This past week, we spent the kids’ spring break on an awesome outdoor family adventure with lots of hiking, gorgeous views of rock spires and the pacific coastline, enormous redwood trees, spectacular waterfalls, and dark rocky caves.
Our adventure began with the dark rocky caves of Pinnacles National Park, just a short drive from our home. To be honest, I didn’t even know this national park existed until we read about it in Sunset Magazine last year, in an issue featuring the smallest and least visited national parks. When we saw that there were cave hikes, planning a family trip to Pinnacles National Park was a no-brainer!
There are several hiking trails in Pinnacles National Park with varying lengths and all different levels of difficulty. Knowing that we were going to be hiking daily for the whole week of spring break, and that Brian and I both work behind a desk all day, we reviewed all of the hikes and chose two that would give us a family-friendly, “Best of Pinnacles” experience without killing us:
- The Bear Gulch Cave Trail
- The Old Pinnacles Trail to Balconies Cave
Bear Gulch Day Use Area
We had never done a cave hike, so on our first day visiting Pinnacles National Park, we chose the hike to Bear Gulch Cave — a 1.5 mile round trip hike. The cave is home to a colony of Townsend’s big-eared bats and is closed and gated from mid-May to mid-July while the bats are raising their young, but while we were there, the entire cave was open and available to hike through.
We drove in the east entrance of Pinnacles National Park at 9:45 am, and all parking lots except for the main Visitor Center lot were full. This meant the Bear Gulch Day Use Area parking lot was full and we had to adjust our hiking plans a bit, which was actually a really good thing!
We parked at the Visitor Center, used Carter’s special fourth grade National Park Pass to gain entry for free, and looked at the trail maps. There is a hike from the Visitor Center to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area, but it’s 2.3 miles each way — yikes! I wanted to do the hike, but no one wanted to add an extra 5.6 miles to our hike.
Luckily, when the park is busy, a free shuttle runs from the Visitor Center to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area and back. We took the shuttle one-way to the day use area, and then hiked back to the Visitor Center at after completing the cave hike, adding only 2.3 miles to our day.
Bear Gulch Cave Trail
We couldn’t wait to see the cave, so we departed the shuttle and headed straight for the Bear Gulch Cave Trail, which leaves from the south end of the Bear Gulch Day Use Parking Area, checking the bulletin board at the trailhead to confirm the cave was open.
Just a short way down the trail, it splits in two:
- The High Peaks Trail heads right up the side of Bear Gulch
- The Bear Gulch Cave Trail and the Moses Spring Trail head left toward Bear Gulch Reservoir
It was a bit confusing to use at first, but the Bear Gulch Cave Trail and the Moses Spring Trail are actually the same trail until you reach the caves.
The moderate trail follows the creek that runs through Bear Gulch. It provides magnificent views of high peaks and takes you through shaded, mossy forest areas, past huge boulders and rock formations, through the famous talus cave, and to a man-made reservoir — and because we decided to plan a family vacation to Pinnacles National Park in spring, wildflowers were in bloom everywhere!
Soon we reached the first of two short caves.
We all were pretty excited at this point! We took some photos, kept hiking and reached a second cave. These caves were awesome and the kids were in awe. If this was the extent of the caves we were to experience, I would have been happy with the hike — but really they were just a taste of the stunning talus caves to come.
After these caves, the trail splits, with the Bear Gulch Cave Trail taking you under a collection of boulders that form Bear Gulch Cave, and the Moses Spring Trail taking you up and over the cave. Both trails reunite at the other end of the cave, just before the Bear Gulch Reservoir.
Hiking In Bear Gulch Cave
We stayed on the Bear Gulch Cave Trail and soon came to the narrow entrance of the talus cave and a metal gate with warning signs. This was a much larger, more ominous-looking cave with large boulders to hike under, around, over, and through, and at first, patched of light peaking through the rocks. We were pretty excited! This was our first-ever caving adventure!
Soon after stepping into the cave, it got dark and flashlights were needed.
We learned very quickly that two flashlights for four people isn’t enough. Every person hiking through the cave needs to have their own flashlight. The kids had more confidence hiking through the pitch black cave, stepping rock-to-rock through rushing water, and squeezing through and under giant boulders when they controlled the light in front of them.
When I say stepping rock-to-rock across rushing water, I’m not exaggerating.
