Pinnacles National Park, one of the smallest and newest national parks is home to not one but two spectacular talus caves that visitors can hike through — Bear Gulch Cave and Balconies Cave. Unlike traditional caves that cut into the sides of mountains, talus caves are formed when large boulders of varying sizes fall into a gorge or canyon and create a cave ceiling.
On our first day in Pinnacles National Park, we hiked the Bear Gulch Cave Trail through Bear Gulch Cave. It was exciting, a little scary, and due to the recent rains, there was a lot of water in the cave that we were unprepared for and our shoes and socks got soaked.
Luckily the ranger at the Bear Gulch Day Use Nature Center gave us some great advice to prepare for the hike to Balconies Cave:
- Bring extra shoes. Balconies Cave also had a lot of rushing water, so on the way back to our hotel, we stopped at a Payless Shoe Source and bought extra tennis shoes.
- Get to the park early. Pinnacles National Park is small, which means there isn’t a lot of parking and the parking lot closest to the trailhead fills up fast.
The Early Bird Gets The Parking Space
Balconies Cave is on the West side of the park, and because there is no road that goes through the park connecting the East entrance (where we were staying) and West entrance, we had two options to get to Balconies Cave:
- Drive two hours around the park to the West Pinnacles entrance and hike the 2.4 mile Balconies Cliffs-Cave Loop.
- Hike Old Pinnacles Trail to Balconies Cave, a 5.3 mile loop.
In no way did we want to drive to the West entrance! So, for day two visiting Pinnacles National Park, we got up early and made it to the park entrance at 8:00 am, snagging one of only 20 parking spots (photo of the whole parking lot below). Thank goodness we did! If the Old Pinnacles Trail Parking Lot had been full, we would have had to park at the Visitor Center again and either:
- Hike from the Visitor Center to Balconies Cave, turning our family adventure into a 9.4 mile round trip hike.
- Ride the shuttle to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area and hike to the Old Pinnacles Trail from there, turning it into a 7.3 mile loop.
Before starting our hike, we enjoyed the quiet early morning in the park and ate breakfast on the tailgate of Brian’s truck. By the time we finished breakfast, made fresh wraps for lunch, and packed our backpacks for the hike with water and lunch, the parking lot was already almost full.
It’s true, the early bird does get the parking space!
Old Pinnacles Trail to Balconies Cave
The Old Pinnacles Trail to Balconies Cave Trail is a flat, moderate hike that meanders in and out of the shade, boasts impressive views of the Pinnacles rock formations, including Machete Ridge and the Balconies Cliffs. It also crosses back and forth several times across a seasonal creek. While there was a beautiful bridge over the creek at the beginning of the trail, all of the other creek crossings involved us stepping or jumping from rock to rock — which my son (our trail leader) loved!
Carter actually spent most of the hike to Balconies Cave teaching us all about volcanoes, magma and lava, and different types of rocks and erosion — they are learning about it in science right now, so he got to see examples of what he is learning on our hike and throughout the park!
Luckily, planning a trip to Pinnacles National Park in the spring meant that the creek was extra full of water (it’s dry in the fall) and there were beautiful wildflowers and California Poppies (and Poison Oak) flanking the entire trail.
After about 2.5 miles, we reached a narrow metal bridge over the rushing creek and a small rock staircase through a thin gap between large boulders. On the other side of the stairs, the trail sort of disappeared! There was no more trail, just water rushing through a pile of large rocks. Brian climbed up over the rocks a ways to see what was on the other side, and it was the cave entrance!
We weren’t going to hike over rushing water like in Bear Gulch Cave, but through the water! Brian climbed back to us and we all changed our shoes — again, thank goodness we brought extra shoes with us! We then hiked over the rocks and through the creek, to the gated entrance of Balconies Cave.
Hiking Through Balconies Cave
Balconies Cave is quite a bit smaller than Bear Gulch Cave, but more treacherous.
Bear Gulch Cave at least had some stairs, railings, and pathways. It was fairly clear where we needed to go and there were other people in the cave ahead of and behind us.
Balconies Cave on the other hand had only freezing cold, ankle deep (or deeper) water, pitch blackness, and fallen boulders to climb up and over — some of which were wet and slippery. Plus, no one else was in the cave, as several people we saw on the Balconies Cave Trail chose not to hike through it due to the amount of water.
Part way into the pitch back darkness of Balconies Cave, we had tears.
We had serious kid tears and fear in this cave. At first we were hiking under, around, and through some very large boulders with patches of light — not so bad. But then we got into the pitch black portion of the cave, and it wasn’t very clear where to go next, until we saw a small opening under a very large rock. Brian, Natalie, and I were a little nervous, but more excited than nervous. Carter was scared and he didn’t want to do it. But our feet were already wet and we didn’t want to miss out on this experience — and I knew Carter would regret it if he didn’t do it.
It took some time, reassurance, mommy promises, and Lego bribery, but we convinced him to go for it.
- We made Natalie the leader and put Carter between Brian and I
- I promised to be touching him and talking to him the entire time to make sure he knew I was right there.
- I bribed him with any Lego set of his choice if he got through it.
- Brian also gave him the best flashlight from his past life as a firefighter.
We crouched down and half-squatted, half-shimmied our way into the complete darkness with only our flashlights showing us the way. It took some searching to find the right path out, but we found it, and it had us wading through water and traversing wet, slippery boulders and piles of fallen rocks — which was hard to do while holding a flashlight so you can see where you are going, where to grab with your hands, and where to put your feet!
We actually climbed up and through a large pile of rocks out of the black hole shown in the photos below to exit the first section of talus cave. We then had to climb back down another pile of boulders into what felt like a deep pit to reach the last part of the cave and the way back to the trail.
The water was absolutely freezing. The entire last section of the talus cave trail was through the water in a passageway that was 1-3 feet wide. Every time I stepped in the water, which was often for photos, my feet felt like they were turning into ice cubes!
Balconies Cave will have you crawling under boulders, squeezing through crevices, wading through rushing water, and climbing up piles of large boulders through narrow passages.
If hiking Bear Gulch Cave felt like our own family Goonies adventure, hiking Balconies Cave put our family smack dab in the middle of an Indiana Jones adventure.
It was an unforgettable, amazing experience, and we all had fun, even Carter. He was so proud of himself for pushing past his fears and doing the hike, because it really was so cool!
The Hike Back
Once on the other side of Balconies Cave, we found a shady spot to take a break, changed back into our warm, dry shoes and socks, grabbed some water, and had a snack before starting the loop hike back to the parking lot.
The return trail took us high above Balconies Cave, with switchbacks winding along the mountainside out in the sun. The views were spectacular. We could see High Peaks, wildflowers, the parking lot, and the trail to the cave down below.
Eventually the trail dropped back down the mountainside and merged into the same Old Pinnacles Trail we used to reach the cave. The kids were so excited to hop across the creek again over the rocks and we found a nice shady spot along the creek for a lunch break.
Finally, we made it back to the car around 1:30 pm and were hot, sweaty, and exhausted — but our feet were dry — and never has our ice chest with freezing cold Gatorade made me so happy!
With almost 12 miles under our belts, and the two best hikes in Pinnacles National Park complete, we said goodbye to the Park and headed back to the hotel to plan our adventure for the next day.