Want to experience the BEST hike in Pinnacles National Park? In this guide we’re sharing everything you need to know to hike the Bear Gulch Cave, High Peaks Trail, & Condor Gulch Trail at Pinnacles National Park!
Located around 1.5 hours south of San Jose, California lies California’s smallest national park: Pinnacles National Park. But don’t let its size fool you, this park packs a big punch! With just one day in the park you can see the wide variety and unique features that make Pinnacles National Park a special place.
And the best way to do it? By hiking the Bear Gulch Cave, High Peaks Trail, & Condor Gulch Trail!
Watch our experience hiking in Pinnacles National Park along the Bear Gulch Cave, High Peaks Trail, & Condor Gulch Trail!
This trail combines mountain views, the park’s iconic rock pinnacles, California condors, rock steps and narrow ledges (with railing), a reservoir, and caves, all into under 6 miles, making it quite possibly the most fun filled 6 miles we have ever hiked.
We hadn’t heard much about Pinnacles National Park before visiting, but we left our hike in the park being extremely surprised about how beautiful and unique it was. It’s definitely an underrated gem in the national parks system!
And if you want to experience this hike for yourself, we’re sharing all of the details in this guide, including where to start the hike, closures that could impact you, what to bring, our experience, and so much more!
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- About Pinnacles National Park
- Bear Gulch Cave, High Peaks Trail, & Condor Gulch Trail Stats
- Where to start the hike
- Which direction should you hike?
- When to hike the Bear Gulch Cave, High Peaks Trail, & Condor Gulch Trail
- Things to know before hiking in Pinnacles National Park
- What to bring hiking in Pinnacles National Park
- Our experience hiking the Bear Gulch Cave, High Peaks Trail, & Condor Gulch Trail
- Other things to do near Pinnacles National Park
About Pinnacles National Park
The creation of Pinnacles National Park goes back 23 million years, with a volcanic eruption that resulted in the creation of the park’s namesake rhyolite rock pinnacles, which have been shaped over time by wind and water.
But in more recent history, the land now known as Pinnacles National Park was home to many indigenous people, including the Amah Mutsun and Chalon, who used this land for food, medicine, and materials. In 1908 the park became one of the first US national monuments by Teddy Roosevelt, before becoming a national park in 2013. But despite being federally managed now, it is working closely with both tribes through indigenous land management practices, which we think is a great way to honor the land and the people who used it and took care of it first.
Beyond the pinnacles, the park is known for its caves and mountain views, as well as for something in the air: the California condor. California condors are a type of vulture and are one of the largest flying birds in the world! They have a 9.5 foot wingspan and can weigh up to 20 pounds. They can also soar and glide for hours without flapping their wings, which is crazy!
Condors used to be found in many states, but as people settled the west, their population dwindled and by the 1900s they were only located in the mountainous areas in Southern California. By 1987, there were only 27 left in the world and they were all captured and taken to zoos to help them breed and be put back into the wild. As of December 31, 2020, there were over 500 condors, with 329 in the wild, including in California, Utah, Arizona, and Baja, Mexico.
There’s no guarantee you’ll see them in the park, but they are often spotted in the High Peaks area, which you’ll visit along this hike in Pinnacles National Park. So make sure to keep your eyes peeled!
Before embarking on your adventure, please review the Leave No Trace principles to ensure you leave every place better than you found it, so that others can enjoy these beautiful places for many years to come!
These seven principles include planning ahead and preparing, hiking and camping on durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly (pack out what you pack in!), understanding campfire rules and always fully extinguishing your fires, respecting wildlife, and being considerate of other visitors.
Bear Gulch Cave, High Peaks Trail, & Condor Gulch Trail Stats
Miles (round trip): 5.5
Elevation (feet): 1,630
Reviews & Current Conditions
The Bear Gulch Cave, High Peaks Trail, & Condor Gulch Trail at Pinnacles National Park is a combination of a handful of trails that create a loop, which means you’ll get to experience different scenery the entire hike (our favorite)! This hike is listed at 5.5 miles round trip on AllTrails and just under 3.5 hours in terms of hiking time.
However, we actually tracked about 6.5 miles and spent almost 5.5 hours on the hike, which is likely partially due to us taking a lunch break, getting a bit turned around in the cave, and also walking back and forth to grab our camera on our tripod when filming, which takes time and adds mileage.