At times, hiking through Bear Gulch Cave can be treacherous! Some people hike through the cave in the summer or fall and they are dry, but not us. Due to the recent rains, there was A LOT of water in the cave. We hiked past underground waterfalls in the talus cave and over the water rushing through the bottom of it.
While there are paths, railings, and stairs inside the cave that were built in the 1930’s, they don’t extend through the whole cave. At one spot in particular, the hike had us squeezing through a small opening underneath a giant boulder and around a corner. Freezing cold water was rushing through the same opening. The only option was to go right through the water, getting our shoes and socks soaking wet, or try to balance on top of the rocks spread far apart, stepping from slippery rock to slippery rock. All while still holding a flashlight and squatting down super low to fit under the boulders.
Getting through this section of the cave, brought fear and tears.
If the rocks felt far apart to me, they had to feel even farther for the kids! Carter got scared and started to cry a little. Brian slipped helping him through, got his shoes soaked, and hit his head on a rock. When Carter got upset, Natalie got scared and then she slipped and stepped in the ankle deep water too. It took some serious tough love to get her through that section of the cave.
Once through the cave, we were so proud of ourselves!
This was the first seriously exciting and semi-scary adventure we have ever done. It felt like we were having our own family Goonies adventure.
Soon the light began streaming through the cracks in the rocks above us and it got brighter and brighter as we came to the other end of the cave — where the Bear Gulch Cave Trail and the Moses Spring Trail reconnect — and a narrow stone staircase that climbs out of the cave, past a waterfall spilling over the rocks, and up to the Bear Gulch Reservoir.
Bear Gulch Reservoir
Finally reaching Bear Gulch Reservoir felt amazing.
The sparkling pool of water set in front of towering rock formations is the perfect place to snag a spot in the shade, drink some water, and enjoy a snack or lunch if you packed it in. It’s also the time to celebrate your family’s bravery and talk up the Balconies Cave hike to prepare the kids to do it again.
Filled from Santa Cruz Mountain rain water run off, Bear Gulch Reservoir is part of the California Water Service Co. and at capacity, holds 166 million gallons of water.
Hiking Back — The Rim Trail To The High Peaks Trail
When we were done relaxing by the reservoir, we decided to hike back to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area via the Rim Trail. The Rim Trail took us high above the west side of Bear Gulch and provided spectacular views of the talus boulders we were just hiking under, sheer rock walls, and gorgeous wildflowers.
After about half a mile, the Rim Trail merges with the High Peaks Trail. The remaining half mile back to the day use parking lot offers switchbacks that cut in and out of sunlit paths and shady groves of trees, along the creek, and under and around large boulders.
Once we made it back to the day use area, we stopped by the nature center to watch a short video about the park and the formation of the talus caves. While there, we spoke with an awesome ranger who gave us some great tips for our second day in the park and hiking to Balconies Cave, which also had A LOT of water in it due to the rains.
Pinnacles Visitor Center to Bear Gulch Day Use Area Trail
We rode the free shuttle to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area in the morning, skipping the trail that runs from the Visitor Center to the Bear Gulch Cave Trailhead. But I knew the trail offered a different hiking experience across bridges, along the creek, and through meadows of wildflowers, and I didn’t want to miss it. So we set out to hike the 2.3 miles back to the Visitor Center and our lunch!
The trail back is a relatively flat, easy trail, but almost the entire distance is in the sun, with only small patches of shade. We did cross three wooden bridges and walk through stunning meadows of wildflowers divided by the sparkling creek and babbling water. With rock pinnacles and mountains in the background, it was truly beautiful.
But we were hot. Really hot. And we were hungry. Really hungry. And remember, Brian and Natalie both had wet socks and shoes. (Ick!) The last stretch from the start of the campground to the Visitor Center wasn’t very long, but at that point, it felt like miles and we were starving! Our ice chest full of cold drinks, sandwiches, and cookies was calling to us…
Celebrating Our Adventure
After hiking about 5.5 miles total, lunch never tasted so good!
We ate and relaxed at a picnic table under big shade tree near the Visitor Center, and we marveled at our own personal Goonies adventure. None of us could believe the caves were open to us to hike through on our own — it was so awesome! We couldn’t wait to do another talus cave hike to Balconies Cave the next day!
If you ever have the chance to visit Pinnacles National Park and hike through the Bear Gulch Cave, I highly recommend you do it. Just be sure you prepare for water and bring an extra pair of shoes!