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With its majestic pinnacles, beautifully preserved wilderness, numerous hiking trails snaking through the park, breath-taking wildflowers in spring, amazingly dark night skies ideal for star-gazing, rock-climbing, and rare wildlife, Pinnacles National Park is attracting a myriad of visitors everyday. With adventurous trails like the Bear Gulch Caves and Balconies Caves, kids would love to spend their time exploring at this park in cooler months.
In this article, we will give you all the information you need to hike the Bear Gulch Cave trail in Pinnacles National Park, California, with kids.
- Trail Name: Bear Gulch Cave Trail, Pinnacles National Park, CA -> All Trails link
- Length: 2.5 miles round trip
- Entrance Fee: $30 per car or America the beautiful Annual Pass
- Best time to visit: February-March and October-December (mild weather)
- Features: Talus Caves, huge rocks, rare birds, man-made reservoir. Kid-friendly. Dogs are not allowed.
- Things needed: Headlamp/Flashlight for the caves, drinking water (reusable water bottle) and snacks, binoculars for bird-watching, hats and sunblock.
- Places to stay: Inn at the Pinnacles, The Ranch House, Fairfield Inn Suites Hollister. There are campgrounds inside the park closer to the caves, but advanced reservations are needed.
Bear Gulch Cave Trail
Firstly, before you plan your visit based on solely visiting the Bear Gulch Caves, you must check the status of the caves that is updated regularly on the National Park website. Usually the whole caves are open fully late March and late October and open in parts or closed for the rest of the year if there is bat-activity. Townsend big-eared bats have a maternal colony in these caves.
On your GPS, enter the address for East Entrance of Pinnacles National Park as this is the closest to Bear Gulch area.
If you visit on weekends and arrive after 8 AM, be prepared to wait for sometime before the rangers allow you to go inside the park. This is because the parking gets full and once a few cars come out, some cars will be allowed in to take those parking spots. The wait may be even an hour.
Once you enter the park, try to get to the Bear Gulch Parking area (Either the nature center parking lot or the lot right next to Moses-Spring trail-head) if possible. If that parking is full, the entrance to the parking will be blocked at the overflow parking lot. So, you will have to park at the visitor center parking lot next to the campgrounds.
Then you can take the park shuttle from the visitor center to Bear Gulch Nature Center. Or else you can follow the Bench trail to reach Bear Gulch area, but it is a 2 miles trek, so if you are traveling with kids, taking the shuttle is a better option. There are restrooms near the visitor center, a camp store, and a table near the shuttle stop.
There are shuttles every 10 minutes, so it is actually convenient. As of March 12, 2022, masks are still required inside the shuttle. There is a box of disposable masks inside the shuttle for you to use if you forget to bring your mask.
Bear Gulch Area
The Bear Gulch area has a nature center, restroom, drinking water-refilling station, shuttle stop and a pleasant picnic area complete with barbecue grills and shaded picnic tables. There is a small creek running behind the picnic tables. All the trails start from near the nature center.
If you have a few minutes to spare, take your kids to the Bear Gulch Nature Center and ask about the Junior Ranger Program. It is a very interesting activity for the kids and when you come back and turn in the answers, the kids will get sworn as Pinnacles Junior Rangers!
Bear Gulch cave trail starts after you cross the Bear Gulch picnic area and take the Moses-Spring Trail. There is a small parking lot and restroom right next to this trail-head too.
When you start walking along the Moses-Spring trail, in half a mile you will see a fork with a directions marker in the center. Take the trail on the left which is slightly elevated in the beginning. This is the path that leads to the Bear Gulch caves directly. It is a shaded trail and an easy hike.
If you take the right-side path that goes slightly downward, you will be going on a different trail (Rim/High Peaks trail) and still reach the caves after you cross the reservoir at the top. It is an open trail with good views. We saw a rattlesnake on this trail. Be mindful of where you step.
When you take the left-side shaded path to the caves, after about 15 minutes walk, you will come to the entrance of the caves right next to a huge crater in the rock on your right side above you.
Take flashlights or headlamps because the caves are dark. Headlamps are preferred if you like to have your hands free to navigate the caves while helping kids. Also, don’t take heavy backpacks because it will be difficult to carry everything and squeeze through the rock openings and help kids.
Also read: Top 25 Hidden Gems of USA
These caves are called Talus Caves. They formed because of volcanic activity and rocks dropping in the narrow canyons that now house the caves. It is a very interesting and cool area and kids love exploring these caves. These caves are home to a colony of a species of endangered bats that hibernate/breed and live here.
There are arrow marks in white paint on the rocks, pointing the way inside the caves. In some parts, you will have to get down on your knees to crawl through the tight spaces. Kids can easily walk through these spots. In some places, the floor is wet and there is some water running from the small waterfall at the entrance of the cave next to the stairs.
When you reach the cave exit, take the stairs to reach the Bear Gulch reservoir. The stairs are narrow and steep. The reservoir is a pretty sight and the views around are awesome.
Bear Gulch Reservoir
Keep an eye out for Condor Gulch Eagles and other birds making Pinnacles National Park their home. Be mindful of the water’s edge and watch the kids. The rocks near the reservoir make for a good picnic spot.
You can choose to return via the caves or take the Rim/Spring trail to go back to the Bear Gulch parking area.
Points to Note
- Pinnacles National Park is the newest National Park in California (since 2013, National Monument previously). But it is gaining popularity by leaps and bounds ever since. Though it does not see as many visitors as Yosemite National Park, don’t be unprepared, because it sure is popular on weekends. Be ready to wait for an hour to enter the park if you visit after 9 am on weekends.
- The park has two entrances, the west and the east, but they are not connected from inside the park. So, when you plan to explore different areas of the park covering both east and west, remember that you would have to drive for one to one and half hours around the park to reach the other entrance. The campgrounds are located in the east entrance side.
- Summers are very hot here, so avoid visiting this park unless you can bear the heat. Carry plenty of drinking water.
- The bear gulch caves have some tight spots, so if anyone is claustrophobic, it is better to avoid this hike and explore the Spring Rim trail or High Peaks trail to the reservoir. You will be able to see the majestic Monolith along the way.
- Rock climbers have many access points marked as Discovery Wall – Climber Access.
- If you are able to drive your own car into the bear gulch area instead of taking the shuttle, look out for Pinnacles National Park sign for a quick photo stop.
- Watch out for wild turkeys crossing the road when you travel to the East entrance from Hollister. The whole drive is so beautiful with rolling hills and green meadows making a painting gorgeous!
Have fun exploring Pinnacles National Park!
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