is also a small cave to pass through here, a sneak peek of what’s to come ahead!
A little further along on Moses Spring Trail, there will be another fork with the left path going to the Bear Gulch Cave Trail, and the right path allows you to bypass the cave and go directly to the Bear Gulch Reservoir. Keep left at this fork if you want to go through the Bear Gulch Caves.
Bear Gulch Cave
Going through the Bear Gulch Caves is the best and most unique part of this hike. The Bear Gulch Caves are Talus Caves, which are formed when rocks and boulders pile up in narrow canyons creating caves.
The opening of the Bear Gulch Cave is quite narrow, and you might be required to squeeze your way in sideways! It then widens into a partly covered cave with a rocky floor.
As we visited in Spring, there was ankle-deep water in the lower Bear Gulch Cave in some places, and your shoes might get wet. Waterproof shoes with a good grip would be a great idea here! Unfortunately, mine were not, and they got wet!
There was a flowing stream and amazing waterfalls in the lower Bear Gulch Caves. The waterfalls were gushing and forceful in the lower caves due to all the recent rainfall. If you visit in late Summer or Fall, the waterfalls and caves might be dried up.
There are several sets of stone stairs in the lower caves with hand railings. At the top of the stairs, you will reach a fork in the path, the left path will exit the caves to the Moses Spring trail, and the right will take you to the upper caves.
It rained quite a bit the week before we went, and there was waist-deep water in the upper caves that day. So we did not attempt to walk in the upper caves.
We took the left path and exit the caves. This part has a really low ceiling, and adults might have to be on all fours to exit, but the low ceiling area is just a few feet long.
We were back on the Moses Spring trail, and in this part is the most epic view of the narrow canyons. You will see a huge boulder lodged mid-air between the canyon walls, and you walk below it.
There is a steep staircase here, and I was so glad it had hand railings! Right next to it was an amazing waterfall. It was the most magnificent sight on this hike for me!
Bear Gulch Reservoir
As soon as you reach the top of the stairs, bam, you will see the Bear Gulch Reservoir appear out of nowhere! It was just spectacular! So many amazing elements in this one hike! At this moment, I named this hike one of the best hikes in California!
The Bear Gulch reservoir is extremely scenic, with the Monolith mountain at one end and the calm waters surrounding it. There is a path to walk along a portion of the reservoir and some small boulders to climb on for kids.
Swimming is not allowed in the Bear Gulch Reservoir. We sat here for some time to hydrate and eat some snacks while admiring the views. Remember to pack in all your trash and leave the place as you found it.
Returning via Rim Trail Loop
From the Bear Gulch Reservoir, you can either go back the same way through Bear Gulch Cave Trail and Moses Spring Trail, or you can complete the loop via Rim Trail.
The distance would almost be the same for both options, but I would recommend doing the Rim Trail loop as it is on an elevation, and you can see some excellent pinnacle formations on this path. You will also see some amazing panoramic views of Pinnacles National Park.
The initial path of the Rim Trail is a little steep with some incline, but then it is gradual, and the later part is all downhill with switchbacks.
This part is more exposed and, on a sunny day, could feel hot. During early Spring, the weather was awesome, and the sun felt great! There were wildflowers in some sections of the Rim Trail.
We saw some amazing pinnacle-shaped rock formations and a lot of moss-covered rocks on the pathways! The latter part of the trail going down to Moses Spring Trail was so green and alive with moss, fern, and other wild plants in Spring that it felt like I was transported to a trail in Hawaii!
Finally, the Rim Trail merged back to Moses Spring Trail, and we reached back to the trailhead starting point.
Extending the Bear Gulch Cave hike to High Peaks Trail
If you want to extend the Bear Gulch Cave trail hike, you can do so by joining the High Peaks Trail from the Rim Trail.
The High Peaks trail goes all the way to the West side of Pinnacles National Park (remember, the east and west sides are not connected by road, only by hiking trails).