So with that said, we’d expect to hike anywhere from 5.5-6.5 miles when doing this trail and spending up to 5.5 hours, which is a manageable amount of mileage and time for a half or full day adventure!
As for steepness, it is a pretty steady climb up the Condor Gulch Trail, but it levels out on the High Peaks Trail, giving your legs and lungs a good break before starting the descent. One thing to keep in mind though is that there are some sections with stairs, narrow ledges, and dropoffs, which may be scary for those who are afraid of heights. There are railings to hold onto for these sections, which helped us feel safer!
Want to get 30% off an AllTrails+ membership? Click this link or use our code aplusk30 (you must redeem this code on the website, not the app)!
We use AllTrails+ on every single hike and it is the most helpful hiking tool out there! Some of the features we love are offline maps (so we can navigate even without cell service), wrong-turn alerts, and its 3D maps feature, so we can get a feel for trails before we hike.
Where to start the hike
Pinnacles National Park is located in Central California, east of Monterey and the coast and about 1.5 hours south of San Jose. There are two entrances into the park, one on the west side and one on the east side, with no road in the park connecting the two. Driving between the two entrances takes 1.5 hours, so it’s important to go to the correct side!
While you could technically start the Bear Gulch Cave, High Peaks Trail, & Condor Gulch Trail on the west side from the Chaparral Trailhead, it would require many more miles of hiking to do the entire loop, so we suggest entering on the east side of the park.
We started the hike from the Condor Gulch Trailhead on the east side of the park, which is right at the start of the Condor Gulch Trail, but you can also park at the Moses Spring Trailhead, which is closer to the Bear Gulch Cave.
These two trailheads are only 0.3 miles apart, but the Condor Gulch Trailhead has a lot more parking, although it’s still not a huge lot compared to some of the bigger national parks. When we hiked this trail, both parking lots were full by the time we finished, even mid-week in March. Spring Break could’ve been a factor though!
Which direction should you hike?
Since the hike is a loop, you can either hike it clockwise or counter-clockwise and which way you choose depends on a couple factors.
We hiked the trail counter-clockwise for a couple reasons! First, the views from the Condor Gulch trail are better than the trail from the parking area to Bear Gulch Cave, so we wanted to experience this part of the trail in the early morning light. We also chose this way because we wanted to do the hardest part early in the morning, when the heat and crowds were lower.
The downside of going counter-clockwise is that you finish with the cave, which can be busy, but we still are glad we did it the way we did! On the plus side, it was nice to be in a dark, cooler cave when the temperature was a bit warmer.
This is the best way to go if starting later in the day, as there is more shade on the part from the parking area to Bear Gulch Cave, so you’ll hike uphill in more shaded areas and downhill in the more exposed areas. Hiking up the steeper and more exposed Condor Gulch Trail mid-day would be brutal! But if you can, we’d avoid starting this hike later in the day.
When to hike the Bear Gulch Cave, High Peaks Trail, & Condor Gulch Trail
Pinnacles National Park may be open and accessible year round, but there are quite a few things to consider when deciding when to visit, especially if planning to hike the Bear Gulch Cave, High Peaks Trail, & Condor Gulch Trail.
Avoid the summer if you can
The summers in the park are very hot and dry, with the temperatures getting over 100ºF in July and August.
We would highly recommend visiting outside of the summer if you want to enjoy the hike without the extra challenge of heat. We visited in late March and it was cool enough in the morning that we needed our puffy jackets, but hours later it turned into a warmer day and we were in a tank top or t-shirt and shorts for the rest of the hike.
We also suggest visiting outside of the majority of the summer months for one other reason…Bear Gulch Cave!
The Bear Gulch Cave is not always open
The Bear Gulch Cave provides habitat for a colony of Townsend’s big-eared bats. The bats rest there in the winter and then raise their young in the caves in late spring and summer. The state of California lists the bats in the park as a “sensitive species” and the park is required to protect them.
The Bear Gulch cave has two sections and one or both sections can be closed at different times of year to protect the bats that live in the caves. The lower, main section of the cave, is open most of the year and the upper section is only open a few weeks of the year. If the upper cave is closed, you can still go through the lower cave and not have to backtrack out the way you came.
