About Bear Gulch Cave Falls and Condor Gulch Falls
Bear Gulch Cave Falls and Condor Gulch Falls were two incidental waterfalls that I encountered while doing the ranger-recommended loop hike encompassing the Bear Gulch Cave Trail, the High Peaks Trail, part of the Moses Spring Trail, and the Condor Gulch Trail.
In essence, this hike linking the aforementioned trails was the park’s signature hike that encompassed the best of Pinnacles National Park in about a half-day.
Moreover, these waterfalls were more like side attractions to the namesake Pinnacles formations that the Pinnacles National Park (formerly the Pinnacles National Monument until Presidence Obama declared it a national park in 2012) was known for.
As a result, while I came here to check out the waterfalls and write about them, this page focuses on the entirety of the loop hike that took it all in, but I will provide a couple of options to shorten the hike if you don’t have a half-day (not including the driving to get here).
After all, I’d think it would be insane to go out-of-the-way to Pinnacles National Park and miss out on the park’s best hiking trail in pursuit of only the waterfall side attractions.
Nevertheless, as for the waterfalls themselves, the Bear Gulch Cave Falls was actually a man-modified or man-made waterfall whose longevity in its flow was the result of the Bear Gulch Reservoir supplying the Bear Creek, which spilled over a cascade into the Bear Gulch Cave.
As the creek continues to lose elevation in the darkness of the cave, I encountered (as well as heard) a few more cascades before Bear Creek eventually re-emerges from the Bear Gulch Cave on its way to the Bear Gulch Nature Center and beyond.
I could only see this particular waterfall in segments, but it was perhaps the most satisfying of the waterfalls (whether natural or not) that I found in the Pinnacles National Park.
On a different drainage (towards the end of the clockwise loop hike, which I’ll describe in detail below), the Condor Gulch Falls was merely a seasonal cascade that I’d imagine could only be seen after a heavy rain or immediately after a series of storms, which would allow the creek to be visible amidst the overgrowth.
I didn’t find any particular spot where I would have seen a bonafide waterfall, and that’s why I’d imagine you wouldn’t see any waterfall here except during those instances where a heavy rain would at least flood the creek enough to see it.
Experiencing Pinnacles National Park’s Signature Hike
Now that I’ve provided some of the motivations for doing the half-day hike that a Pinnacles National Park visitor center ranger recommended, I’ll now delve into a trail description of it.
In summary, the park literature calls this hike the “Condor Gulch-High Peaks Loop”, which is essentially a 5.3-mile clockwise loop with a 1300ft elevation gain.
While it says that this hike typically takes 3-5 hours, I wound up taking about 4.5 hours to complete the hike with plenty of photo stops and exploring side trails along the way (so it’s conceivable that I might have ended up hiking about 6 miles overall).
They call this a “strenuous walk”, but I’d attribute most of the difficulty of the hike to the climbing, some narrow ledges, and tight spaces (especially in the Bear Gulch Cave).
If you look at the map that the park service provides (or the map that I provide in the directions below), you’ll see that this hike starts and ends at the Bear Gulch Nature Center parking lot.
It then progresses in the following manner…
- Walk to the Bear Gulch Cave Trailhead – 0.3 miles
- Walk to the Connector Trail near the Moses Spring Trail junction – 0.2 miles
- Hike through the Bear Gulch Cave to the Bear Gulch Reservoir – 0.7 miles
- Following the Rim Trail to the High Peaks Trail and the other side of the Connector Trail – 0.4 miles
- High Peaks Trail to the Juniper Canyon Trail junction – 1.5 miles
- High Peaks Trail between the Juniper Canyon Trail junction and Tunnel Trail junction – 0.7 miles
- High Peaks Trail between the Tunnel Trail junction and Condor Gulch Trail – 0.6 miles
- Condor Gulch Trail – 1.7 miles
Walk to the Bear Gulch Trailhead and the Connector Trail near the Moses Spring Trail Junction
When I did this hike, I started right at the parking lot for the Bear Gulch Nature Center.
The park service had closed the road leading to its end over the final 0.3 miles so I walked that stretch past some picnic tables alongside Bear Creek.
After arriving at the parking lot at the end of the road, I then followed the well-signed trail as it ascended somewhat gently for the next 0.2 miles towards the Moses Spring Trail junction.
If I wanted to cut off about 0.8 miles to the overall hike, I could take a connecting trail bypassing both the Moses Spring Trail and the Bear Gulch Cave Trail towards the Rim Trail and the High Peaks Trail.
The problem with doing this cutoff is that you’d miss out on one of the highlights of the hike, which is the Bear Gulch Cave and Reservoir.
