Pinnacles National Park was such a surprising experience for me! This park isn’t talked about very much & wasn’t expecting much based on the pictures I’d seen.
But this park exceeded my expectations and it was a great day trip from San Francisco.
The drive to the park was quite boring. However, there are some good places to eat and an outlet mall along the way that nicely broke up the 2-3 hour drive.
Exciting cave hikes + good food + outlet shopping = one GREAT day.
Want to learn how to spend the day cave hiking in Pinnacles? Keep reading!
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How to Spend One Day in Pinnacles National Park
Pinnacles National Park Visitor Center
We entered the east entrance of Pinnacles National Park via Pinnacles Highway (Hwy 146). The park is separated into an east and a west side that do not connect. The east side of the park is the most popular side. The west side is less crowded with fewer amenities.
Per usual, the first thing we did was stop at the Visitor’s Center. We had to get our National Parks Passport books stamped, talk to a ranger, and figure out the best hike for us.
Tip: You can find the small Passport book for around $10 at most National Park Visitor Centers!
Pinnacles National Park Trails
Pinnacles has over 30 miles of hiking trails. This is the best way to see all that the park has to offer. Most of the popular hiking trails are located on the east side of the park.
Pinnacles National Park Caves
Pinnacles has two caves you can visit by hiking to them. Bear Gulch Cave is on the east side of the park and the Balconies Cave is on the west side.
Keep in mind: Bear Gulch Cave is closed from mid-May to mid-July due to bats raising their young! Check the Pinnacles nps.gov page to make sure it’s open when you visit!
Hiking to Bear Gulch Cave
The ranger we spoke with at the visitor center was very friendly and informative. I’d done a little bit of prep work with my Fodor’s Complete Guide to the National Parks of the West book. So we had it narrowed down to 1-2 trails we wanted to hike.
We told her we only had one day in Pinnacles. She suggested we hike through Bear Gulch Cave and up to the Bear Gulch Reservoir, for a total of about 5 miles round trip. She recommended we park at the first parking lot past the Visitor Center (at Peaks View Picnic Area). The Bear Gulch Day use area is closer to the trailhead but has limited parking.
We followed her recommendation and parked in the Peaks View lot and started out on the Condor Gulch Trail/Bench Trail.
The trail soon forks, with Bear Gulch Trail going left and Bench Trail continuing on to the right. We followed Bear Gulch Trail and took the left fork on Moses Spring Trail. In hindsight, Moses Spring Trail was definitely the easiest way to get to the cave and reservoir!
Up until this point, Bear Gulch Trail is a well-maintained trail that passes by picnic areas (with water to refill your water bottles!), public restrooms, and the Bear Gulch Nature Center (this was closed during our hike).
Bear Gulch Cave
As the sign in the picture above says, flashlights are definitely required!!! The visitor center sells flashlights for around $8 if you didn’t bring one. Which of course we forgot to bring so I am VERY glad they sold them! In hindsight, I wish I’d bought a headlamp so I could’ve crawled through the caves without holding a flashlight. (This headlamp gets great reviews on Amazon.)
The cave is extremely narrow with low ceilings in some places. My friend who is 5′ didn’t seem to have any problems. I am 5 inches taller than her and frequently found myself crouching down, almost crawling, so that I didn’t hit my head on the rocks.
There are also parts of the cave trail that are in water. There was one water-covered passage with just a few rocks to try and balance yourself on to get across without landing in the water.
Fortunately, I had good balance that day and was able to hop across about 15 rocks to the dry ground without falling or having to step in a couple of inches of water.
Once you start climbing through the cave and get to the top, the trail is definitely not well marked. There seemed to be several options of routes to take, we just chose a few and hoped for the best!
We hiked around the cave for a bit and eventually found “the staircase” that the park ranger had told us about. She said to look for those stairs because the trail was not marked, and that would lead us up to the Bear Gulch Reservoir.
Bear Gulch Reservoir
The reservoir was such a pleasant surprise on top of the cave and rock formations. It was so pretty and peaceful up there.
The Rim Trail
After spending some time taking in the view, we chose to take the Rim Trail back down the rock formations. The Rim Trail near the reservoir offers spectacular views of the rest of the park.
The Rim Trail has several switchbacks down the rock formation and eventually meets up with Bear Gulch Trail, back where we started.
Hope you enjoyed reading about our one day in Pinnacles National Park. What’s your favorite hike in this park? Let me know in the comments below so I can add it to my list for next time I visit!