If the bat population is healthy and shows no sign of disturbance then the park will keep the caves open for about 10 months of the year, but no matter what, the entire cave is closed from mid-May to mid-July. The park updates their website to show when they anticipate closing some or all of the caves and you can check the status of the cave before your visit at the park website.
In our opinion, the Bear Gulch Cave is a huge highlight of this trail and missing out on it by visiting between mid-May and mid-July would be a bummer. So we’d suggest avoiding those months! For the best chance of getting to visit both caves, we suggest visiting the last week of both March or October. However, we visited on March 24 and lucked out with both caves being open and the upper cave was definitely our favorite!
As we mentioned above, it can get very warm in Pinnacles National Park, so you’ll definitely want to start this hike early to beat the heat! Even on a cooler day, the lack of shade for a lot of the hike, plus sunny skies and drier terrain, can make it seem hotter than it is.
Plus, with the park’s proximity to the Bay Area, it can get busy! And there isn’t a ton of parking, as it is a smaller national park.
Things to know before hiking in Pinnacles National Park
There is a $30 entrance fee per car to enter Pinnacles National Park, which covers 7 days in the park. We recommend getting the America the Beautiful pass, which is $80 per year and gets you into all National Park Service managed sites and federal lands for free.
There are restrooms at both the Bear Gulch Day Use area and Chaparral Trailhead parking area, as well as on the High Peaks Trail. Yes, a restroom on the trail! But it’s a pit toilet, so keep expectations low. 😜
Dogs are not allowed
Like most national parks, dogs are NOT allowed anywhere except picnic areas, campgrounds, parking lots, and paved roads.
Learn how we travel with a dog and what we do with Kona when she cannot join us on our adventures.
What to bring hiking in Pinnacles National Park
To see everything we take hiking, check out our hiking gear as well as our guide about how to make a 10 essentials kit. But here are a few key items we want to point out that will especially help you when hiking in Pinnacles National Park, especially for this trail!
As with any hike, you’ll need to bring lots of water, but especially here. With steep hiking trails and warm, dry weather make sure to bring more than you think you need. We like to carry our 3L Camelbak bladders while on any hike, which makes it easy to store a lot of water and drink while on the go.
This trail is exposed most of the time, so you’ll want sunglasses, sunscreen, and a hat to protect yourself from the harsh sun!
If you want to try to spot a California Condor, we suggest bringing binoculars! We have these binoculars and they work great.
Flashlight or headlamp
If you plan on going through the Bear Gulch Caves you’ll need some sort of light source, like a flashlight or headlamp. It can be pretty dark in there, especially the upper cave!
If you visit during the fall-spring months, you will want to bring some layers to add or take off as needed.
We hardly had any cell service in the park and on this trail, so we highly suggest downloading the offline AllTrails map for this hike. There are multiple junctions along the way and you’ll want to ensure you’re taking the correct trails!
Our experience hiking the Bear Gulch Cave, High Peaks Trail, & Condor Gulch Trail
We kicked off our day of hiking in Pinnacles National Park right around sunrise and to our surprise (and excitement!) we were the first vehicle in the parking lot. Which is always a good sign of a great day on the trail!
We started our hike on the Condor Gulch Trail, which slowly climbs up through a gulch. While not the sweeping views you will get later on in this hike, you still have views of the pinnacles along the way and there is even a section of railings with foot holds carved into the rock, which is a good warmup for later on in the hike!
This section of the hike was gorgeous in the golden morning light and as we climbed up and up and up, the views only got better and better. There is a more open area before the junction with the High Peaks Trail that had one of our favorite views of the day, with rolling, green mountains, tan pinnacles, and we started to get our first glimpses of large flying birds while on this portion of the hike.
We started to notice many large birds flying around and we got SO excited that we were seeing condors….but it turns out they were just turkey vultures. We got a very small bar of service along part of the hike and were able to quickly do a Google search to find some photos comparing turkey vultures and California condors. A big difference between the two is where the white is on their wings, plus the condors are way larger. If you think the turkey vultures look large, just wait until you see a condor!
