Concise guide to Pinnacles National Park (Caves + High Peaks) - Run + Hike trip
Date: 15 October 2016
Duration: ½ day
Distance: ~12 miles
Difficulty: Medium to Strenuous
Elevation gain: ~1000 feet
Trailhead: Chaparral parking lot (West Entrance to the park)
Trail/Route: Chaparral Parking Lot (West Entrance) -> Juniper Canyon Trail -> Scout’s Peak -> Back down on Juniper Canyon Trail (run) -> Tunnel Trail -> Hawkin’s peak -> High Peak trail -> Rim Trail -> Bear Gulch Reservoir -> Bear Gulch Cave trail -> Bear Gulch Caves -> Moses spring trail -> Bear Gulch Day use area -> Bear Gulch trail -> Bench Trail -> Near Old Pinnacles Parking Trailhead -> Old Pinnacles trail -> Balconies Cave Trail -> Balconies Caves -> Balconies Trail -> back to Chaparral parking lot.
Info: This route gives you a concise tour of Pinnacles NP including high peaks, the two caves - Balconies & Bear Gulch, the reservoir and the walk along the dried West Fork Chalone Creek. Leaves out Chalone peak and Northern Wilderness
Best time to visit: Early winter, spring. It gets quite hot here.
Earlier to 2013 a “National Monument”, Pinnacles was granted National Park status in January 2013 under the office of President Barack Obama. The name “pinnacles” was termed by newspapers from the then called “Palisades” in late 1800’s bringing in popularity among hikers and picnickers alike. Having been here on a couple of hikes I have become very well versed with all that the park has to offer; both to avid hikers and tourists. Some parts of the landscape reminds me of the Hoodoo’s in Bryce Canyon National Park - Utah. This park unlike other national parks in California (Yosemite NP, Sequoia NP, Joshua Tree & others) is less visited making it a great destination for people looking to disconnect from the mundane routine and blend with nature. It also provides a great location for rock climbers with multiple bolted routes featuring both sport climbing and top roping.
Having a smaller area compared to the other gigantus parks, this park has fewer trails in number. Don’t be bogged down by this as the backcountry always offers more than what meets the eye. To experience the park by a day long moderate to strenuous ~12mile hike, I would strongly suggest starting the journey from the Chaparral parking lot trailhead on the west side of the park. You can loop around the park covering both cave complexes - The Balconies and Bear Gulch caves. The park also is home to a beautiful reservoir in its eastern close to the bear gulch caves. Hiking the anti-clockwise direction (Bear gulch first and later balconies in your loop) takes you up to High Peaks first with some steep switchbacks close to the top. There is also a pit-toilet at the top, for those in dire need of it. This time around I wanted to cover as much of the park as possible via its numerous designated trails and so Anshuman and I as a two person team took on the loop hiking anti-clockwise as soon as the park opened (~7:45am. Park opens at 7:30am).
Before delving into details of our hike I will talk about one other trailhead - Bear Gulch day use area. Best suited for families and picnickers, this trailhead provides short and easy access to the bear gulch caves (~0.7miles to the caves from the parking lot). Pinnacles being a very well known place for rock climbing sees a lot of climbers and most of them access climbs from this trailhead mainly attributed for its proximity to the numerous climbs. Google Maps does not navigate you to this parking lot if you just searched for Pinnacles National Park. To get here you will need to specifically search for Pinnacles NP East Gate or Bear Gulch Nature center or if you prefer the old way of using maps and directions like me, just drive towards Hollister and continue south-east on state Hwy 25 when driving from the SF Bay area.
Coming back to our hike; since we took the anti-clockwise loop and had already reached high peaks, we headed towards the Bear Gulch reservoir. This part of the hike is mostly downhill along the high peak trail which becomes rim trail at the very end. There is a diversion that takes you to the base of Bear Gulch caves bypassing the caves but I suggest visiting the reservoir first and then descending down through the caves. The arid desert terrain does not give away any clue of water bodies in the vicinity and so it’s a very pleasant surprise when the reservoir comes in sight. On most days you can find climbers conquering the tall talus walls near the reservoir.
Bear Gulch reservoir is a great place for a snack break and to relax those pumped up feet. I’ve been lucky to find water in this reservoir in all of the seasons, so much so that I’d like to call it a “perennial reservoir”. All the water here drains down through the caves towards the flats to the west. Some part of the bear gulch trail through the caves run parallel to this stream. Claustrophobic folks don’t worry, you can always avoid hiking through the caves if that’s what you want to do but I highly recommend tucking away that fear and venturing through the talus caves. We did exactly that, after a nice 20minute break we walked through the caves to the Bear Gulch parking lot area (of course I must admit we weren’t anywhere close to being claustrophobic. This compares to a giant football field with respect to the Catacombs section of the caverns at Lava Bed National Monument).
From here, the trail loops in a gigantic arc with nothing very exciting to look out for or to talk about. We pretty much ran and fast-walked this part of the hike. Closing in on the second talus cave formation in Pinnacles - The Balconies, you should already be gaining some elevation; mind you Anshuman considers Pinnacles one of the “flattest” national parks in California but then again he recently ran a 75 miler in Colorado averaging 10k feet. Balconies is slightly shorter in length when compared to the Bear Gulch caves but is less maintained which translates to more fun. There is one section which needs you to be on all four limbs and crawl up through an opening but it isn’t too much of a struggle. Both caves definitely do need some form of artificial lighting and I strongly advise carrying high power headlamps or flashlights; batteries included that is. (should go without saying unless of course the purpose of the flashlights were something other than illumination, like self defense).
The Chaparral parking lot trailhead isn’t very far from the Balconies, about 30mins of hike ~1mile to the mouth of the cave and so we concluded our hike well in time for lunch.