Hike through the Bear Gulch Cave to the Bear Gulch Reservoir
Continuing on the main trail and keeping right at the first junction, I then encountered another trail junction which now had a sign pointing to the right for the “Moses Spring”.
It turned out that the Moses Spring Trail climbed steeply in among the steep cliffs and rocks of part of the Pinnacles formations.
It ultimately connected with the upper part of the Bear Gulch Cave, but it bypassed the spooky part of the Bear Gulch Cave itself.
So I kept right at this junction to continue towards the Bear Gulch Cave.
The trail ultimately meandered alongside Bear Creek for a bit as the canyon closed in and entered the Bear Gulch Cave.
Right before entering a cave, a sign indicated that you’d need a flashlight to make it through the cave, and I’d argue that it’s probably a good idea to do that.
Even at the height of a sunny day, there are enough dark regions in the cave, where daylight doesn’t quite penetrate through its depths, and that’s where you’ll want a light to at least make you aware of any slippery steps that you might otherwise not notice.
Within the cave (more like a deep slot canyon) section, there were wedged boulders hanging above me as well as waterfalls on Bear Creek (see photo at the top of this page).
The narrow corridors of the cave made it tricky to scoot by large hiking groups going in the opposite direction, and I did recall one spot where I had to crawl to get through a low “tunnel”.
In any case, there were also some gates set up where the park service might close parts of this trail due to nesting bats or flooding.
Thus, I found that it can be disorienting in this most interesting section of the hike given all the criss-crossing trails.
When I ultimately emerged from the other side of the Bear Gulch Cave, there were a bunch of different trails going this way and that, but I ultimately followed a trail that led me back towards the Nature Center before re-entering the upper part of the Bear Gulch Cave (somewhere here, I think the Moses Trail eventually hooks up with this trail).
This was when I managed to climb up to the Bear Gulch Reservoir while seeing the cascade or waterfall resulting from the rock dam’s outflow before spilling into the dark depths of the Bear Gulch Cave.
I’ve noticed that the Bear Gulch Reservoir was a very popular spot to chill out, and you could use this as the stopping point before going back to the Bear Gulch Nature Center either back down through the cave or via the Moses Spring Trail (making for a 2.4-mile out-and-back hike).
However, I continued on with the loop trail, which started climbing after a sharp right to go onto the Rim Trail (you don’t need to cross the dam to get onto this trail).
The Rim Trail and the High Peaks Trail to the Juniper Canyon Trail Junction
Continuing on the Rim Trail, which rose quickly from the Bear Gulch Reservoir, I eventually went among some of the immediate pinnacles formations (almost reminding me of hiking among the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon) before the trail provided panoramas of the valley of Bear Gulch.
For the next 0.4 miles, the trail gently climbed as it meandered past some more scattered pinnacles formations before reaching the other side of the Connector Trail.
If you take that trail and go back to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area, then you’re looking at about a 3.2-mile loop hike, but I kept left at this junction to go onto the High Peaks Trail.
This part of the trail was where I gained most of the elevation as it went on for 1.5 miles.
It started off a bit gently with broad sweeping panoramas, but as it got closer to the pinnacles formations at the top of the park, the trail climbed in earnest over switchbacks.
During this section of the hike, I caught distant glimpses of the Bear Gulch Reservoir as well as an intriguing jug handle arch that seemed to be in the budding stages of formation.
From certain angles, this arch looked more like a swan about to peck its own neck or something.
Anyways, this “arch” was shortly after a short tunnel or man-made arch that the trail went right through near the start of the serious switchbacks.
Ultimately, the High Peaks Trail joined up with the Juniper Canyon Trail near the crest of this climb, which was near the Scout Peak.
There was a restroom facility up here as well as a bench with a sweeping panorama towards the coast as well as the parking lots on the western side of Pinnacles National Park.
The Juniper Canyon Trail descended towards the parking lots down below on the west side of the park so I kept right to continue on the High Peaks Trail, which now meandered among the park’s uppermost formations.
The High Peaks Trail between the Juniper Canyon Trail and the Tunnel Trail
This steep and narrow section of the High Peaks Trail essentially skirted the ridge at the very top of Pinnacles National Park.
On the one hand, I got broad sweeping panoramas to the west towards the coastal mountains (including the fog there) as well as more pinnacles formations framing the western parking lots down below.
On the other hand, the trail also allowed me to look eastwards towards the Condor Gulch and ultimately the Bear Gulch.
Parts of this trail involved steps etched into the rock wall (acting almost like natural ladders or stairs), while other parts involved clinging onto ledges with the aid of railings to deal mentally with the dropoff exposure.