At about 1.7 miles, we reached the High Peaks Trail portion of the hike. And this is where the hike starts to get real good! Not only do the views of the mountains and pinnacles continue, but it’s along this trail that you’ll get to experience the unique rock steps, narrow ledges, and railing.
You will reach a junction with the Tunnel Trail about 2.2 miles in and to ensure you get to do this extra fun portion of the hike, make sure you stay on the High Peaks Trail. There will be a sign that points you towards the High Peaks Trail and says “steep and narrow”…a sign of what is to come!
In this next section you get to walk between several columns of volcanic rock and climb in the sides of them with the help of railings, notched foot holds, carved steps, and even a bridge. Some of these steps are so steep it almost feels like you’re climbing a ladder. One part even takes you slightly under a rock overhang, so you have to crouch down a bit…it is an absolute blast!
As we navigated this already exciting portion of the trail we had something happen that added even more excitement…we saw a California condor! Unfortunately by the time we swapped lenses to zoom in on it, it flew away, but after seeing many turkey vultures, there was no doubt in our mind that it was a California condor.
After finishing hiking the rock stairs, the trail begins its 1.5 mile descent towards the Bear Gulch Reservoir. This part of the hike includes some switchbacks and some longer, straighter sections of trail and with the sun being high up, this portion of the hike was definitely a bit warmer and felt a bit lengthy. However, it did give us views into a different side of the park than we had earlier, which kept things exciting! There was also a small rock tunnel that was a nice surprise.
We reached the Bear Gulch Reservoir right around lunchtime and it made for the perfect picnic spot! This reservoir is one of Pinnacle National Park’s most iconic sights. It was created by a dam built by the CCC in 1935, partially to prevent flooding, but also for aesthetic reasons. Unlike our experience at Barker Dam in Joshua Tree, this one actually has water, which is really cool to see surrounded by some of the rock formations!
We enjoyed a sandwich lunch, with some very brave and hungry squirrels, before starting the final portion of the hike…the Bear Gulch Cave! This is one of the many Talus Caves in the park, which are openings formed between boulders piled up on mountain slopes. Bear Gulch is thought to have been formed by rockfall filling an existing canyon most likely during the last ice age.
The entrance to the Bear Gulch Cave is right by the reservoir and takes you down a staircase that was built by the CCC in the 1930s. The first part of the cave has a decent amount of light from the large opening we had just walked down from, which made it easy to navigate at first. But then we got pretty confused!
While there were some arrows on the rocks to tell you where to go, we found ourselves exiting the cave quickly, which didn’t feel right to us, so we turned around and went back towards the entrance. After some wandering around, we found a metal gate that was open and realized it must be the entrance to the upper cave. So we obviously had to enter it!
The upper cave was such an adventure! Much more than we anticipated! We crawled through small spaces, walked through some water, ducked our heads so we didn’t hit them on rocks…it felt like proper cave exploring. It’s definitely not for those who are claustrophobic or do not enjoy squeezing into tight spaces.
We thankfully found someone else who was confused and together we figured out where to go, but it is VERY dark in there and pretty confusing. As we squeezed our way through I repeatedly kept saying “I cannot believe they let you do this.” We didn’t snap any photos in the upper cave since we were trying to work together to find our way out, but you can watch our experience here!
Once making it out of the upper cave, we then entered the lower cave! This was much less rugged than the upper cave and had a bunch of staircases inside, wider pathways, handrails, and much more headspace. It is worth noting that if you do not feel comfortable with the upper cave, you can bypass it. The lower cave is still a ton of fun, so even if you don’t want to do the upper or it’s closed, the lower cave will still be a unique adventure!
After exiting the lower cave, we had about 0.5 miles left of the hike, which is back on a regular trail. But just when you think it’ll be a boring hike back, there is a cool rock tunnel to add a bit of spice. But besides this, the trail is straightforward and a good cool down after an exciting day on the trail!
Between the views, pinnacles, rock steps and railing, reservoir, and caves, this is hands down one of the most unique national park hikes we have experienced and a must-do when hiking in Pinnacles National Park!
Other things to do near Pinnacles National Park
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- The BEST things to do in San Luis Obispo, California (+ a 3 day itinerary!)
- 3 Days in San Francisco Itinerary
Ready to hike the Bear Gulch Cave, High Peaks Trail, & Condor Gulch Trail?
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