The short interesting hike to Bear Gulch Reservoir ascends a beautiful boulder-filled gorge on the east side of Pinnacles National Park (known as Pinnacles National Monument prior to 2013). A split in the trail offers two parallel routes to reach the reservoir. Bear Gulch Cave Trail climbs through a talus cave, while Moses Spring Trail takes a scenic but less daring course along the rim of the gorge. The trails reunite and arrive at Bear Gulch Reservoir, 3/4 of a mile from the start. The Cave Trail closes periodically to accommodate the bats that reside there. When Bear Gulch Cave is open, it should not be missed. There is 275 feet of elevation gain on this 1.5-mile hike up and down Bear Gulch. From the reservoir, Rim Trail heads north above the gorge connecting to High Peaks Trail. This provides an alternative return route for a 1.65-mile hike, and these trails can also be used to include Bear Gulch in a grander trek in Pinnacles National Park, the High Peaks Trail – Condor Gulch Loop.
Begin hiking south from the Bear Gulch Day Use Area. After 0.2 miles, take the left split, following the sign for Moses Spring Trail, Cave, and Reservoir. To the right, High Peaks Trail heads west up the side of Bear Gulch to a junction with the Rim Trail, before pushing on to the Pinnacles above. Our single track continues south up the east side of Bear Gulch, passing through a riparian forest that is lush, ferny, and mossy. Impressive boulders decorate the trail, making this a popular alley with mountain climbers. There are several signs for climbing stations along the way.
Pass through a short tunnel and arrive at the Moses Spring Trail – Cave Trail split. Both trails are about 1/6 of a mile long and reunite just below the reservoir. Those hiking the 1.5-mile out-and-back to the reservoir can simply hike up one trail and come down the other. The trails are equally enjoyable in both directions.
Hikers not traveling out and back on these trails, and continuing up to the High Peaks, should make a point to hike through the cave if it is open. Moses Spring Trail is desirable as well, so If you are willing to add an extra 0.25 miles to your trek, you could hike up Moses Spring Trail to the connection above Cave Trail, descend to the bottom of the cave, and then turn around and hike back up. The cave trail is an experience you will not mind repeating.
Moses Spring Trail heads right from the junction, ascending to Moses Spring, where water seeps down the stone wall to a hidden pool. The trail pushes south across a ledge on the west wall of Bear Gulch. There are nice views up and down the canyon, including a great perspective of the house-sized boulders enclosing the cave. The trail passes over these rocks, meeting the top of Lower Bear Gulch Cave Trail, before continuing up to the reservoir.
Bear Gulch Trail is level and straight leaving the lower junction, crossing the floor of Bear Gulch through tall rocks at the entrance of a talus cave. Use a flashlight and step inside this narrow section of the canyon covered by collapsed boulders. Railings and steps put in place by the CCC in the 1930s provide an adventurous hike. A few shafts of light slip through the boulder ceiling, but other areas are pitch black. Bear Gulch Creek shares the cave, tumbling over rocks, and adding a rich sound to the dark passageway. Follow the trail up steps and across metal scaffolding to progress out of the talus cave and back into the daylight.
Bear Gulch Cave is home to a colony of Townsend’s big-eared bats. In order to protect their habitat, the park closes areas of the cave throughout the year. There is a short upper section of the cave, which is more often closed than the Lower Cave Trail. Call a ranger or check the Pinnacles National Park website for cave closure information.
Above the Cave Trail – Moses Spring Trail reunion, the hike continues through 0.15 miles of boulders to Bear Gulch Reservoir. Take the stone steps up the back of the dam to reach the reflective pool. This is a great place to take a break and have a snack. Chalone Peak Trail crosses the east bank of the murky-watered reservoir en route to South Chalone Peak, 4.5-miles away. Walk a short ways on this trail to experience the reservoir from a few different angles.
After taking it in, head back down Bear Gulch for a 1.5-mile round trip hike. Alternatively, head north on Rim Trail above the west side of Bear Gulch, hiking 0.4 miles to a T-junction with High Peaks Trail where you can turn right and descend 0.3 miles down into Bear Gulch, 0.2 miles from the trailhead. Of course High Peaks Trail can also be used to reach the top of the Pinnacles. Cross the high peaks and descend Condor Gulch Trail to return to the trailhead for a 6-mile loop.
However you choose to hike to and from Bear Gulch Reservoir, the trek will be a memorable one. All trail junctions are clearly marked, and the surrounding landscape is unique and exciting. There is a five-dollar fee to enter the park. Dogs and bikes are not allowed on trail.
To get to the trailhead: Take the 101 Freeway north to King City and exit onto First Street (exit 281). Turn right at the end of the ramp, heading north on First Street for 1.3 miles. The road makes a sharp right turn and becomes Lyons Street/Country Road G13. Take G13 out of the city, northeast for 14.3 to a T-junction with Route 25. Turn left and drive 14.2 miles to an intersection with Route 146. Turn left onto Route 146, following signs for Pinnacles National Park. Drive west into the park, passing the general store and campground on the left to reach the East Entrance Station after 2.5 miles. Pay the entry and proceed another 1.3 miles to the only real intersection on the park road. Make a left and drive south for another 1.4 miles to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area at road’s end.
Trailhead address: Pinnacles National Park, Paicines, CA 95043
Trailhead coordinates: 36.478495, -121.183891 (36° 28′ 42.58″N 121° 11′ 02.00″W)
You may also view a regional map of surrounding Central Coast trails and campgrounds.
|High Peaks – Condor Gulch Loop|
This 5.3 to 6-mile loop crosses the roof of Pinnacles National Park on an incredible trail.
|High Peaks – Balconies Cave Loop|
This extensive 9-mile loop ventures between the east and west sides of Pinnacles National Park, crossing through the High Peaks and Balconies Cave.
This 2 to 2.4-mile hike venture down Balconies Trail past impressive rock formations and through a fun talus cave, starting from Chaparral Trailhead on the west side of Pinnacles National Park.
|More Central Coast Hikes|
Explore other destinations along the California coast between Ventura and Monterey, including trails in Los Padres National Forest.
Pinnacles National Park has one campground with tent, RV, and group sites in an oak woodland on the east side of the park.