Moses Spring to Rim Trail loop with Bear Gulch Cave and Reservoir Statistics
The below statistics are for the entire Bear Gulch Cave Trail hike from Moses Springs to Rim Trail loop:
- Hike Length – around 2.5 miles roundtrip
- Time Needed – Around 2 hours
- Hike Route Type – Loop
- Elevation gain – Around 525 feet
- Difficulty Level – Moderate due to elevation and stairs
- Trailhead Location – Starts near Moses Spring Parking lot.
- Parking – Yes, Moses Springs parking lot and Bear Gulch Day Use parking lot
- Parking Fee – $30 entrance fee of Pinnacles National Park valid for seven consecutive days
- Region – East entrance of Pinnacles National Park in Central California
- Kid-friendly? – Yes
- Dog-friendly? – No, dogs aren’t allowed on this trail.
- Stroller/wheelchair friendly? – No. The hike is not paved. The trail is a dirt road and uneven, with lots of stone steps and low ceilings in the cave.
Tips for hiking to Bear Gulch Cave Trail and FAQs
Below are some travel Tips and FAQs to help you make the most of your visit to Pinnacles National Park and the Bear Gulch Cave Trail.
When is the best time to hike the Bear Gulch Cave Trail?
Spring months are the best time to hike the Bear Gulch Cave as the rainfall in the winter makes spectacular waterfalls in the Bear Gulch Cave. Fall and winter months are also good times as the weather is cooler.
The Bear Gulch Cave is usually closed in the summer to protect the bat colonies as they nest in the cave. Also, Pinnacles is extremely hot in the summer months for any strenuous hiking.
How long does it take to hike the Bear Gulch Cave Trail?
It usually takes around two hours to hike the Bear Gulch Cave, longer if you spend some time doing a snack break at the Bear Gulch Reservoir.
Is the Bear Gulch Cave difficult?
The Bear Gulch cave hike is easy to moderate and not difficult. There is a gradual elevation gain of around 500 feet, and there might be some narrow paths between boulders and low ceilings in the cave, but it is doable by most people.
Do you have to pay to hike the Bear Gulch Cave Trail?
Yes, Bear Gulch Cave Trail is inside the east entrance of Pinnacles National Park and you will need to pay the $30 National Park entrance fee, which is valid for seven consecutive days. No prior reservations are required to visit Pinnacles National Park.
What to pack for the Bear Gulch Cave Trail?
To hike the Bear Gulch Cave Trail, you will need the following:
- Sturdy waterproof hiking shoes. Ankle support is recommended if planning to climb some boulders. I have seen people hike this in sneakers too.
- Spare socks – In the Spring months, there can be water in the caves, and your socks might get wet. Mine did, and I did not have spare socks!
- Water – Carry enough water for your hike, especially on hot days.
- Snacks – Take some snacks with you to sit and eat at the Bear Gulch Reservoir
- Headlamp – The caves can be dark in some places, and having a headlamp will keep your hands free.
- Hiking Poles – If you need extra support.
Where to stay for Bear Gulch Cave hike
Hollister town is around 35 minutes drive from Pinnacles East Entrance and a convenient place to stay the night before or after the Bear Gulch Cave hike.
If you are staying the night before, you can arrive early in the morning at the park before the crowds and have a more peaceful hike. It will also be less hot in the early morning, and finding parking at the Bear Gulch Day Use area will be easier.
Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Hollister is a great place to stay with a pool and free breakfast!
The East Entrance of Pinnacles National Park has a campground with tent camping, cabins, and RV camping which can be reserved online at the National Park Service website.
Final Takeaways: Hiking the Bear Gulch Cave Trail to Bear Gulch Reservoir
Overall, the Bear Gulch Cave Trail is a unique and rewarding hiking experience. The combination of scenic canyon views and exploring a cave system make it a must-do for any visit to Pinnacles National Park.
Visiting Central California? Check out my other posts about California!