There was even one section where I had to contort my body at an overhang given how much I needed to squeeze by the cliff wall and the railings.
Eventually, this dramatic section of the High Peaks Trail joined up with the Tunnel Trail Junction in about 0.7 miles near Hawkins Peak.
The Tunnel Trail also descended to the Juniper Canyon Trail and eventually the western parking lots so I kept right to continue on the High Peaks Trail.
The High Peaks Trail and Condor Gulch Trail
For the remainder of the 2.3 miles to the Bear Gulch Nature Center, the High Peaks Trail offered more panoramas of pinnacles formations before ultimately descending back to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area on the Condor Gulch Trail.
In the first 0.6 miles as the High Peaks Trail made its descent going around the north side of Hawkins Peak, it provided views to the north in the direction of the Balconies and the Machete Ridge.
As the High Peaks Trail continued its descent around Hawkins Peak, it ultimately joined up with the Condor Gulch Trail, where I then kept right to leave the High Peaks Trail for the Condor Gulch Trail.
The trail then continued its descent as it started to make a curve swinging back towards the pinnacles that I had just hiked through around Hawkins Peak.
At roughly 0.7 miles, there was a spur trail that went to an overlook of both the Condor Gulch and its seasonal creek looking downstream while the Hawkins Peak pinnacles were in my face looking in the other direction.
It was also at this overlook that I noticed rare California Condors circling and gliding overhead as some of the neighboring inaccessible pinnacles also seemed to act as nesting grounds away from other would-be predators.
For the remaining mile of this epic loop hike, the Condor Gulch Trail continued its moderate descent to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area as it brought me further away from the pinnacles that I had just gotten close to.
During my February 2020 hike, there was no water in Condor Gulch, but I’d imagine that in far wetter times, the creek might flow well enough to reveal parts of the Condor Gulch Falls amidst the overgrowth.
I couldn’t tell if there was an obvious spot for the Condor Gulch Falls so I had to believe that it was really more of a small series of cascades that would otherwise be unremarkable.
The hike ended right at a signed footbridge over the dry Condor Gulch Creek, and right across the crosswalk from the main lot of the Bear Gulch Day Use Area.
Bear Gulch Cave Falls and Condor Gulch Falls reside in the Pinnacles National Park near Paicines in San Benito County, California. It is administered by the National Park Service. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website.
Bear Gulch Cave Falls and the Condor Gulch Falls were in the eastern side of Pinnacles National Park.
Although the park also had a western side, there is no road that directly connects the two sides (it would require about a 1.5-2 hours drive to get from one side to the other).
So we’ll just describe the driving directions to only the east side of the park.
Directions from San Jose
From San Jose, we headed south on the US101 south towards Gilroy for about 33 miles before taking the exit 353 to CA-25 south.
We then followed the CA-25 south (towards Hollister) for about 42 miles before turning right onto the CA-146 leading into the east entrance for Pinnacles National Park.
Next, we followed the CA-146 west for about 2 miles before turning towards the Visitor Center to pay for the entrance fee ($30 per vehicle as of 2020).
If no parking was available at the Bear Gulch Nature Center (which is the closest sanctioned parking lot for the High Peaks Trail and Condor Gulch Trail), then you’d have to find parking in the large lot here, then take the park shuttle.
However, if you wish to try your luck at parking at the Bear Gulch Nature Center lot, then you’d continue on the CA-146 (bearing left at the junction with Old Pinnacles Road) for about 3 miles before arriving at the desired lot.
Overall, this drive would take about 90 minutes though it could be longer depending on traffic as well as any queues to pay for the park fees.
Directions from Coalinga
If you’re headed north on the I-5 from the south (like say Los Angeles or Bakersfield), then you’d want to take the exit 325 for Jayne Ave, then turn left and follow this straight shot road as it ultimately coincides with the CA-33 west towards Coalinga.
Then, at the intersection with Elm Ave, turn left to go onto the CA-198, and follow this somewhat winding road for about 34 miles towards its junction with the CA-25 north.
Turning right to go onto the CA-25 north, we’d then drive for another 33 miles towards the CA-146 west junction, and then we’d follow the directions as above to reach the main visitor center and ultimately the Bear Gulch Nature Center lot.
It took us around 90 minutes to drive between Pinnacles National Park and the I-5 near Coalinga.
For geographical context, Paicines (the nearest town to the east entrance of Pinnacles National Park) was about 28 miles (over 30 minutes drive) southeast of Gilroy, 52 miles (about an hour drive) east of Monterey, about 60 miles (over an hour drive) southeast of San Jose, 125 miles (over 2 hours drive) west of Fresno, and 292 miles (nearly 5 hours drive) northwest of Los Angeles.
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